(+) Why Are We Limited to Soundex?

The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman. 

Genealogists love Soundex, a method of matching names that have similar sounds but may be spelled differently. In fact, Soundex became popular amongst genealogists almost as soon as it was invented in 1918. Soundex was patented by Robert C. Russell of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and is sometimes called the “Russell Code.” The U.S. Census Bureau immediately adopted Soundex for indexing census records. Since then, others have used the Soundex code to sort similar-sounding names for telephone books, work records, drivers’ licenses, and many other purposes. I noticed that the first four characters of my driver’s license number are “E235,” the Soundex code for my last name.

Genealogists use Soundex to find variant spellings of ancestors’ names. Almost all modern genealogy databases have a “search by Soundex” capability.

Soundex is a form of “phonetic encoding” or “sound-alike” codes. A Soundex code consists of one letter followed by three digits. For instance, Smith and Smythe both are coded as S530, Eastman is E235, and Williams is W452.

If you search many records of interest to genealogists, sooner or later you will need to use Soundex codes. Why? Well, you can often find a person’s entry by his or her Soundex code, even when the names have been misspelled. This becomes important when you realize that many census takers did not speak the language of the people being enumerated. In fact, in the first 150 years of U.S. census records, the majority of Americans were illiterate and did not know how to write their own last names. Spellings on census and other public records varied widely. The spelling of many family names also has changed over the years, but often the Soundex code remains the same. Soundex can be a big help in finding the same family in different databases that have different spellings.

As good as Soundex is, it suffers from numerous shortcomings. For example, Korbin and Corbin have two different Soundex codes, even though they sound exactly alike. The same is true for Kramer/Cramer, Kreighton/Creiton, Leighton/Layton, Phifer/Pheiffer/Fifer, Coghburn/Coburn and many others. At the same time, the names “Robert” and “Rupert” are pronounced differently, yet both have the same Soundex code, R163.

Of course, such shortcomings in Soundex create problems for genealogists. Sometimes Soundex can find similar-sounding names, but often it does not. You may be searching a database that contains information about your ancestors, but you will never know that because you cannot find them, either by exact spelling or by the inexact Soundex system. Fortunately, better solutions are available.

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