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):
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.