We are now so convinced that the edict of Villers-Cotterêts (1539) definitely standardised family names which were handed down from generation to generation, that we find it difficult to believe that changes of name may have been able to occur after the 16th century - and yet... ! It is not a question of changes legally made in modern times when a name is ridiculous and difficult to live with or for any other reasons, but of changes which we call "spontaneous", sometimes explainable, and other times without any reason for change that can now be discovered.

Linguistic reasons

Linquistic reasons for change are common and the easiest to recognise. Examples are numerous in regions where two languages are used (as is the case in several frontier areas of France), and are explained in many cases by simple translation when the name has a meaning, such as of a trade. A Schmidt in a German-speaking parish becomes a Marchal in a nearby French-speaking parish; a Muller or Mühler becomes Meunier, and conversely Petitjean moving to a German-speaking region becomes a Kleinhentz from the first generation. These changes can confuse a genealogist, particularly if the disappearance of some parish register created a gap in the sequence of registers. Research can be still more complicated if a son of the Marchal mentioned above returned to the family's original parish and reverted to the name of Schmidt.

These cases can easily be solved with a little thought and the help of a dictionary of surnames, for example that of Dauzat. The genealogist meeting a case of this type, even if only once, will always think of it in terms of a sudden disappearance of the records of a family in the registers of a parish near a linguistic frontier.

Changes in spelling

The galliczing of a foreign name by changing the spelling is also possible in certain cases. It usually does not trouble the researcher used to finding odd spellings; one can see in a document three brothers signing their names with three different spellings, or the curé of a parish writing a name in the same document in several different ways. For example, it is not surprising that a Konrad can become Conerade. But there are more difficult cases: a family Schirer, which is pronounced "chirar", has been galliczed simply as Girard with almost identical pronounciation, but written in a way different enough to throw off track a genealogist researching a family Girard.

Tricks of accent

Provincial accents can also cause very important changes and pose problems which are very difficult to resolve: a Pierre Bickel in Alsace, impossible to find in an alphabetical table, was finally found by chance in the corresponding register as Peter Pickel; a Huber, an officer under the Empire, who normally would have a pension file and a Legion of Honour file, remained impossible to find until two files were discovered under the name of Houbre, a spelling representing exactly the pronunciation in Alsace of Huber.

After much thought, a Badouani which could not be traced was later discovered in an alphabetical table as Padovani.

Radical changes

Other changes are much more difficult to detect and understand; those which have no apparent cause and which very probably can only be explained by local reasons, memories of which have been lost for ever. A researcher must consider himself fortunate when he succeeds in recovering the thread of the generations when Chrétian becomes Marcelot, or Gomard becomes Bastien; fortunate when a document can enable him to discover these changes. A number of problems in genealogy are certainly due to such changes which may not have been discovered.

There is no formula or any infallible method to resolve these difficulties. It must not be forgotten that genealogical research has the character of a police investigation.

A minimum of experience, much patience and perseverance, and a little luck are indispensable to carrying out these enquiries.

by Jean Réveilliez, Gé-Magazine No 145, January 1996 translated by Philip d'Authreau, Anglo-French Family History Society

Click Here to return "Research Tools"