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Reading Hungarian parish registers - Understanding the Irregularities

© Felix G. Game

These comments are based on years of reading Hungarian parish registers, and deal with the conditions influencing the quality of the written records. No attempt is made here to teach people how to do research or to learn Hungarian, only to touch on the reasons why variations in the way a particular name might be spelled should be taken into consideration.

Unfamiliar sequence of names

The first thing a researcher of Hungarian records must be aware of is that in Hungarian the family name comes first. If you know your ancestor as "Jimmy Kiss" Look in the records for Kiss Imre. This seems straight forward until you realize that early parish records are written in Latin. In Latin the given name comes first - even if used by Hungarian clerics. Your ancestor Jimmy Kiss has just turned into Emericus Kiss.

So far it looks simple with nothing to worry about, but you really get a sticky wicket when you see a name consisting of two given names like Ádám Imre. In such a situation you will want to have a very good understanding of naming conventions and be aware of all the pitfalls existing on the particular page you are working with. If it is written in Latin then you can safely assume that the first word in a name will be the given name. If the page you are looking at is of a more modern period, and written in Hungarian, the first word in the name should be the family name, but the page needs to be examined to see what sequence the particular scribe had decided to follow. We find, much too frequently, abrupt changes where on the same page the name order can be reversed - perhaps several times - for no obvious reason. Knowing the language and having a feel for it is very important when confronted with such irregularities, which is why you can cope without any difficulty with such a situation if encountered in English language documents.

The basic rule of "do not assume anything" also holds true when it comes to reading old parish registers, and goes hand in hand with the rule to "never change any name or other information from the way you have found it in the original source". Later when you write the family history, you can refer to your ancestor as Jimmy Kiss, but in your documentation you must cite all data as you saw them in the primary document. So if the name was Emericus Kiss in the register of baptisms, then was written by a German priest as Emmerich Kiß when he was married, and then you find him as Kiss Imre in the register of deaths, then all three names should appear in your documentation. If you should be tempted to say, "we know his name was Jimmy, so that is what I'll use" you will only make yourself appear to be a know-it-all and a darn poor researcher whose work is not to be taken seriously.

The scribe's ethnic back ground

Moving about within the empire was a given in certain occupations. The military and the clergy would be near the top of that list. Ethnic differences influenced how a scribe would commit to paper that which he heard. An ethnic German scribe would spell the Hungarian name Kovács as Kovats - perhaps even as Kowatsch. Phonetically all three spellings sound the same. If the scribe were of Slavic ethnicity, he might write it still differently. So much for the scribe's ethnicity. What about the ethnicity of the speaker, who is pronouncing his name with a foreign accent, or not even with a "foreign" but with a regional accent? In some areas of Hungary they tend to pronounce 'e' as 'ö'. I have recently worked with a parish register in which the spelling of the name Szökrönyös was alternating with a spelling of Szekrényes. It was easy to imagine that the scribe had assumed that the name was really Szekrényes but was being pronounced with a regional accent as Szökrönyös and he wanted to "correct" it until eventually the matter was cleared up and a special comment entered in the parish register stating that the name is really Szökrönyös. But in the very same register were instances where the priest had written körösztöltöm instead of kereszteltem (I have baptized).

Depending on the writing implement (at one time a quill plucked from a goose), or the personality and disposition of the scribe, accents were often ignored, or invented where they should not be. Accents are very important if one wants to correctly reproduce the sound of a name (or any word for that matter). Take the Hungarian words mák, pék, pók (poppy seed, baker, spider). Without the accents they are meaningless, but could be a person's name, and further more, could be misunderstood to have a different meaning. Mak could sound like mag (seed). Some scribes tried hard to get it right, but between how things were said to them and on how they heard it some very interesting words were created - especially if an older scribe was hard of hearing and thought he had heard something which is not what had been said.

It does not help the researcher who wants to get the name right to have to cope with the idiosyncrasies of the individual scribes. Some made their capital G like a capital P. Others wanted to appear so artistic that the starting letter of a name simply cannot be figured out. The problem was, however, not only with the starting letters. In the middle of the name there were other problems created by the style of hand writing. Whereas a 't' is expected to be a tall letter, often it is the shortest letter in the word and can be mistaken for the letter 'r'. Similarly someone may be writing 'ss' but the first of the two 'ss' is very long and extends below and above the line while the second is very short. As long as the writing remains consistent, one gets used to it, but they are not always consistent. We also find rather cryptic endings of some words (including names). Often there is a tallish, longish flourish which does not even pretend to be a letter. We often find these in older registers where entries were still made in Latin. The given names are also all in Latin so there is an abundance of Franciscus, Antonius, Josephus, Georgius, Stephanus, etc. Once we realize that these all end in a fancy flourish, we can guess that the flourish is an abbreviation for the ending of these fairly long names and replaces the 'us'. We can also find the same flourish in the date where it is tacked on to the numerals (7, 8, 9, 10). Here the squiggle represents 'bris' as in 7bris, 8bris, 9bris, Xbris (septembris, octobris, novembris, decembris). And again, as long as it is kept constant, we can get used to it and understand. But woe to the researcher who thinks that these abbreviated months are equivalent to the 7th, 8th , 9th and 10th months! He will get all his dates wrong.

We occasionally see lists of names that look absolutely ghastly considering they are supposed to be sorted in alphabetic order. What we might be seeing is an index which takes phonetics into consideration and lumps the Bs with the Ps or vice versa. The Cs will be with Ks and the Gs will also be with the Ks. Possibly the most famous and the most frightening example of such a sortation is the Austrian archive of residency registration slips (Meldezettel). Here is what they consider an alphabetic sort taking all of the Austrian Empire's multinational names and pronunciations into account: a au e ä ai ey ei eu i ie ü y j o ou u b p c g k x ch cs cz ks h d t dh th f v w h l m n ng r s z sch sz tz (perhaps this why so many Austrian office workers have a Ph.D.). It does, however, illustrate how many sounds are almost indistinguishable, something for those people to remember who do not enunciate properly when they speak, and also for those who keep perpetuating the stories about the "customs agent at Ellis Island who so brutally changed the family name". There was also the little crinkle that far too many people were illiterate and there was no point in asking "how do you spell your name?".

If I were asked for advice on how to cope with all of this, I would have to say that you never ever change the spelling of a name you are taking out of a parish register. A good researcher will always copy things exactly as they are found. After picking out a dozen or so members of the same family, there will usually be one particular spelling which will dominate, that one is probably the correct one that you can use when writing about your family, but in your citation of the source, the spelling you found should be recorded as you found it.


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Last changed 3 Mar 2002