Friday, September 6, 2019

Grappling with Foreign Phonics

Early in my public school years, I began what ended up being five years of Spanish. By that last year of high school, I could read it, I could write it, but I couldn't speak it. Not really. The phonics were easy—a, e, i, o, and u were just that: exactly what they said they were. But grasping the meaning behind the proper pronunciation? Let's just say foreign languages are not my forte.

You'd think I'd get a clue. Sometime at the close of my undergraduate years, I took the notion to spring into learning French. After surviving my first year of that attempt, a brilliant instructor took the approach of teaching the rationale of the phonics behind those useless unpronounced strings of letters at the end of so many French words. Once I understood that the French handle their phonics—and the history behind those phonics—much differently than do the English, at least I could tackle pronunciations with a bit more ease.

That point, I believe, can be credited with opening up a whole new world of seeing foreign words: even if I didn't know what those words mean, at least I could learn how those people pronounce them. When it comes to learning how our surnames might have been pronounced in The Old Country, it can go a long way to helping us make genealogical connections.

Take this latest DNA match I found. It's been over five years since I arranged for that first DNA test to solve the mysteries on my father's undocumented side of the family history. Almost the entire time has been spent doing one thing: waiting. And then, this year, all of a sudden there come not one, but several matches to shed light on just where my paternal grandparents came from. The wait used to seem like it was telling me I wasted my money, but I've learned it takes two to make a match. Waiting for that match can lead to some priceless answers.

This match, the one showing up this week, was for my paternal grandmother's line, though that wasn't apparent at first. The name of my grandmother, as I had it in my records, was Sophie Laskowski. Of course, I had already learned that, in Poland, a surname is varied to adjust for whether the person being spoken of is a man or a woman, so in Sophie's case, the surname would be written as Laskowska—as was the record for the entire family when young Sophie came to America with her brothers and her mother, but not with her father. The entire household was listed, by the German shipping line, as Laskowska, following her mother's stated name.

Once they arrived in New York—and met up with Sophie's dad, who would have given his surname as Laskowski—all records continued to agree with that correct information. Why would it ever have been recorded differently?

Apparently, there was a possibility for that name to be recorded differently: by someone basing the spelling on how it sounded to English-speaking ears, rather than to Polish or German sensibilities. Think about it—especially if you, unlike me, had opted to learn German for your high school foreign language classes. How would a German (or Polish) person have pronounced a name containing a "w"? Like it was a "v," of course.

When a Laskowski arrived in America and pronounced his name like one would expect in The Old Country, an American might hear it as "Laskovski."

That would be if that record-keeping American were being careful and attentive. More likely than not, those American ears might have missed the "v" sound in "Laskovski" and just assumed this poor immigrant was reporting his name to be Laskoski.

Much differently than the "ow" in Laskowski, the pronunciation handed down to us two generations later. And so, I never gave it a second thought when scouring the Internet to find documentation on my grandmother's family: of course it would be spelled Laskowski.

It just so happened that some DNA matches had no matching surnames to mine, other than this oddly-spelled Laskoski. Should I take it?

What do you think I did?

Of course, I checked out far more than the alternate spelling. And that is another story. But for now, finding this new DNA match—and the surnames listed on her 23andMe account—have helped me tie up some loose ends on a couple I could identify in Polish marriage records as one of the siblings in my great-grandfather's Laskowski line, but didn't know much about when it came to that man's descendants.

It has been experiences like this that have convinced me of the utility of learning the phonics of the language of my family's origin. As foreign as it is to me, it will serve me well to be able to understand just how those names were originally pronounced, and what could possibly go wrong, once that name met its international interface in the immigration process. We'll see, next week, how some of those names could have gotten mangled, and how DNA is helping me piece these details back together again.

Above: Entry for my grandmother Sophie Laskowska, along with her mother Marianna and her brothers Johann and Miecyslaus, from the Hamburg passenger records for the steamship Wieland (remember, think German pronunciation here); image courtesy

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