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Understanding customs used in German names can help you identify your ancestors in records. Learn to recognize name variations and see clues in names.

Online Tools[edit | edit source]

Sometimes, deciphering a surname or given name in an old handwritten document is not as easy as one might suppose. This could be due to the widespread use of abbreviations or to the difficulty in reading the handwriting. Use these lists of surname and given names to assist you in interpreting the names mentioned in the documents.[1]

Frisian names are used in Friesland in East and North Frisia in northwestern Germany.

Surnames[edit | edit source]

Patronymic Surnames[edit | edit source]

A patronymic surname is a surname originated from the given name of the father.


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). A daughter Maria might be either Maria Hansen or Maria Hansdotter.

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.

Hofnamen (Farm Names)[edit | edit source]

In some areas of Germany, individuals took a second surname from the name of a farm..

In many areas of Germany there is a widespread use of "Hofnamen" or "farm names" used.  This is especially true for Westfalen (Westphalia) and Hannover and parts of Rheinland and Schlesien (Silesia). Terms such as modo, vulgo, genannt, and alias indicate this naming practice. Some farm families, particularly in Westphalia, used the particle "von" or "zu" followed by their farm or former farm's name as a family name. Men often take on the wife's surname if moving onto her property. 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. Be aware that as people moved, this might change their surname, and it may revert back and forth within the same records.  Extra care needs to be taken to make sure that the correct people are included in the family group and that no one is accidentally overlooked.  More about Hofnamen can be studied here.

Grammatical Changes in German Surnames[edit | edit source]

Gender and grammar can affect German surname endings.

-in[edit | edit source]

  • Surnames of wives and mothers often end with -in. This is common in Roman Catholic church records written in Latin. In Latin, suffixes are added to names of people and things (all nouns) to reflect relationships stated in the record. These suffixes belong to the Latin language, not to the names. For example, in records of Barbara Meyer's birth, baptism, marriage and her children's births and baptisms, her name may be written Barbara Meyerin but in her own death and burial records it is written Barbara Meyer.
  • Surnames ending in -in can have the Latin -in suffix. An example is the birth record of Maria Louisa Martin, daughter of Ludwig Christoph Martin: her name may be written Maria Louisa Martinin.
  • To decide if -in is a Latin suffix or 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 surname.

-sch, -sche[edit | edit source]

  • In West Low German parlance the ending "…sch(e)" is sometimes added to surnames of women, related to the standard High German adjective ending "…isch" (cognitive to English "…ish"), suffixed to nouns or adjectives indicating belonging/pertaining to, being of the kind described by the suffixed word: for example, de Smidtsche, is Ms Schmidt (Smith), but literally about the Smithian (the woman pertaining to a man/family named Schmidt).[19]

-s[edit | edit source]

  • Another form, indicating a female bearer of a surname, was the addition of a genitive "s". A daughter or wife of Mr. Bäcker (literally Baker) would appear as Ms Bäckers (in German without an apostrophe), as being Bäcker's daughter or wife.[2]

Surname Spelling Variations by Dialect[edit | edit source]

Sometimes surname spelling variations are based on dialect (a particular form of a language which is peculiar to a specific region or social group) differences.


Dialect spellings can often give a clue to the origin of the name and even the region where an ancestor lived.

Jewish Surname Customs[edit | edit source]

Before the 1800s, the use of a surname 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 (Isaac ben Abraham). Most Jews did not adopt hereditary family names until required to do so by law. By the 1820s, most small German states had extended civil rights to Jews and required them to adopt surnames.

Surname Changes of German Immigrants in the United States[edit | edit source]

As German immigrants moved into English-speaking countries, their surnames were impacted in a variety of ways.


  • Most of the time the surname spelling changed to accommodate the different phonetic spelling in the English language. In other words, the recorder tried to write the name the way he heard it.
  • 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.

Surnames Historical Development[edit | edit source]

  • 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 several sources. For example:
    • Occupational (based on a person’s trade, such as Carter or Smith)
    • Geographical (based on a person’s residence, such as Drayton or Debenham)
    • Patronymic (based on a person’s father’s name, such as Jones, son of John)
    • Descriptive or nickname (such as Joy or Child)
  • 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.
  • 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.

Given Names[edit | edit source]

  • 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.
  • With the Reformation, the Protestant territories started to frown on names of saints being given to their children. The trend was now to choose names from the Old and New Testaments. Preferred were Enoch, Abraham, Rebekka, Esther, Lea, Salome.
  • When baptized, children were usually given two or more given names. Which name they actually went by can vary by location and time period. In many areas, however, it was 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 Christoph and Friedrich.
  • 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.

German Naming Pattern[edit | edit source]

German families often used the following pattern for naming children:

Son's Name Daughter's Name
1st father's father 1st mother's mother
2nd mother's father 2nd father's mother
3rd father

3rd mother

4th father's father's father 4th father's father's mother
5th mother's father's father 5th mother's father's mother
6th father's mother's father 6th father's mother's mother

7th mother's mother's father

7th mother's mother's mother

German Given Name Endings[edit | edit source]

Gender and grammar can affect German name endings.

  • 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. Notice that there is no apostrophe.[3]

Given Names in Foreign Languages[edit | edit source]

Because German genealogical records were kept in various languages, you may find your ancestor's name in different languages at different times.

As the various provinces and duchies of German fell under the rule of different countries, the language used in records could change. 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.

German Latin French Polish
Albrecht Adalbertus Adalbert Wojciech
Anna Anna Anne Hannah
Elisabeth Elisabetha Isabelle Elżbieta
Franz Franciscus François Franciszek
Georg Georgius Georges Jerzy
Gottlieb Bogumilus Bogomil Bogumił
Johann (Hans) Joannes Jean Jan
Karl Carolus Charles Karol
Katharine Catherina Catherine Katarzyna
Lorenz Laurentius Laurent Wawrzyniec
Ludwig Ludovicus Louis Ludwik
Margareta Margarita Marguerite Małgorzata
Marie Maria Marie Marja
Wilhelm Guilielmus Guillaume Wilhelm

The following online source contains given names translated into 23 different European languages, including English:

  • Janowowa, Wanda, et al. Słownik imion (Second item on the film.) (Dictionary of names). Wrocław, Germany: Zakład Narodowy im Ossolińskich, 1975. (FHL book Ref 940 D4si; film 1181578 item 2; fiche 6,000,839.) Names are listed alphabetically by the Polish name, as the author is Polish. An index at the back gives the Polish form of each name. Use that name to find the 23 translations in the main list.

"Nicknames", Variations on Given Names[edit | edit source]

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 Further Reading[edit | edit source]

  • For more details about German naming customs, spellings, grammatical endings, and variants:
  • 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:
    • Bahlow, Hans. Deutsches Namenlexikon (German name dictionary). Frankfurt/Main, Germany: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch, 1972. (FHL book 943 D4ba 1972.) At various libraries (WorldCat)

References[edit | edit source]

  1. "Old French Records", at"BYU Script Tutorial", https://script.byu.edu/Pages/the-french-documents-pages/the-french-documents(english, accessed 15 February 2021.
  2. "German name", in Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_name, accessed 12 February 2021.
  3. "German name", in Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_name, accessed 12 February 2021.