What happens when you apply the orthography of one language to a fairly unrelated language?

A right mess, that’s what.

As mentioned before, up until the 1890s most church books in Latvia were written in German. German is, as its name implies, a Germanic language. The Germanic language family also includes English, Dutch and Danish, and is a part of the larger Indo-European family.

Meanwhile, Latvian is a Baltic language, closely related only to Lithuanian. Sometimes they are added to the Slavic languages to form a larger Balto-Slavic language family, which would also include languages such as Russian and Polish. Balto-Slavic languages are also Indo-European in origin.

This means that German orthography was not particularly suited to writing Latvian words. To a Latvian speaker, the words will often be familiar, but to a beginner who does not speak Latvian, tracking a surname through the changes can be quite confusing. I speak Latvian and even I am puzzled sometimes. For further confusion, since spelling was not standardized, even spellings within one orthography can vary, depending on the scribe in question (or sometimes even the same scribe!).

I have found a good web resource that addresses spelling changes from German orthography to Latvian orthography, here at ROOTS=SAKNES. This website also provides a good comprehensive overview of Latvian history as it pertains to genealogical searches. It is the best Latvian research resource that I have found in English, however, it does not appear to have been updated in the past four years, and the mailing list appears to be defunct (upon trying to subscribe, I got an “undeliverable” response from the mail server).

Moving on now to Russian orthography. Russian orthography is more suited to writing Latvian than German orthography is, since there are numerous similar sounds. The obstacle here for English-speaking researchers is the alphabet – Russian is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, which is quite different from the Latin alphabet used for writing English, German and Latvian. To make matters even more complicated, Russian handwriting differs considerably from typed Russian, which leads to many letters looking identical. Russian has also undergone numerous changes in orthography, which means that some letters appearing in old documents (such as the letter ѣ) have been eliminated in modern Russian. This website can lead you through the basics of modern Russian handwriting.

Now to provide an example of these changes, utilizing the name I provided in my last post – Wahzeet, Ваціэтъ and Vācietis. Vācietis is not a particularly common Latvian surname, but it is still in use in Latvia today. In English, it would translate to “German” (that is, a German person).

Prior to the standardization of the Latvian alphabet, it was common for names to be given in a more familiar form, rather than in the standardized nominative case of a word (Latvian, like other Balto-Slavic languages, has a grammatical case system for nouns). So in Latvian orthography, in the familiar form, it could have been “Vāciet” or “Vāciets”.

The German form Wahzeet will immediately be made more familiar to Latvian eyes by changing the “z” to “c” (in Latvian, “c” makes a “ts” sound, as in “tsar”). Take caution with such a substitution however, since sometimes a “z” is just a “z” (and sometimes, a “z” in Latvian would be written as a “s” in German!).

To know whether a “z” is “c” or “z” in Latvian, a parallel Russian text can come in very useful (this will be seen in some church books after Russian-language registration was introduced – names would be recorded in both Russian and German). Here, the “ц” in the Russian version tells you that it will be a Latvian “c”. Note also the obsolete Russian letter “і”, represented by “и” in modern Russian. The final “ъ” would also probably be eliminated in modern Russian.

Some further examples (German->Russian->Latvian):

  • Behrsin->Берзин->Bērziņš
  • Swaigsne->Звайгзне->Zvaigzne
  • Jehkabsohn->Екабсонъ->Jēkabsons
  • Pawassar->Павассаръ->Pavasars

Do you have a Latvian family name you would like to see in its German or Russian form? I may be able to help. However, I have not come across all names in records I have looked at, so I may only be able to provide an educated guess.

Changes in Orthography
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6 thoughts on “Changes in Orthography

  • November 30, 2009 at 3:55 am

    My father says that his grandfather spelled the surname ZACKER. But after the change, it became CAKARS. This is often confused with CHAKARS. I can’t put the little v over the C.

    So, do you think that ZACKER could have become CAKARS?

  • December 1, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    I do. My last name, Celmiņš, in old orthography was usually written Zelmiņ. Additionally, nominative forms of male names almost always end in -s or -š, which is why the -s would have been added. There are a few names that do not end in -s or -š in male nominative forms, but they are relatively rare.

  • May 31, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    In searching Raduraksti, I was able to find my husbands Paternal grandmother’s family Kepitis. I have had much more difficulty finding his Paternal grandfathers family Driksna. I searched the same set of records and the closest names that I could find were Viksna, Viksne & Wihksna. Could this be the same surname or are they completely separate surnames?

  • May 31, 2010 at 9:52 pm


    I don’t believe Drīksna and Vīksna would be the same name (though Viksna, Viksne and Wihksna are). They are both Latvian words with very different meanings. “Vīksna” is a common Latvian surname derived from a type of elm tree, while “Drīksna” can have a variety of meanings – the dictionary gives the translation as “stigma”, but my etymological dictionary gives the word an origin in botany referring to a part of a flower. I have not seen this surname before.

    If you’re certain that your husband’s grandparents were from the same parish, I would recommend looking at the neighbouring parish records as well, to see if they happened to attend a church in a different one. This was not uncommon, and can sometimes resolve the mystery easily. I spent a long time looking at the Vijciems registers trying to find my great-great-grandmother’s birth and marriage records, but when I finally gave up and looked in Lugaži, the parish to the north, I found what I was looking for almost immediately. Best of luck!

  • June 3, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    If you do see Driksna be sure to let me know 🙂 Do you know of any good maps of latvia? The ones I’ve found online aren’t that helpful. I don’t know which parishes neighbor Vecpiebalga.

    Stigma, that is interesting. The translator I’ve been using online said it meant Floss. I told my husband that and he just about died laughing.

  • June 6, 2010 at 8:49 am

    You can use Baltic Maps for modern maps, but for older ones you would need to acquire them from Jāņa Sēta. You can get detailed maps on CD from them.

    The parishes that border Vecpiebalga (in the 1930s) are: Skujene, Ērgļi, Jumurda, Vējava, Mezdula, Veļķi, Jaunpiebalga and Taurene.

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