Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Family Names

I'm fussy about family names, especially the pronunciation of them. Family names mean something, or did at one time mean something in the language of origin. With English family names such as Smith, Taylor, Baxter, Gardner, or Wheeler it is easy to guess that the person with that name had an ancestor who followed one of the occupations associated with the name. Among some cultures family names are recent innovations. For example, one of the leaders of Indonesia after it became independent was named Sukarno. That was his complete name. More recently his daughter Megawati (I hope I have it right) became the President of Indonesia. She chose a second name Sukarnoputri which means "Sukarno's daughter."

My own family name, Saur, was acquired when my great-great grandfather Johann Pettersson served a hitch in the Swedish Army. Pettersson was not a family name. His father was Petter Pettersson and his father was Petter Johannsson and so on back to the original Swede. My great-grandfather, who came to the United States in 1853, was called Pehr Johannsson + the new family name which was spelled "Zar" in Swedish. It's the name his father had acquired in the Swedish army. In Swedish the letter Z represents the same sound as S, or possible TS as in German. The letter A represents a sound similar to "AW" in English. My ancestors tried two or three ways of respelling the name in English to preserve the Swedish pronunciation. When my grandfather served in the Union Army during the Civil War he spelled his name "Saur." His uncle, who also served in the same army spelled his name "Sorr." Another spelling was "Sor," which appears in a census record. Eventually the family adopted my grandfather's spelling of the name.

I was recently interviewed by a young lady who was working as a contractor for the federal department in charge of environmental protection. I carefully explained to her the origin and the pronunciation of my family name. Thirty seconds later she spoke my name and called me Albert "Sour." So much for my lecture!

Other names whose mispronunciations annoy me are Germanic names ending in -stein. The word "stein" means "stone" in German. There are several dialects of German. In some dialects the word is pronounced to rhyme with English words line, fine, spine, etc. In other dialects the pronunciation rhymes with English words vane, mane, gain, rain, etc. There is no dialect in which the word would rhyme with such English words as bean, lean, keen, seen, etc. Yet I know many people with names ending in -stein, such as Korenstein, Goldstein, and Rubenstein who insist on pronouncing their names as if the last syllable was written -steen. Perhaps because I am so fussy about my own name I am annoyed to hear pronunciations like Goldsteen and Rubensteen. People who insist on such pronunciations have lost touch with the original language of the name and are seduced into mispronouncing it because of English spelling.

In the case of my name, there is a German name Sauer, meaning "sour." It may be a shortening of "Sauer heide," or "sour heath," meaning rich farm land. The name is often written Saur. People with a little knowledge think that my ancestors were German and therefore give my name the pronunciation it would have if it were in fact a name of German origin.


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