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What's In a Name?



Tracing ancestors back to the point where they first acquired surnames can be a challenge as a name's spelling and pronunciation may have evolved over centuries. This makes it unlikely that a current family surname is the same as the original surname bestowed on a long-distant ancestor. The present family surname may be a slight spelling variation of the original name, an anglicized version, or even a completely different surname. There are several reasons why this may have happened.


One reason may have been due to illiteracy. The further back we take our research, the more likely we are to encounter ancestors who could not read and write. Many did not even know how their own names were spelled, only how to pronounce them. When they gave their names to the vessel master or shipping company, clerks, census enumerators, clergymen, or other officials, that person wrote the name the way that it sounded to him. Even if our ancestor did have the spelling memorized, the person recording the information may not have bothered to ask how it should be spelled.


Another reason may have been for simplification. Immigrants, upon arrival in a new country, often found that their name was difficult for others to spell or pronounce. In order to better fit in, many chose to simplify the spelling or otherwise alter their name to relate it more closely to the language and pronunciations of their new country.


Mispronunciation may have been another reason. Letters within a surname were often confused due to verbal miscommunication or heavy accents. For example, depending upon the accents of both the person speaking the name and the person writing it down, KROEBER could become GROVER or CROWER.


During the 17th century and even well into the 19th century, consistent spelling of names was not enforced, mainly due to lower literacy levels and the absence of the standardization required by government bureaucracies.


So, now the question is, why are there so many spelling variations for my surname in the family tree? In my opinion, I believe it is due to simplification. When my Schoener relatives arrived, they were probably semi-literate, in part because they were Lutheran.


The move toward mass literacy began in the 16th century with the belief that every person should read and interpret the Bible for themselves. This belief began to rapidly diffuse across Europe with the eruption of the Protestant Reformation. It was initiated in 1517 by Martin Luther’s delivery of his famous 95 theses. Protestants came to believe that children had to study the Bible for themselves to better know their God. In the wake of the spread of Protestantism, the literacy rates in Britain, Sweden, and the Netherlands rose. Motivated by eternal salvation, parents and leaders made sure the children learned to read.


In 1534, the translation of the entire Bible into German was published in a six-part edition as a collaborative effort of Martin Luther and many others. Because Luther's Bible was printed, it could spread rapidly and could be read by or to all. Hans Lufft, the Bible printer in Wittenberg, printed over 100,000 copies between 1534 and 1574, and these were read by or to millions. Luther's vernacular Bible came to be present in virtually every German-speaking Protestant's home, and increased the Biblical knowledge of the German common masses. Luther even had large-print Bibles made for those who had failing eyesight. Catholic German humanist Johann Cochlaeus complained:

Luther's New Testament was so much multiplied and spread by printers that even tailors and shoemakers, yea, even women and ignorant persons who had accepted this new Lutheran gospel, and could read a little German, studied it with the greatest avidity as the fountain of all truth. Some committed it to memory, and carried it about in their bosom. In a few months such people deemed themselves so learned that they were not ashamed to dispute about faith and the gospel not only with Catholic laymen, but even with priests and monks and doctors of divinity."

Religious beliefs also helped spur the beginning of state-funded schooling. As early as 1524, Martin Luther emphasized the need for parents to ensure their children’s literacy and placed the responsibility for creating schools on secular governments.


Luther's German Bible and its widespread circulation facilitated the emergence of a standard, modern German language for the German-speaking people throughout the Holy Roman Empire, an empire extending through and beyond present-day Germany. The spread of Luther's Bible translation had implications for the German language. The German language had developed into so many dialects that German speakers from different regions could barely understand each other. The Bible promoted the development of non-local forms of language and exposed all speakers to forms of German from outside their own areas. It also contributed significantly to the development of today's modern High German language. So, through a combination of their religion and Luther's Bible, I believe that my ancestors had some level of literacy and would have probably known how to spell their surname as Schöner or Schoener (without the umlaut). Therefore, it was, a matter of simplification that caused some branches of the family to alter the spelling, and that goes back to dialect, in my opinion. That dialect was what came to be known as "Pennsylvania Dutch" or Deitsch.


Despite the name, this language is German, not Dutch. Today it is spoken by the descendants of German speakers who migrated to North America in the 17th and 18th centuries. Those German migrants primarily came from areas like the Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg, which nowadays are part of south-western Germany. Pennsylvania Dutch is closely related to the German dialects of those regions. This is the region where my family orginiated and was most likely the dialect they spoke.


In High German, "schöner" means lovelier, more beautiful or nice. In Pennsylvania Dutch, it is pronounced as "shay-ner." This is the way my branch of the family pronounces the name, using the original German spelling, but maintaining the regional dialect's pronounciation.


Some branches of the family may have thus changed the spelling to "Shaner", making it easier for non-Deitsch speakers. It may also have been changed for them by government officials who simply wrote the name the way that it sounded to them.


There may also have been a desire among some family members to assimilate to Anglo-American language and culture. Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, English-language evangelism efforts and the outlawing of German-language schooling may have prompted a spelling change.


In addition, historical reactions to German language and immigration may have provided an incentive to alter the spelling. From colonial times into the period of the world wars, Germans were sometimes portrayed as a threat to "overrun" America and the German language as a threat to "displace" English. Benjamin Franklin infamously voiced such sentiments in private letters about Germans in Pennsylvania:


Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together, establish their Language and Manners, to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion?

Such anti-German biases may have also played a part in some branches of the family altering the spelling. They may have been more exposed to this as they moved further away from the communities where they had first settled.


We will probably never know what caused the diversity in the spelling of the surname, but, no matter how it is currently spelled (or maybe even pronounced), we all began with the same one.

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