The Dialect Basis of Spelling Variation in German Surnames

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Perhaps you have had the experience of coming across a surname that has been spelled in several ways. Often, but not always, the spelling variation is based on dialect differences and such spellings can often give a clue to the origin of the name. It is the purpose of this article to give a brief outline of the dialect basis for German surnames. Of course, it is impossible to treat every possible dialect variation. So, we will consider only the main dialect features. We will look at only few consonants.

About 1500 years ago, for some unknown reason, certain sounds started to be pronounced differently from before. The sounds in question are ‘p,’ ‘t,’ ‘k,’ and ‘d’. This sound change started in the southern part of the German-speaking region and slowly spread northward. Linguists call this change the “Second Consonant or Sound Shift” or the “High German Consonant or Sound Shift.”

In the first half millennium of our era, there was no single or official German language; there were many Germanic tribes, such as the Saxons, the Alamanni, the Bavarians, the Franks, and some others, each speaking closely related dialects. The consonant inventory of these early Germanic dialects was more or less the same as that of Modern English. So, we will illustrate the changes in German by comparison with English words, while keeping in mind that the English consonants represent the old Germanic consonants.

First, we look at the sound ‘p.’
English German
plum Pflaume
plant Pflanze
Pfanne pan

pipe Pfeiffe
pepper Pfeffer
open offen
From this list, we see that old, Germanic ‘p’ changes to ‘pf’ or ‘f(f)’ in German.

Next, we look at ‘t’
English German
two zwei
tide Zeit ‘time’
ten zehn
twenty zwanzig

water Wasser
better besser
eat essen

From this list, we see that old, Germanic ‘t’ changes to ‘z or ‘ss’ in German.

Next, we look at ‘k’
English German
make machen
seek suchen
book Buch

From this list, we see that old, Germanic ‘k’ changes to ‘ch’ in German.

Next, we look at ‘d’
English German
deer Tier ‘animal’
daughter Tochter
dead tot

From this list, we see that old, Germanic ‘d’ changes to ‘t’ in German.

As previously mentioned, these changes started in the southern part of the German-speaking region and slowly moved northward. Each change started and moved at its own pace. And each change stopped at different points in Germany. So, it is possible to find dialects that have some, but not all the changes. The northernmost point of the High German Sound Shift is a line that runs east to west, south of Berlin and Magdeburg, north of Kassel, crossing the Rhine just south of Duisburg. To the north of this line are the ‘Low German’ dialects. Low German, therefore, is a set of dialects spoken in northern Germany. Some people erroneously believe that ‘Low German’ refers to social status of its speakers, or to the language itself. Such is not the case; the term refers to those dialects which have remained unaffected by the High German Sound Shift.

But what does all this have to do with variation in names? Names have also been affected by these sound changes. Those people who lived south of the line described above have names that were affected to various degrees by these changes. The names of those people who lived north of the line remained unaffected by the changes. Of course, migration from one area to another often obscures this pattern, as we now find many people with who live ‘on the other side’ of the dialect dividing lines. Also, the origin of a name is sometimes impossible to know because the name might have been changed from a dialect to a standard form.

Low German Standard German
p>pf, ff
Piper Pfeiffer
Pannes Pfannes
Pörtner Pförtner
Pund Pfund
Appel Apfel
Tappe Zapf

t>z
Töllner Zöllner
Tange Zange
Tappe Zapf
Bockholt Buchholz
Kloth Klotz

t>ss
Watermann Wassermann
Freter Fressle
Grot Gross

d>t
Danner Tanner
Dartsch Tartsch
Daube Taube
Deubel Teufel
Diebold Tiepold
Deichmann Teichmann
Dalmann Thalmann (‘th’ in German sounds like ‘t,’ not like ‘th’ in English.)

k>ch
Bockholt Buchholz
Bekerer Becher

So, for example, if your ancestor has the name ‘Danner,’ you can reasonably suppose that he or she came from northern Germany. This process can give a clue to the origin of the name and person who originally had it. So, if you find a name that is spelled in differently from what you are familiar with, don’t discount it; it might just be a dialect form of a more familiar name.