Soundex Sorts Out Family Names
by Bob Brooke
When a genealogist looks for ancestors records, he or she soon discovers a confusing
fact: Family names, or surnames, can be spelled many different ways. So how can a
name be found if the researcher doesn't know the correct spelling? By using the
sounds of the SOUNDEX.
An ancestor's surname may be Smith, Smyth, and Smythe on three different documents.
Two brothers may spell their surnames differently--one named Li, the other Lee. Even
simple surnames such as Jones can be spelled in various ways--Jhones, Jonnes, Uoans.
There are a number of reasons why there's so much confusion about surnames. For many
years, names weren't standardized. Sometimes people didn't know how to write, so
officials interviewing them made up letters to fit what they heard. At other times,
the individual wasn't consistent in the way he spelled his own name. Finally, many
people changed the spelling of their names to fit the country they were in.
These changeable names can make genealogical research difficult. The National
Archives established SOUNDEX , which codes together surnames that sound similar but
have different spellings, to index the U.S. censuses.
Under the SOUNDEX system, names are grouped together by sound rather than letter,
which makes it possible to find names with the same sound, no matter how they are
spelled. Many immigration records, some U.S. Census records, and a lot of other
documents are indexed by SOUNDEX.
Every SOUNDEX code has a letter and three numbers. The first letter of SOUNDEX is
always the same as the first letter in the surname. However, if a name was
substantially changed or shortened after arrival in United States, an attempt should
be made to find out the original name before searching early records.
SOUNDEX codes begin with the first letter of the surname followed by a three-digit
code that represents the first three remaining consonants. Now look at the SOUNDEX
Ignore the letters A, E, I, 0, U, W, Y, and H.
Let's take the name Johannson. The first letter of the name always remains the same.
So the first SOUNDEX space in this case is filled with J.
Go through the name, crossing out those letters SOUNDEX tells you to ignore:
J 0 4/1 ~ N N SO N
If you have any double letters, treat them as one letter. For the NN in Johannson,
for example, cross out one N.
J 0 $ ~ $ N SO N
Finally, fill in the other three SOUNDEX spaces with the numbers that represent the
J 0 $ $ N SO N SOUNDEX code: J525
No matter how many letters there are in the name, every Soundex code is made up of
one letter and three numbers. So, J 525 is the number you will use to look through
the Soundex index for the name Johannson. This code would also work for Johanson,
Johnson, and Johnsson, among other names. If different letters that are side by side
have the same number, as they would in JACKSON (C K and S are all number 2), use the
number only once.
If the name code ends up shorter than the required one letter and three numbers,
zeros must be added to the code. For example, Lee, which translates to L, would
become L000. If the surname has different letters side-by-side that have the same
number in the SOUNDEX coding guide, they should be treated as one letter. For
example, Pfister is coded as P-236 (P, F ignored, 2 for the S, 3 for the T, 6 for the
If there's a prefix in a name, such as van der Horst or de Mornay, figure out the
SOUNDEX code both with and without it. Try "Mornay" and "deMornay." Documents may be
filed under either name. (MAC and MC aren't considered prefixes, so those names will
be coded only as M or M000).
Finally, to use the index: When looking up Johannson, go to the J525 names and begin
searching alphabetically by first name. In other words, Alice Johnson will be listed
among the first J525s. Zachary Johanson will be among the last J525s. Above all,
double-check the results. It's important to be sure it's the right code.
To use the census SOUNDEX to locate information about a person, his or her full name
and the state or territory in which he or she lived at the time of the census must be
known. It's also helpful to know the full name of the head of the household in which
the person lived because census takers recorded information under that name.
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