Why does everyone in your family spell its surname the same way? Just who decided upon the spelling anyway? One of the challenges genealogists and family historians face is getting to the root of the surname they are researching. Simply put, the name you answer to, sign on checks, and pass on to your own children may be considerably different than the spelling your ancestors used centuries ago. So, what’s with all of the surname changes?
Surname alterations occurred for many reasons. Perhaps there was a lack of concern for accuracy by either the writer or subject person; grammatical inability or name abbreviation by the writer (common during immigration procedures); difficulty understanding the given name (perhaps the writer was of a different nationality, and did not recognize the subject person's spoken words - a common error with census enumerators); simple ‘copycat’ errors (the writer saw and repeated previously misspelled references). In the oldest records, the most common reason for surname variability was simply that it just wasn’t very important. That may be a bit more difficult to understand in today’s society, but years ago, literacy and grammar were not priorities – working, feeding the family, and just staying alive comprised the important events of the time.
My YAKEL surname is actually an “Americanized” variant on the original JÄCKEL and/or JECKEL spelling of my Germanic forefathers. Over the span of 350 years, the name has changed more than 50 times. While the number of name changes over this period may be somewhat surprising, in actuality, the pronunciation has changed very little. I have categorized these name variations mainly into three distinct groups: The “I-Type”, “J-Type”, and “Y-Type” names.
First, there are the “I-Type” names: ICKEL, IEKEL, IKEL. These surnames were used by parts of my family after they had emigrated to New York, and subsequently moved to Iowa in the 1860's. Later, when some of the relatives came full circle and moved back to New York, they maintained the IEKEL spelling. It continues to be spelled this way today.
Next, there are the “J-Type” names, which are closest to the Rheinish German original: JACELIN, JACKAL, JACKALL, JACKEL, JACKELIN, JACKELL, JACQUEL, JAECKEL, JAECHEL, JAECKLE, JAEGER, JAEGLE, JAEKEL, JAGEL, JAGER, JAKAL, JAKEL, JAKELL, JAYKILL, JECHELL, JECKEL, JECKELIN, JECKELL, JEKEL, JEKLE, JEYKILL, JOCKEL, JOECKEL, JOEKEL. When the family first came to America, they used the JACKEL, JECKEL and JEKEL spellings. When parts of the family moved west to Wisconsin in the 1860's, the spelling was modified slightly, to JAEKEL and JAECKEL. It remained that way through the 1980’s, when the last parts of this family branch passed on.
Then, there are the “Y-Type” names: YACKEL, YACKLE, YAEGLE, YAEKEL, YAGAL, YAGEL, YAGER, YAGET, YAGLE, YAGLES, YAKEL, YAKIL, YAKLE, YEAGEL, YEAGLE, YEAKLE, YECKEL, YEKEL, YEOKLE, YICKEL, YICKLE, YOCKEL, YOGEL, YOGLE, YOKEL, YORKEL, YORKELL, YORKLE. The Albany, NY families, of which I am a part, used many of these surname variants. In the early 1870's, the YAKEL spelling took prominence, and all other variants were discarded. Presumably, it was at this time that our family decided that a consistent surname was in its best interest. This spelling continues as the sole surname for my family in the New York Capital region.
So, why all of the odd spellings in my family name? The similarities between all three types of spellings are no coincidence. The German letter “J” is pronounced like the English letter “Y”. Hence, a person asking one of my ancestor’s what their name was, would hear the “J-type” name with a “Y-type” sound. If the person hearing the name was not German, or had no understanding of the German language, they would then interpret this "Y" sound as a “Y-type” word, and write it down that way. This led to the variety of "Y-Type" spellings over the years. On the other hand, someone with knowledge of the German dialect would be more apt to write the name down ‘more correctly’ with a “J-type” spelling, or perhaps an "I-Type" spelling, since the letter "I" could also be used interchangeably with the letter "J".
Census enumerators, priests, doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers, tax collectors, and any other persons with need to write down your family name probably had some input in how it was written, and ultimately, contributed to the surname you now proudly advertise to the world. The name you use now may only be a remnant of your forebears’. However, if you know something about the ethnic background of your family, it may be possible to determine the original surname spelling. Perhaps in another two hundred years, your family name will have changed yet again, leaving your descendants to wonder how their name came to be. Why not make it a little easier, and leave them with some history of your surname. They’ll be happy you did!
Best of luck as you trace your history!
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by Joseph Yakel