My whole life, I've always wondered where my last name came from. The whole "they made it up at Ellis Island because they couldn't pronounce it" story is probably true, I'd always thought. However, a little bit of research has turned a new leaf.
You see, in much of Europe (Germany, Austria, etc.) the pronunciation of the letters V and W are swapped; V is pronounced like a W, as "wuh" and W is pronounced like a V, as "vuh." A good friend of mine from undergrad is from Germany, and when she first came to the States she often swapped the letters herself.
My Great Grandfather, Michael, emigrated from Hungary in the early 1900s. Granted, Michael was likely not his real Hungarian name, but it is the name he took. I visited New York City and Ellis Island in 2001 and saw for myself "Michael Welense" engraved on the stone blocks they have there. Hungary, which is near Germany, also happens to swap the W and V pronunciation. We've always thought that "Welense" was probably made-up, it's been family lore for years.
History even tells us that it was common for families immigrating to the US from Europe to take as their last name the name of their hometown. Such is the case of the Corleone family in the Godfather movies. And such is also likely the case with my Great Grandfather.
As it turns out, there is a town in Hungary that is pronounced "Welense," the same way we pronounce our last name, by real-life, true-blooded Hungarians. However, it is not spelled the way we spell it, it is spelled "Velence." Our pronunciation is right, but the spelling was "Americanized" at Ellis Island.
Frankly, it looks weird seeing it written like that, but in truth, our last name is actually a misspelling of the town of Velence, Hungary. In American English, it would probably end up being pronounced the same as the word "valance" had it been spelled correctly.
A bit of research on the town of Velence turns up that it was arguably home to Italian immigrants from Venice during the reign of King Matthias I in the late 1400s. It is said that the immigrants found the appearance of the marshes in Lake Velence to resemble the canals in Venice. "Velence" is even the Hungarian spelling and pronunciation of the Italian city of Venice. (The Italian word for Venice is "Venezia," for that matter.) Further, a velence is also an instrument that fisherman of the same time period used to detect the direction of the wind.
Now that I know it though, the story does beg one question: is it better to preserve the pronunciation of a name by misspelling it or to preserve the spelling and allow the pronunciation to be lost over time?
Whatever the answer, I'm very pleased to finally have a story about my last name.