The confusion of 'b' and 'v' in early immigration documents #records

Jeffrey Knisbacher

On a 1910 census document asked about earlier, I responded that the annotation "Servian" above Hungary, really meant Serbian since today's Serbia was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Emnpire. The reason for the confusion is this: In Cyrillic alphabet-using countries (Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria, etc.), the capital letter that looks like a Roman alphabet B is pronounced 'v'. The first three letters of the Cyrillic alphabet are АБВ. The first of these is (more or less) our A, the second  is our B, the third is our V. Interestingly, this came about via the early Christian developers' familiarity with Hebrew, where the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet (bet) can be pronounced either 'b' or 'v' depending on its position within the word. Later developments in Hebrew script distinguished the two pronunciations by adding a dot in the middle of the letter to indicate the 'b' pronunciation. Without the dot it was pronounced 'v'. Cyrillic is named for St. Cyril who invented an alphabet for the use of Slavs in the 860s in Greater Moravia known as Glagolitic. Later that alphabet was simplified and modified, by Cyril himself and/or his students, in Bulgaria in the 890s.  

  Jeff Knisbacher, Bradenton, FL


This is a very interesting theory, but it's not quite in synch with the historical record.  The use of "Servia" for "Serbia" is more widely attributed to Latin;  there is some debate about what degree the "v" version came from phonological confusion or whether the Romans were trying to emphasize the servile (from Latin servus) nature of the Balkan tribes.  A substitution of Cyrillic Б (b) for В (v) due to their proximity in the alphabet is, with all due respect, creative but far-fetched.

I'd also like to point out that while Cyril and Methodius were responsible for the Glagolitic alphabet when translating the Gospels for the South Slavs, the later Cyrillic alphabet (which the brothers may or may not have had direct influence on) is derived from Greek, not a simplification of Glagolitic.  A few letters from Glagolitic (for example, Ш, Щ, for South Slavic "sh" and "sht", respectively) were brought into Cyrillic from Glagolitic, as Greek had no equivalent sounds or symbols.

Joel Novis
Longmeadow, Massachusetts
(NOVITSKIY:  Kyiv, Vasil'kiv;  OLSZTAJN:  Łódź area;  HYMAN/GEYMAN:  Ashmyany;  POTASNIK/LEVY:  ??;  POMERANTZ:  Kapyl', Navahrudak)

Jill Whitehead

Speaking as someone whose maiden name was Servian, changed from Serwianski in Poland (named after Lake Serwy), this name caused my Liverpool family considerable problems, with all the Balkan wars in the late 19th and early 20th century. My great grand uncle changed his name from Servian to Silverman (and later to Maxwell after his grandfather Mordecai). Another cousin branch in the NE of England changed their name to Server. It makes research difficult today as a Google search may come up with Serbian conflicts rather than family aspects. 

Jill Whitehead, Surrey, UK
Researching Servian, Serviansky, Serwianski, Server, Serwer, Sirvan etc. from Sejny, Augustow and Vishtinetz in Suwalki Gubernia, Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Chicago, Detroit, Florida, Pennsylvania, California, and Mexico.


In historical linguistics, betacism (UK: /ˈbtəsɪzəm/, US: /ˈb-/) is a sound change in which [b] (the voiced bilabial plosive, as in bane) and [v] (the voiced labiodental fricative [v], as in vane) are confused. The final result of the process can be either /b/ → [v] or /v/ → [b]. Betacism is a fairly common phenomenon; it has taken place in Greek, Hebrew and several Romance languages.[a]
See, I can use Wikipedia too!
Robert Roth
Kingston, NY