Tuesday, October 18, 2022

A Primer on Polish Surnames


In case I need to say this, I'll go ahead and state the obvious: Polish is a different language than English. While that statement might bring on an "oh, duh" reaction, let's take a few minutes—like, the remainder of this blog post—to dive a bit deeper into the differences between the two languages, at least when it comes to naming traditions. This might come in handy as we progress with exploring the family trees of Polish DNA matches.

I've run into a promising DNA match at MyHeritage, someone from Poland whose third great-grandparents may be the same as my Antoni Laskowski's grandparents. In other words, that DNA match and I might be fourth cousins. Only problem: that match's tree shows those third great-grandparents' names in Latin, likely based on Catholic church records. Worse, their daughter's maiden name—which should also be my second great-grandmother's surname—shows as Gramlewiczówna, not Gramlewicz, as I've already found in records.

Where did the -ówna come in? And does that make any difference?

Due to various differences in general between Polish and English, names—like other words in Polish—take on modifiers as a suffix to the root word. While there are many modern conventions now added to the basic concepts that were kept during the time of our ancestors, let's focus on those more traditional name modifiers, since those will be what we find as we hunt for records documenting our ancestors in Poland.

Among other functions, those modifiers can indicate gender of the person (or item) being referred to. The simplest example of this, when discussing surnames, is when the ending "i" in a surname is changed to "a" to refer to a woman. Thus, as I mentioned yesterday, my great-grandfather Antoni Laskowski would, as a man, bear a surname ending in "i" but any unmarried sisters would be referred to by the surname modification Laskowska.

That, however, is the easy part. If, in conversation, a speaker were referring to more than one person in a family group, if that group included at least one man, the modifier would be changed to use the masculine plural suffix. For instance, Antoni Laskowski's entire family group would now be referred to as Laskowscy while in English we would simply have referred to the Laskowskis.

There's more. Let's say Antoni's sister Agnes got together with her niece Sophie Laskowska for a delightful afternoon outing. For that Laskowski girls' day out, people would refer to the women with a feminine plural ending, as Laskowskie.

It helps to recognize these surname variations when we read records, not just to know how many people we are discussing—or exactly whom the group included—but to understand that what seems like a spelling aberration is really pinpointing the same surname while revealing details about the group's makeup.

But there's still more. And this is closer to our question this week. While there are handy charts to summarize what I've just pointed out, I had to scroll down to nearly the bottom of this one online resource to find my answer about the surname variant Gramlewiczówna.

The suffix -ówna denotes a special version of the feminine surname variant. For this, we again need a quick study of Polish. While the suffix -owa (or -ewa) denotes a married woman, if the suffix is slightly modified to read -ówna, we are now referring to an unmarried woman. Thus, my DNA match's second great-grandmother Catharina (or, I suspect, Katarzyna) Gramlewiczówna would only be referred to with that surname before her marriage. The surname Gramlewiczówna thus was not an entirely different surname, but simply the Polish way of denoting that Catharina was a young, unmarried woman. In other words, had she lived in America, her maiden name would have simply read Gramlewicz.

Though that may seem to be a satisfying explanation, I'd still like to find that version of her name recorded in governmental or church records in Poland—as well as an identification of her parents and listing of their geographic location. That will become my next exploration.




  1. Oh boy. That's a lot to remember!!

    1. It is, Miss Merry--at least, for us English-speaking researchers. But it would have been second nature to our Polish ancestors. Just think of it as immersing ourselves just a bit more into what life was like for them.


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