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Spelling Variations of Polish Surnames and Village Names
(Don't be afraid to question the spellings you find.)

John L. Rys, Woodbury, MN (E-mail:

More than a few years ago I started to take an interest in my Polish roots and also became involved with database projects with the Polish Genealogical Society of Minnesota and the Immigration History Research Center. With database projects, entry of Polish surnames and village names into a computer database is a major activity. At the start, it was a major struggle to determine accurate name spellings.

The struggle with complicated Polish names, words, and letter combinations may be characterized by a quotation found in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. It's from the British poet, Robert Southey, in his poem, The March to Moscow:

"And last of all an Admiral came,
A terrible man with a terrible name,-
A name which you all know by sight very well,
But which no one can speak and no one can spell."

This is the problem encountered in the late 1800s and early 1900s when u.S. church and u.S. civil officials recorded Polish name information on documents, including vital records. In these cases, state and national government officials, presumably well grounded in the English language, were trying to record Polish names and sounds using the English alphabet.

Transliteration Defined

Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (1979) defines transliteration as follows: "to represent or spell in the characters of another alphabet." An earlier edition says it is: "The act or product of transliterating, or of expressing words of a language by means of the characters of another alphabet." Another definition is: "A systematic way to convert characters in one alphabet or phonetic sounds into another alphabet."

Transliteration of Polish Names on Purpose

The latest translation of the Trilogy novels by the Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz, uses transliteration on purpose to assist readers. The most recently published translations of the With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Fire in the Steppe were prepared by W. S. Kuniczak, a Polish born novelist.

The Trilogy Companion by Jerzy R. Krzyzanowski indicates that Kuniczak chose to transliterate the book's characters and city names and the Trilogy Companion was written "to help readers find their way through the awesome maze of difficult and unfamiliar Polish, Ruthenian and Lithuanian names through the novels." Quoting further, "transliteration is an established literary process" and Kuniczak "chose to transliterate these names phonetically along the lines suggested by the Modern Language Association."

Transliteration examples of Sienkiewicz's character names are:

- Volodyovski for the Polish Wolodyjowski
- Skshetuski, Yan for the Polish Skrzetuski, Jan
- Kemlitch for the Polish Kiemlicz
- Billevitchovna for the Polish Billewicz6wna

Transliteration examples of Polish city and place names are:

- Tchenstohova for Częstochouia
- Yasna Gora for Jasna Góra
- Sietch for Sicz
- Vishnovyetz for Wisniowiec

Transliteration of Polish Names Unintentionally

Complicated spellings and unfamiliar pronunciations of Polish surnames and cities were problems faced in the late 1800s and early 1900s when u.S. church and civil officials recorded Polish name information. In these cases, people were trying to write Polish names using the English alphabet. Many ended up being phonetically written (i. e., transliterated) even though they were trying to be very accurate.


While working on an insurance project at the Immigration History Research Center, I ran across the insurance applications of my cousin's grandfather and grandmother, Ludwik and Ludwika Zmuda. Their insurance applications are dated November 1928.

On their applications, the spelling of their village names was an English phonetic interpretation (transliteration) as they pronounced the name in Polish. For Ludwika (Louise), the village name is spelled Toprovsisko and it should be Toporzysko. This was close.

The example which proves the point of "unintentional transliteration" is for Ludwik (Louie) Zmuda. (See Illustration at bottom). On the application, the village name (marked with an arrow in the reproduction) is spelled Habujka, but the village name is actually spelled Chabówka.

Why? It makes sense if you know a few details about Polish pronunciation:

1) In Polish the ch is pronounced essentially the same as h; the c is silent when a word begins with "Ch."

2) The letter ó, with a diacritical mark on top, is pronounced as u or oo.

3) The w, usually pronounced as we pronounce v, sometimes devoices to the sound of fin Polish.

If you pronounce Chabówka properly in Polish, it will sound like "Habufka" in English.

Name Changes

Another problem with spelling variations is a name change. English spellings of Polish surnames created by people themselves further complicate genealogy matters. In some cases the name was changed by the people around them, for example by their employer. After arriving in America, my maternal grandfather's surname somehow changed from Maciaszek to Macosek. My paternal grandmother's relatives renamed themselves Goski from Główczak: Part of the motivation may have been that the Polish pronunciation of Główczak: was "g'woof" -chock," and they would be teased about their "goofy" name

How Do You Change a Name?

Simply stated, names can be changed in two ways. First, you pick a new name and use it consistently. This method is called "common usage." Secondly, you may go through a formal court process. It is doubtful that many of the immigrants used the latter formal method. They probably just started to consistently use a new name. To my knowledge there are no handy civil databases to help with name change questions. In other words, they left no "paper trail."

Caveat: I am not a linguist, nor pretend to know a lot about languages. This article is based on my observations and reaction to the Polish language while entering church and civil records into various databases.


Understand the difficulty faced by people recording Polish information. Put yourself in the shoes of the information recorder at that time. Then you will be better able to approach English language databases such as the Ellis Island database. It will put you in a position to pull out more relevant information.

Transliteration of sounds from one language to another should always be on your mind as you attempt to interpret names found in Polish immigrant records generated in the United States. So don't be afraid to question the spellings you find.

In addition to being sensitive to transliteration possibilities, it is important to become familiar with Polish surnames and their derivatives. Two books by William F. (Fred) Hoffman, Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings and First Names of the Polish Commonwealth (co-authored by George W. Helon), both available from PGSA, are indispensable in any endeavor to become familiar with Polish name spellings.

The Illustration below: Insurance Application for Ludwik Zmuda citing his home village Chabówka, but spelled Habujka (an arrow <- points to it on the form).

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Last Updated on October 7, 2012