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What is Soundex and How Does Soundex Work?

Soundex is the name given to a system for coding and indexing family names based on the phonetic spelling of the name. The code consists of the first letter of the family name, followed by 3 digits representing the first three phonetic sounds found in the name. Similar sounding family names have similar Soundex codes. Soundex is used to index individuals for US census and other purposes. Anyone wanting to use US census data to find their ancestors will need to become familiar with Soundex.

The advantage of the Soundex system is that it avoids most problems associated with misspellings or alternate spellings of family names. For example, Smith, Smyth and Smythe all have a Soundex code of S-530. Although this is a relatively simple example, alternate spellings of a family name are not always obvious. For example, Sherman, Sharman, Shurman, Shearman, Shireman, Scherman, Schurman and Sirman are all spelling variations of the same family name. With the Soundex system, they all have the Soundex code S-655.

census record
Soundex allows you to sort through many historic records quickly, such as old census records.

The Soundex system is a useful tool in searching for ancestors because the misspelling of family names was a common occurrence in official records. As well, the spelling of family names can change over time. The Soundex system is particularly useful for people searching for ancestors in the United States. In 1930, the U.S. National Archives used the Soundex system to index family names for the 1880, 1900 and 1920 census, and part of the 1910 census (the results of the 1890 census were destroyed in a fire). Anyone searching for ancestors in these census records needs to know the Soundex code system.

Soundex is still in use today by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to track people for census purposes. It is also used to check the spelling of names in large databases. For example, telephone companies use Soundex to assist telephone operators in locating the telephone number of a person based on an educated guess as to the spelling of the name.

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