Discover Your Ancestor’s Polish Name
Family Tree University
Note from the Dean
If you have Polish roots, you know that researching your family has its challenges. In addition to the historical boundary changes in Eastern Europe, which can make records hard to find, there’s a language barrier that can make it hard to understand records, names and places.
This excerpt from our Polish Genealogy 101 Family Tree University course offers some hints on tracing your Polish ancestors’ names.
One of the key steps you’ll need to take in order to follow your clan back to Poland is to determine their original Polish names, first and last-including maiden names for women.
The name you know your ancestor by from North American records may or may not be the same one he or she used back home. Like other immigrants, Poles sometimes “translated” their given names to the English equivalents (Jan becomes John; Katarzyna becomes Katherine).
And because Polish orthography is so different from English, immigrants often altered the spelling or pronunciation of surnames to make themlook and sound less foreign.
The Polish alphabet has 32 letters-9 vowels and 23 consonants (note that q, v, and x are not normally used). The additional letters with diacriticals (accent marks) were often misinterpreted:
|These name changes generally occurred after arrival in the United States or Canada, so expect your ancestors to appear in earlier records, including passenger arrival lists, with their Polish names. This is where it helps to understand Polish naming practices. Roman Catholics, for example, would often name a child after a saint whose feast day was celebrated on or near the baby’s date of birth or baptism. Books that can help you determine given names in Latin, Polish and German, and find surname spellings, include Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings by William “Fred” Hoffman and First Names of the Polish Commonwealth: Origins and Meanings by William F. Hoffman and George W. Helon (both from the Polish Genealogical Society of America).
Create a list of the surnames and first names you’re searching, as well as potential alternate spellings and variations to look for in online databases and print indexes.