Spelling Variants in the Northern Rheinland

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Sooner or later every family history researcher will come across spellings in documents that deviate from the standard. However, such spellings do not mean that the scribe ‘did not know how to spell.’ In this article, we look at a few spellings from Wesel, which is in the Lower Rhine (northern Rheinland) area in Germany. The linguistic situation in the Lower Rhine has been very complicated. In past centuries, German, Dutch, and a local, Low German dialect have been used. Click here for an article on the Low German language in German research or here for Languages in the Lower Rhine Area of Germany.This situation has caused an interesting linguistic situation.

German, as well as English, has both long and short vowels. For centuries, how to spell the long vowels has vexed writers and it has been only recently (within the last 200 years or so!) that a standard has been agreed upon. Before that time (and sometimes later, especially in dialects) writers used a variety of devices to indicate long vowels. In Modern English, one way to indicate a long is to add an ‘e’ at the end of a monosyllabic word, e.g. hat/hate, kit/kite and so on. Other languages handle the problem differently; some languages double the vowel, others put another vowel or ‘h’ after the vowel in question. Most use a combination of devices, however.

In the baptismal registry of the Evangelische-reformierte Kirche in the late 16th century, the scribe uses a Low German form instead of the standard High German, getauft. However, he spells it in several ways, as he wrestles with the problem of the long vowel. We find gedopt, which seemingly ignores the long vowel, gedoept, which is not an umlaut, in spite of the ‘oe’ combination, and gedoipt, which does not represent a diphthong. The ‘oi’ and 'ui' spellings are characteristic in the Lower Rhine and Westfalia, where the ‘i’ was only a length marker. The ‘oi’ and 'ui' spellings appear in several words in standard Modern German, cf. the surname ‘Voigt,’ with a long 'o' as in English 'pole' and the place names ‘Duisburg’ and ‘Duisdorf,’ the first syllables of which should be pronounced as in English ‘doos’ and not ‘doo-is.’

Another long vowel that has a variant spelling in the records of Wesel is ‘a.’ The Modern German word ‘Name’ appears almost always as ‘naem.’ This ‘ae’ group for long ‘a’ is typical of older Dutch, esp. Flemish.

Some other spelling variations appear in the records. Kynt and Kynder for ‘Kind’ and ‘Kinder.’ The letter ‘y’ can alternate with ‘i’ in many instances in many languages. Dochter and dat are typical Low German/Dutch words for German ‘Tochter’ and ‘das.’

These spellings in and of themselves should cause no problem to the German researcher. But since the handwriting in and quality of these particular documents are poor, the spellings add to the difficulty in deciphering the document. If the researcher knows these variations, then the deciphering of the documents becomes much easier.