Chasing down a Hungarian surname
June 25, 2020 1:20 PM   Subscribe

I'm doing a family tree for an acquaintance whose surname is familiar in Quebec and which I had always taken to be Italian. Some digging has turned up the interesting information that in fact it's probably of Hungarian origin, but has undergone lexical transformations. I want to see if it's possible to find out what it originally was.

I know some German troops came to North America during the American war of independence, which is probably why Joseph, the founding figure of this family line, came here. He is described as a Hungarian who joined the German army in the 18th century.

At some point he left the army and became a farmer in the Rimouski area where he married a young woman of French-Canadian descent. All his children and descendents after this, down to the present day, have French given names, and his surname, while in its current form it looks Italian, is one of those family names that, while not originally French, are felt to be Québécois.

Joseph wasn't literate, so various clerics wrote the surname down in different ways: Fiola, Fiala, Phiola. It isn't spelled like this now, but that was what the priests heard.

What could it have been?
posted by zadcat to Writing & Language (5 answers total)
Best answer: Fiala (violet) is an extremely common Czech name and as such would have been unremarkable for a person from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which is described as a giant melting pot. While the majority of Fialas live in the Czech Republic, you'll currently find a great many German-speaking Fialas in Austria. I've also seen presumably Hungarian Fialas (for instance author Ferenc Fiala).
posted by Omnomnom at 1:42 PM on June 25, 2020 [4 favorites]

In that timeframe, both Hungary and Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), among others, were part of the Habsburg monarchy which later turned into the Austria-Hungarian Empire. Mobility between the regions was not uncommon, there are Fialas in Austria for instance. Fiala is a Czech name, meaning violet. Perhaps Joseph had some Bohemian ancestors.
posted by meijusa at 1:48 PM on June 25, 2020

More specifically, he could have been Slovak, since Slovakia was occupied by Hungary at that time. Enlisting in the German or Austro-Hungarian army would have been one of the very few avenues into social advancement for young men of that time and place.
posted by Atrahasis at 1:48 PM on June 25, 2020 [4 favorites]

In some very old records it is recorded as Vignola. I don't know anything about Hungarian but thought I would add that.
posted by ReluctantViking at 1:53 PM on June 25, 2020

More specifically, he could have been Slovak, since Slovakia was occupied by Hungary at that time.

Whoa, Atrahasis is right, yes. Makes sense. Slovakia had been considered part of Hungary for a long time by then (like, continuously from 1683 onward). Though there were always tensions between the Slovakians and the Hungarian elites, struggles to codify their own language etc. They weren't one people. But the German army might well have considered him a "Hungarian" and he might himself have simplified his origins later on.
posted by Omnomnom at 2:17 PM on June 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

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