The Trouble with W's

by James J. Czuchra

Reading Polish names presents many challenges but two I want to address here are the troubles I have with the letter 'w' . The first trouble seems to be in surnames from the last half of the 1800's. Many surnames were written without the usual 'w' before the -ski and -ska endings and probably because it was not pronounced.

As a child, our neighbor was the Staniszewski family. As I try to render this phonetically, they did not call themselves the Stanishefski family as I might have expected. They called themselves the Stanisheski family. Their name may have even been spelled Staniszeski, like it sounded, in some older records. I'll leave it to a linguist to offer an explanation for this phenomenon, but it occurred with enough frequency to warrant comment. In searching some databases, you may want to consider alternative spellings with or without the 'w' before the -ski or -ska ending. So, Jakubowski might be found as Jakuboski. In another example, I tried to find the passenger arrival record for my great grandfather Kolaski. The person who created the passenger list had enough knowledge of Polish to anticipate the 'w' issue and wrote the name as Kolawski-- but that addition is precisely why I could not find him in my first attempt using only Kolaski! This problem is somewhat moot if a regular Soundex search is possible because 'w' in the body of a name is not coded.

The second 'w' issue is when it occurs at the beginning of place names. In response to the question, “Where were you born?”, a person would respond with, “I was born in _____________”. In Polish, the preposition 'in' is the letter 'w'. So if someone said they were from Włościbórz, the recorder may have heard “w Łościbórzu” (in Łościbórz) and write Łościbórz in the record instead of Włościbórz. The recorder took off the needed initial 'w'. I have also encountered the problem where an initial 'w' was added but should not have been. The recorder heard “Weichenbergu” and wrote it that way. I could not find Weichenberg, but using some other clues, I realized the place was Eichenberg (Dębogórze). What was probably said was "w Eichenbergu" which was then recorded as Weichenbergu. So particularly for place names, an initial 'W' may or may not be required to find the place you are looking for on a map.

The third 'w' issue is the interchange of B and W which are both voiced consonants at the beginning of a name. Years ago as I was sorting Haller's Army recruitment papers and grouping them into a set for each recruit, some papers were in the 'B' box while other papers for the same individual were in the 'W' box. So a situation occurred where Bielinski and Wielinski were the same. The lesson here is to check for B and W spellings because of the possibility of confusion.