Understanding German Language and Surnames

By James M. Beidler Premium

It’s been said that if you learn the complexities of English, such as the many spelling quirks and “rules that are exceptions to rules,” you will find learning German is a breeze because its spelling and pronunciation rules are much more predictable. English and German share the same linguistic roots (both are Germanic tongues, as opposed to the Latin-based Romance languages such as French, Spanish and Italian), and many words have similar spellings and pronunciations.

If you can arm yourself with a basic vocabulary of a few dozen words (you might want to call this “tombstone German” because many of the words you’ll need are found on the older, detailed German-language memorial markers, especially in America), you’ll be able to read many of the genealogical records that are written in German.

You’ll need some German language skills for: church records in both Europe and America; private certificates; courthouse documents such as wills and deeds; and newspapers and websites of German towns and archives. And if you can expand that knowledge to a few hundred words, you’ll be able to make sense of fairly complicated records and even have some rudimentary conversations in the German language.

German Language Basics

German grammar is somewhat more complicated than it is in English, but the amount of grammar you need to do your genealogy work is limited. A few key grammar principles to keep in mind:

  • German is an “inflected” language, which means that its nouns carry suffixes determined by how the noun functions in a sentence (for instance, as the subject or the object of the sentence). The suffix changes the spelling of the noun (German nouns are also easy to pick out; they are always capitalized, even what we would call “common” nouns).
  • Because of the inflections, the word order in German sentences may split a helping verb from the sentence’s main verb; the latter often will be found at the very end of the sentence.
  • There are many dialects of German, which causes many spelling variations and differences in idioms.

The German alphabet has relatively few differences from that of English. Two major ones are:

  • There is a character called the “S-set” that is used for a “double s” and looks like this: ß (often mistaken for for an upper case “B”).
  • More importantly, many German vowels carry an Umlaut, shown as a pair of dots written over the vowels a, o, u and y. The Umlaut takes the place of an e (recently, German language officials have decreed that the e should be written out instead of using the Umlaut, but this is only in the process of gaining acceptance and of course the hundreds of years of records containing Umlauted words will not be affected). The major effect of the Umlaut is that it profoundly changes the pronunciation of the vowel and therefore may create radically different phonetic spellings of German names in America.

Another thing you’ll note in German records is that those writing them used abbreviations liberally (even to the point of abbreviating names) and used hypenations at the ends of lines of handwritten documents at any point in a word (not just between syllables, as is traditional in English).

Among the internet tools that will help you gain some language proficiency (or make up for what you’re lacking) are Google Translate and the leading online German-English dictionary, LEO Deutsch-Englisches Wörterbuch (German-English Dictionary).

Google Translate has a toolbar that will pop up above a German-language website and allow you to click on it for a translation of that site. The caveat here is that not all sites translate completely; sometimes, entire blocks of text do not translate and often the Google translations will give only a rough sense of the meaning in English. You can copy and paste any untranslated blocks of text into the text box on the Google Translate site. The LEO dictionary online is great for translating individual words. You can attempt entire sentences with it, but it may not help if the sentence is not constructed in correct German.

Printed Fraktur/Gothic Font

Until the early 1940s, all German-language printed material was published in a font called Gothic, or Fraktur. In German-speaking areas, newspapers, journals, genealogy surname books and family collections, the Meyers Gazetteer, the printed “boilerplate” found in church and civil registers as well as on private certificates and most tombstone inscriptions all used this font.

You’ve likely seen this font before because many newspaper nameplates still are printed in it. But it’s worth studying because it is a very difficult font to decipher with its many similar-looking letters. As a matter of fact, the font isn’t just difficult for the human eye; only within the last couple of years has optical-character recognition software been developed to allow for the scanning of German-language newspapers printed in the Fraktur/Gothic.

In uppercase letters, the most confusing letters are the S, which is often mistaken for C, E and G, and the interchange of the following pairs of letters: the V and B; I and J; and N and R.

In lowercase letters, h, n and y are difficult to differentiate; f and s look alike, as do c and e and i and j. The lowercase k can also cause confusion because it looks like a Roman font letter l with a line through it.

It’s helpful if you learn to differentiate the font’s lookalike letters and practice a two-step process in working such a text:

  • Step 1: Write or type out the original German in handwriting or typing to which you are accustomed.
  • Step 2: Use your transliterated text to make a translation from German to English (do this either from the German vocabulary knowledge you’ve acquired or by using an online tool).

Here’s an example of using the two-step process on a tombstone (slashes indicate the end of each line of inscription):

  • Step 1: Transliterated from the Gothic font: Hier ruhet / Peter Kerschner / Sohn von / Phillip Kerschner und / Susanna eine geborne / Himmelberger. / Er war geboren / Den 11 Marz 1803, / Verheirathet sich am / 1 February 1824 mit / Catharina Bode. / Er starb / Den 30 January 1868 / und war alt / 64 Jahre, 10 Monate, 20 Tage / Leichen Text: 1 Buch Moses 48:20
  • Step 2: Translated into English: Here rests / Peter Kerschner / Son of / Phillip Kerschner and / Susanna “a born” [nee] / Himmelberger. / He was born / the 11th of March 1803, / Married on / 1st February 1824 with / Catharina Bode. / He died / the 30th January 1868 / And was aged / 64 years, 10 months, 20 days / Funeral text: Genesis 48:20.

German Cursive Script

Reading handwritten records requires a few more degrees of skill. You must not only adjust from one individual’s script to another but also deal with slips of the writing pen and just plain awful handwriting. The handwritten records that you’ll deal with the most are church records, private certificates, wills, deeds and letters or diaries.

A good way to start learning German cursive script is to obtain a script key of a common “standard” handwritten script such as Kurrent or Sütterlein. The book If I Can, You Can: Decipher Germanic Records by Edna Bentz contains one of the best script keys. Bentz’s key displays a dozen or more variants for each letter of the alphabet.

After you have a script key, write your own surname (or that of an ancestor you’re seeking) as a guide for what to look for in handwritten records. You may need to write your name hangman style, constructing the word letter-by-letter, starting with those you know and then working to those letters that give you more difficulty. Some have likened the process to unraveling a code, only instead of using cipher substitutions, you’re putting that old-style handwriting into one you can better understand.

After writing out the name you’re seeking, the best way to learn how to decipher the script is to start with documents that use a limited vocabulary, such as church records or private certificates. As you gain more confidence in your work, you can gradually build toward more challenging records such as deeds and wills and eventually letters or diaries. But realize that even experts with years and years of experience will be uncertain at times because either the handwriting is ambiguous or the original records has deteriorated.

German Phonetics and the Spelling of Names


Vowels with Umlauts (shown as a pair of dots written over a, o, u and y; it takes the place of an e) are responsible for many spelling variations. Here are a few examples for illustrations:

  • The German vowel a is most often pronounced as an English “short” a, but when Umlauted, it is said more like a “long” a sound. This creates additional confusion because the German vowel e (as a single vowel) also is pronounced like an English “long” a.
  • A German vowel u is ordinarily pronounced as an English “long” u, but when an Umlaut is added, it becomes a difficult-to-render-in-English cross between a “long” u and a “long” e. Many German names with Umlauted u‘s came to be spelled with an i, ie or ee (and pronounced either with a “short” i or “long” e sound).

In cases of vowel combinations that did not include Umlauts, it was generally the second letter of the vowel combination that “spoke”; for example:

  • ie, pronounced as a “long” e
  • ei, pronounced with a “long” i
  • eu, pronounced as a “long” u

Because of these pronunciations, a speller unacquainted with German phonetics would reverse the letters when writing out the name. In addition, persons of Jewish origin with such German names usually pronounced their names by using the sound of the first vowel.


In German, a number of consonants are either pronounced differently than in English or can be confused unless heard distinctly. Some examples include:

  • b and p
  • d and t and th
  • g and k and c
  • the German w is pronounced like an English v
  • the German v is pronounced like an English f
  • the German v and f can be interchangeable
  • the German s (especially one beginning a word) is pronounced more like an English z
  • the German z is pronounced like an English ts
  • the sch found in many German words is pronounced as sh in English

German Surnames

Most German commoners acquired their surnames in the Middle Ages, sometime around the 1300s, and for most areas (with the conspicuous exceptions noted later in this section) those surnames were fixed from one generation to another, disturbed only by variations in phonetics. Most of the surnames adopted came from occupations, geography, characteristics or patronymics.

Occupational Surnames

Occupational names, most of which are distinguished by the endings –er or –mann, are very common in German and therefore are often more difficult to trace (the joke among German genealogists is that everyone has at least one “Johannes Mueller”/John Miller ancestor). A few examples of this type of surname are Schneider (tailor), Schmidt (smith) or Fenstermacher (window maker).

Geographic Surnames

Geographic names can be fairly specific or general. A Marburger probably has an ancestor who was living in the German city of Marburg when surnames were adopted. A Schweitzer either was living in or a descendant of a family from Switzerland. Dieffenbach simply means “deep creek,” of which there are many in Germany.

Characteristic Surnames

Characteristic names run the gamut from presumably complimentary to, well, not so complimentary. They include names such as Lang (long), Schwartzkopf (black head), Weiss (white), Klein (short), Altmann (old man) and Dick (fat).

Patronymic Surnames

Many Germans have patronymic names–surnames derived by combining the father’s given name with some form of Sohn (the German word for “son”). Examples are Hansen and Jacobsohn. Some areas of Germany used changing patronymic surnames into the nineteenth century. This means the surname could change with each generation as the children of the new generation took the name of their father as their surnames. For example, Jacob’s son, Robert, has the surname Jacobsohn and Robert’s son, Johannes, has the surname Robertsohn, even though Robert’s surname is Jacobsohn. The areas that used changing patronymic surnames were Ostfriesland and Schleswig-Holstein, which is not surprising because these are the areas of Germany closest to Scandinavia, where patronymics also survived into the 1800s.

Another complication to be aware of are so-called Hofname (translated as either “farm names” or “house names”). This happened most often when a farm owner’s daughter inherited the land and her husband took on the farm name as his own. Children born prior to the inheritance were baptized under the father’s original surname, then changed their names later; those born after the inheritance used the farm name from birth. The Hofname surnames were most common in the border area between the German states of Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) and Nordrhein-Westfalen (North Rhine-Westphalia) though they’ve been found in other place, too.

Evolution of a Surname

Many German surnames had Umlauts that affected the pronunciation of vowels in ways that confused English-speaking record keepers. The spellings found in documents from the mid-1700s through the nineteenth century are filled with attempts at reconciling German phonetics with English spelling rules, which results in several “standardized” spellings for descendants today.

A Swiss-German name that was usually spelled in Europe as Schürch and was pronounced roughly as “Shoo-air-k” evolved in the following way:

 Original Spelling in Europe Early American VariantsModern-Day Common Spellings
 Schürch Scherrick Shirk
 Schuerch Sherrick Sherk
  Tsherrk Sherick

German Given Names Traditions

There are two German naming traditions genealogists should know:

1. German children were given two names, and the second name—not the first—is what you will find in records.

This is because German boys almost always were baptized with the first name Johannes (or Johann, abbreviated Joh). German girls were baptized Maria, Anna or Anna Maria. (This tradition started in the Middle Ages.) This means a family could (and commonly did) have five boys with the first name Johann. You can see the high potential for confusion until you understand that the first name doesn’t mean a thing.

The second name, known as the Rufname, and surname would be used in marriage, tax, land and death records. So in a family with boys Johann Friedrich, Johann Peter, Johann Daniel, etc., the children would be called by (and recorded as) Friedrich, Peter and Daniel. Usually, the name Johannes marked a “true John” who would continue to be so identified. By the 19th century, more families gave children three names.

Again, it was typical that only one of the “middle” names was used throughout the individual’s life. Roman Catholics typically named their children using only the names of people declared saints, while most Protestant groups expanded the canon of names to include names from the Old Testament or even non-Christian mythology.

2. There is a tradition involving nicknames, often called Kurzformen, meaning “short forms.”

In English, most nicknames are created by dropping the last syllable of the given name (for example, Christoper and Christine become “Chris”). Germans, however, often shorten a given name by dropping the first part of it. Some of the many examples (using more authentic but understandable German spellings) are: Nicklaus becoming Klaus, Sebastian becoming Bastian, Christophel becoming Stophel (and Christina becoming Stin or Stina), Katharina becoming Trin. It’s important to note that these familiar forms are used in church or other records, even though by today’s standards we might expect full or formal names to be used.

Naming Patterns

Researchers often hope that a naming pattern will provide clues about the given names of previous generations. In German-speaking areas, children were almost always named for one or more of their baptismal sponsors. The most common pattern would be for sons to be named in this order: first born, for father’s father; second born, mother’s father; third born, father of the child; fourth born and on, uncles of the child. The same pattern applies to daughters but using the mothers’ names (father’s mother, mother’s mother, mother of child, aunts). Given names for children who died young (a common occurrence in centuries gone by) were reused by the family for children born after the deaths. There are even some documented instances where families used the same name for two children who both survived.

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