OK. I’m conversant with a lot of topics and issues. In fact some people call me a “know-it-all” but I DO know a lot about a variety of things and that’s definitely a fact! On quiz nights I’m quite handy except on sports and most things Hollywood.
In my various jobs as a university lecturer and a researcher I had to be conversant with a certain range of topics before I got those jobs. As time went along the jobs themselves required me to become quite conversant with new-to-me concepts and to integrate those with the knowledge I already possessed.
Now I’ve got into family genealogy I am almost wishing I was NOT conversant with the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)! That might seem a strange pairing but believe me it is mighty annoying to look at the alternative spellings of surnames in BDM (Birth Death and Marriage) databases and wonder how anybody could pronounce them alike. For instance how are Cable and Cafley or Coville alike when spoken by a native English speaker? Sure the first two have some letters in common and have two syllables, but, honestly I cannot imagine anyone confusing them when spoken. However, the database never spits out any Kables (my name), Cabels, Cabells or even Cavel. Being conversant with the sounds of written names just leads me to frustration as I vainly search each separate possible spelling as deduced by myself.
I first became conversant with the IPA when I was 11 years old and we met Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for the first time in our English class. Chaucer sounded really good when our teacher read it out, much better than the odd spellings looked on paper. In our textbook there was an explanation of how to pronounce examples of Middle English plus a copy of the IPA. So I taught myself how to sound out the IPA and then “translated” a page of Chaucer into phonetic symbols so I could have a go at reading it properly myself. It was great!
But seriously, about the so-called phonetically similar alternative names in the FreeBMD and the England General Register Office of Births Deaths and Marriages, someone should give their basic programs a good polishing up, separating names that sound alike from those that might look alike when written in long-hand. They need to remember that names were often given to children by illiterate parents who could not tell whether the Parish Clerk or County Clerk was spelling them correctly when they registered their child. There is also the transcription of handwritten names to longer district lists and to “Bishop’s Transcripts” for ecclesiastical purposes. Once handwriting was mainly superseded by typewriters, then computers, there was another level of transcription to surmount. This is where the shape of a word or name becomes important and the shapes of letters in various styles of handwriting can have a large impact on both the spelling and pronunciation.
I have made some huge breakthroughs for some friends in the world of ancestor-hunting by finding that Jane Brown became June Bourne on her own marriage certificate through ambiguous handwriting. And Kable became Havel! Just last night I decided to try “Hedge” as an alternative to the surname “Kedge” when the database was trying to sell me “Kates”. I won! The shape was more important than the exact letters.
In conclusion I would say that being conversant with something is not always an advantage but at other times it’s almost miraculous what you can achieve!
Links to some BDM databases for anccestor-hunters and beginner genealogists:
- FreeBMD (UK) URL: freebmd.org.uk
- General Register Office of Births Deaths and Marriges for England and Wales: URL: GRO
- South Australian BDM compiled by volunteers (not a government site): URL: https://www.genealogysa.org.au/