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Soundex Codes in Genealogy

Updated on March 20, 2013

Doing genealogy research can be pretty straight-forward and can be done without too much high-tech gadgetry. Browsing through books, documents and online databases looking for names that match your tree is the typical process.

Seems easy enough until you realize that some census takers have your great-grandfather's surname spelled wrong. Or that a ship passenger manifest also has it spelled wrong (and different again from that census taker). Even really common names can fall into this problem.

You may find yourself searching for a half dozen variations of each surname in your tree, which is time consuming and tedious. Thankfully some very smart person back in the 1900s came up with a way to avoid these problems: soundex codes.

The purpose of the soundex code is to eliminate any spelling variations on a surname, by creating a code based on how the name sounds. Since most spelling variations still produce a name that sounds similar to the original, you can keep names grouped together this way.

Vowels are taken out and the consonants are given numbers to group similar sounds together. The specifics for creating a soundex code are:

  • The first letter of the surname becomes the first letter of the soundex code.
  • Take out all the vowels
  • Also remove h and w
  • The rest of the letters are given numbers like this:
  • B,F,P,V - 1
  • C,G,J,K,Q,S,X,Z - 2
  • D,T - 3
  • L - 4
  • M,N - 5
  • R - 6

Number pairs are reduced to a single digit (33 becomes just 3) because the represent a single sound. A zero is added if there aren't enough letters to create the standard 3-digit number.

Using these rules, the name Smith has the soundex code of S530. That code also represents the names Smyth, Sneed and even Sandy. Most genealogy programs today will create a soundex code for you, so you don't need to memorize the coding process. There is a good online converter at Rootsweb as well.

Obviously, these codes are not perfect and won't always help you find true variations of your surname, but they can be a great help with browsing online databases. Searching by soundex has helped me on more than one occasion. Searching for Furlong was getting me nowhere, but when I searched for F645, I found that I had family members with misspelled names in several databases. I would never had thought to search for Ferling without using the soundex code.

These codes won't help when you are looking through old books or records, but for online database searches, they can be a great assistance. Most large websites will offer soundex searches, and if they don't, you might send them a friendly email asking that they add the feature next time they update their site.

Do You Use Soundex Codes in your Genealogy Searches?

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      dangar 

      7 years ago

      This page refers to the soundex code used in the US. This soundex is used in census records and other record indices. There is also a different soundex system for Germanic based names such as the names in Eastern Europe.

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