Anyone who always thought the Inuit language contained 30 different words for snow would have been disillusioned by the episode of ‘QI’ in which Stephen Fry debunked the myth.
In fact Eskimos have four words for snow, Fry claimed, but 32 words for this that and the other – or demonstrative pronouns.
Linguistic misapprehensions are everywhere in family history, especially when researching immigrant ancestors such as Huguenots. This body of folk were refugees from religious persecution, chiefly in France, where Protestantism was declared illegal by the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685.
A steady stream of Calvinist Protestants from Normandy arrived in London, and especially the Spitalfields area just outside the City walls. They brought with them silk weaving skills the Crown had vainly sought to develop for almost a century.
Like incomers around Brick Lane to follow, they also brought the enforced migrant’s determination to preserve their language and culture.
Among the earliest roots they put down around Spitalfields were French Protestant churches, whose records happily survive. When considered, even the simplest entries (mostly in French) in the registers of baptisms, marriages and burials of one – La Patente, ‘Eglise Française de Crispin Street en Spitlefields de Londres’ – provide an insight into the kind of world these French Londoners occupied.
Language must have been an everyday challenge. Older family members who lived for decades in London still spoke and wrote wills only in their native tongue.
And the evidence is there in La Patente’s records, between 1689 and 1785, which contain dozens of varied spellings for ‘weaver’ – the profession of most Huguenots in their congregation.
The English word weaver derives from the Old English ‘wefan’, whereas the French would use ‘ouvrier en soie’ (ie ‘labourer in silk’), or ‘tisserand’. La Patente records 32 different and quite obvious attempts to marry the lingos of loved-ones and locals phonetically, as follows:
Oeuure. Oiuire. Oiure. Oivre. Ouaiure. Ouayure. Oueure. Ouiure. Ouive. Ouuoir. Ouure. Oweure. Oyure. Oywer. Vaiure. Veawre. Waiure. Wevure. Weaure. Woaure. Weaver. Woavre. Weavre. Woeure. Weure. Woiure. Weuer. Woive. Wever. Wouire. Wevre. Woyure.
La Patente’s registers also contain a multitude of franglais attempts at place names which provide further insight into the bilingual soundscape occupied by the Huguenots.
For example ‘Flower de Luce Street’ – that’s Fleur-de-Lis Street, Shoreditch, to you and me, guv. ‘Cloberout’ appears to be a stab at what English barrow boys would call Club Row.
The staff at CofE ceremonies would encounter the same issue in reverse. In the St Matthew’s Shoreditch parish register of 15 Jan 1759 the curate has penned the name ‘Mary Magdalene Dushmain’ in a marriage form.
One can imagine his impatience as the young lady (my first cousin eight times removed), keen to preserve her mother’s tongue, explained, perhaps a few times, how the surname was spelled. Perhaps she didn’t really care as long as it sounded right; perhaps it was to no avail anyway.
As it was, her signature reveals her personal preference for spelling the surname ‘Duchemin’ – though even she signs her middle name ‘Magdalin’.
Juggling names in mid-to-late-1800s Censuses often provokes similar amusement at the situation when some middle class enumerator questioned slum-dwelling Victorian ancestors in Hackney or Islington as small, grubby Ellens/Helens cavorted round the room.
I’ve frequently had to work out whether ‘Etty’ is the pet-name for a little Esther, or a Hetty stripped hof hits ‘aitch’, Dick Van Dyke style.
My favourite translation, though, was by a general factotum working on the 1911 Census forms. The return for the boarding house of Elizabeth Hanson in humble Huddersfield happens to have captured wild-eyed US escapologist Harry Houdini during his European tour.
By now householders were expected to fill in their own forms, and from the change in handwriting it seems the landlady asked Harry to complete parts for himself and wife Beatrice.
In the ‘Personal Occupation’ column Houdini boldly wrote ‘Mysteriarch’ – a description some might find pretentious.
Our British government clerk was one of them, sniffily adding: ‘Music Hall Artist.’
If you have Huguenot ancestors take a look at the Huguenot Society website: http://www.huguenotsociety.org.uk/family.html.