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Understanding German surnames and given names can help you find and identify your ancestors in the records.
Before record keeping began, most people had only one name, such as John. As the population increased, it became necessary to distinguish between individuals with the same name. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information. John became John the smith, John the son of Matthew, John the short, or John from Heidelberg. At first “surnames” applied only to one person, not to the whole family. After a few generations, these names became hereditary and were passed on from generation to generation.
Surnames developed from four major sources:
1689: Patronymic, based on a parent's name, such as Johann Petersohn (son of Peter).
1690: Occupational, based on the person's trade, such as Johann Weber (weaver).
1691: Descriptive or nickname, based on a unique quality of the person, such as Johann Langbein (long leg).
1692: Geographical, based on a person's residence, such as Johann Schlesier (a person from Schlesien).
The nobility and wealthy land owners were the first to begin using surnames. Merchants and townspeople then adopted the custom, as did the rural population. This process took two or three centuries. In most of Germany, the practice of using surnames was well established by the 1500s.
Patronymics. The use of patronymic names was prevalent in the Schleswig-Holstein and Ostfriesland areas in northern Germany. Patronymic names changed with each generation. For example, Hans Petersen was a son of a man named Peter. If Hans had a son Jens, the son was known as Jens Hansen (son of Hans). The use of patronymics continued until decrees were passed that required persons to adopt permanent hereditary family names. Subjects were often reluctant to comply, so several decrees were needed. These decrees were passed in 1771, 1820, and 1822 in the province of Schleswig-Holstein and in 1811 in Ostfriesland.
Alias Surnames. In some areas of Germany, individuals took a second surname. In the records, the second surname may be preceded by the word genannt, vulgo, modo, sive, or alias. This practice was common in the provinces of Westfalen and Hannover and parts of Rheinland and Schlesien.
The development of alias surnames was often tied to agriculture. When a man moved to a new farm, he sometimes changed his name to the name of the farm. Also, when a man married a woman who had inherited a farm, his name may have changed to her family name. In this situation, some of the children born to the couple may have used his surname, while others in the same family used the wife's family name.
Jewish Naming Customs. Before the 1800s, the use of a family name by Jews was left to the discretion of the individual. Jews in Germany followed the custom of using only a given name and the name of the father, such as Isaac, son of Abraham. Most Jews did not adopt hereditary family names until required to do so by law. In 1790 Baden was the first German state to require fixed surnames. Preußen issued an edict on 11 March 1812 that required that permanent family names be adopted within six months. Compulsory surname laws were enacted in the German states of Bayern and Mecklenburg in 1813 and 1814. By the 1820s, most small German states had extended civil rights to Jews and required them to adopt surnames.
- Here is a site about German surnames and their meanings (in English) .
- Here is a German-language site for Jewish Given Names and their meanings.
Surname "Changes" of German Immigrants in the United States
Most of the time the surname spelling changed to accomodate the different phonetic spelling in the English language. In other words, the recorder tried to write the name the way he heard it. In that case the genealogist needs to remember that
"Spelling doesn't count!"
Surnames may also have been translated outright into English, sometimes with a slight twist.
Examples: Feuerstein= Firestone, Schwarzenbach(er) = Blackcreek [ which evolved into "Blackrick" and other phonetic spellings], or simply "Black".
Within the German community, such as the local parish, immigrants may continue to use the proper German name, while at the same time using English-language equivalents when dealing with local government, census takers, and other non-Germans.
Different branches of the same family may adopt various surname spellings. For example, one branch of the Schwarzenbach(er) family adopted the surname Blackcreek, later Blackrick. The cousin who came over with his family at the same time chose to use "Black".
Prior to 1900 formal surname changes documented in local court records are relatively rare.
During the early 20th Century, especially the World War I era, surname changes are recorded more frequently, as immigrants or, more often, their children, tried to adopt more neutral surnames.
An informative book is
Minert, Roger P., Spelling Variations in German Names: Solving Family History Problems Through Applications of German and English Phonetics, GRT Publications, 2000.
Click here for a short article on the dialect basis of spelling variation in German names.
German given names are usually derived from Biblical names, such as Josef (Joseph); from the names of saints, such as Joannes (Joan); or from Old German, such as Siegfried.
When baptized, children were usually given two or more given names. In most of Germany, the child was normally called by the first name given at baptism. In some areas, however, it was more common for the child to be called by the second name. For example, if the first two males born in a family were named Johann Christoph and Johann Friedrich, they were usually called by their second given names. If an elder child died young, the parents frequently reused the deceased child's exact name on the next born child of the same gender. This can be a good guide in terms of your research, but it is not an absolute. Do not assume the older child with the exact name died unless you find his/her death date.
Some children received as many as four or more given names at baptism. Multiple given names were often the names of parents or other relatives. Many of these names were frequently dropped as the child matured. Thus, a person's later records do not always use the name he or she was given at birth.
To let others know you are confident you followed the same person from birth to death, make sure to record in your notes the different name combinations you find your ancestor listed with in each record, as per reasons in above situation. Leave such good tracks that anyone could find exactly the same record you found by tracking your source, page number, entry number.
Grammatical Effects on German Names
Gender and grammar can affect German word endings. Female surnames often end with "-in". For example, Barbara Meyer may appear as Barbara Meyerin. Some surnames do end in "-in," however. To make sure of whether this is a feminine ending for the surname you're looking at, or truly part of the surname, try to find a surname index to the record you are searching, even if it doesn't start until many years later. You could also search pages back and forth in the record looking for a male with that basic surname.
Germans occasionally use -chen and -lein as diminutive endings meaning “little.” Gretchen could be translated little Greta (Margret). The endings -s or -es show possession. Hermann Josefs Sohn would mean Joseph's son Hermann.
Names in Foreign Languages
Because German genealogical records were kept in various languages, you may find your ancestor's name in different languages at different times. For example, your great-grandfather's name could be in Latin on his birth record, in French on his marriage record, and in German on his death record. Some given names are often very different when translated into different languages, as shown by the following table.
The following source contains given names translated into 23 different European languages, including English:
Janowowa, Wanda, et al. Słownik Imion (Dictionary of names). Wrocław, Germany: Zakład Narodowy im Ossolińskich, 1975. (FHL book Ref 940 D4si; film 1181578 item 2; fiche 6,000,839.)
Variations on Given Names
Many given names have variants and dialectical forms. Barbara, for example, can appear as Barbel, Barbele, Barbeli, Bärbel, Bärbchen, Bärmel, Bäbi, or even Wawerl or Wetti. Some areas of Germany may use diminutive forms of names more than others. A good way to determine naming customs of the area is to study the patterns found in the records of birth/christening, marriages, and burials/deaths. If major changes occur in the naming patterns or form used, that could indicate a ministerial change, perhaps one coming from another area. Several books are available that list variant forms of given names.
For more details about German naming customs, spellings, grammatical endings, and variants read Kenneth L. Smith's German Church Books: Beyond the Basics Camden, Maine : Picton Press, 1989. (943 D27skL.)
There are also many books that discuss German names and their meanings. Some indicate the cities or regions where some surnames are most common or the earliest date and place the name was documented. One such source is listed below:
- Bahlow, Hans. Deutsches Namenlexikon (German name dictionary). Frankfurt/Main, Germany: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch, 1972. (FHL book 943 D4ba 1972.)
Another source which gives roots and variants of Germanic and other names is:
- Melchers, Paul & Wasserzieher, Ernst. Hans Und Grete (2500 First names explained). Bonn, Germany: Ferd. Dümmlers Verlag, 1972. (FHL book 943 D4w 1972)
Part of a German's first name(s) could come from the "saint name" associated with the date on which he/she was christened. Two sources which could be used for checking this out are:
- Weidenhan, Joseph L. Baptismal Names... Baltimore, Maryland: Kenmore Productions, 19--. Republished by Gale Research Company: Detroit, Michigan, 1968. (FHL book 929.4 W426b)
- Grotefend, H & Ulrich, Th. Taschenbuch der Zeitrechnung des Deutschen Mittelalters und der Neuzeit Hannover, Germany: Verlag Hahnsche Buchhandlung,1971. (FHL book 943 H3gh 1971)
Anciently, names were given because they had a specific meaning. A source which lists names and their meanings is:
- Loughead, Flora Haines. Dictionary of Given Names. Glendale, California: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1958. (FHL book 929.4 L929d)
Even within the records themselves the names can have variations. A resource which could be used to phonetically figure out if names truly are the same or not is:
- Minert, Roger P. Spelling Variations in German Names: Solving Family History Problems Through Applications of German and English Phonetics. GRT Publications; Woods Cross, UT, 2000. (FHL book 943 D47m)
More such books are listed in the Place Search section of the Family History Library Catalog under:
Websites About German Names
Here is a Website for given and surnames which also has a forum where you can inquire about a name for which you would like more information.