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Surname Spellings

While viewing this web site, you may wonder about the spelling variations of the surname “Eisenhart” that are currently used by different family groups. For those interested in how this state of affairs came to be, we have provided the following synopsis.

Before the 1400s there were no fixed family surnames in German speaking areas, so references to an “Eisenhart” before that time cannot be definitely linked to any particular family group. During those times, a man was known by his first name plus an identifier to distinguish him from others in the community with the same name. These identifiers included physical or personality traits such as Klein (Small) or Ehrlich (Honest), or references to occupations such as Schmidt (Blacksmith) or Müller (Miller). Less common were identifiers based on where one lived such as Eichelbaum (Oak Tree) or one’s place of origin such as Hess (coming from the state of Hesse).

In the 1400s, family groups began to take on fixed surnames, certainly at least in part due to the fact that physical characteristics, occupations, and dwellings were generally passed from generation to generation. One can speculate whether the “hard as iron” Eisenharts got their surname from their sturdy constitutions or an inflexible personality!

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The German spoken and written in the 1400s and 1500s was much different from the German spoken today, just as Shakespeare’s English is different from modern English. In many of the earliest records, the name “Eisenhart” often appears as Ysenhart. At that time most villagers were not literate and record keeping was done either by clergy or clerks employed by noblemen for taxation purposes, so it is likely that when information was gathered the names were recorded as they sounded phonetically. As educational opportunities became more widely available, individuals began to have a say in how their surnames were written.

Another factor affecting how names were written was the dialect spoken in the area. The language that developed in the Black Forest district in Württemberg is the Swabian (Schwäbisch) dialect, which is quite distinctive and has significant pronunciation and vocabulary differences when compared with the High German spoken in other areas. This regional dialect has affected name spellings for families with roots in that region. According to Helmut Beutler of Deufringen, the pronunciation of the “T” sound is softer in Swabian, more like a “D”. As record keeping became more standardized about 1800, this phonetic difference began to be reflected in the spelling of the name Eisenhart, and in order to document the “Swabian T” sound that ended their name, more and more families began to use the Eisenhardt spelling. This spelling is almost universal in Dachtel and the surrounding towns today, and although the original three Eisenhart immigrants who came to Pennsylvania in the 1750s spelled their surnames Eisenhart consistently, later immigrants coming from the region in the 1800s used the Eisenhardt spelling. There are Eisenhart families with roots in other areas of Germany such as Prussia, and these families have tended to stick with the Eisenhart spelling since it is more consistent with the pronunciation in these regions.

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Finally, as Eisenhart immigrants settled in America, new spellings of their surname evolved. Some of this had to do with differentiating family groups who lived in close proximity. Immigrant George Eisenhart wished to avoid confusion between himself (and his son George Jr.) and Conrad Eisenhart’s son, who was also named George Eisenhart. So in the 1780s George elected to begin spelling his surname Isenhart. Also, as the municipal and federal agencies began to perform censuses, make tax lists, etc., the officials and recorders were often “Anglos” who would write the surnames phonetically based on the way their German speaking constituents pronounced their names. Variations of Eisenhart seen on official documents from the past include Isenhart, Icenhart, Isonhart, Izenhart, and many others.

Some families held on to the original spelling of the name, while others embraced the changes for convenience and ease of pronunciation—and as noted, some even anglicized the spelling themselves. Until the 20th Century, this was of little importance since it was not until that time that one had to declare a fixed spelling of one’s surname for official purposes such as enrollment in the Social Security program.

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Last Updated June 4, 2016