Sounding it out
Only a foolish person immediately says “But my ancestor’s name wasn’t spelled that way” when confronted with a record that uses a different spelling from what the researcher is accustomed to. When you consider the many dialects of German used in Europe—and that many American records were created by English-speaking clerks, enumerators or tax collectors—well, that’s a recipe for a smorgasbord of place and surname spellings in the records you’ll find.
Getting around language barriers
If you’d rather take translation matters into your own hands, the web offers a variety of services to teach yourself German. Some of these apps, podcasts, articles, courses and sites include:
- Deutsche Welle: free online course as well as a free podcast called the Audiotrainer
- Dueling: free iOS and Android app
- Language Surfer: How to Pass the German A1 Test: free website
- Learn German by Podcast: free podcast
- Mango Languages: free iOS and Android app
- MindSnacks: $4.99 iOS app
- National Institute for Genealogical Studies: $89 online course
- Slow German: free podcast
- SurvivalPhrases.com: German: free website
If you’re interested in learning the German language so you don’t need to rely on translations, Studying in German is an excellent resource. This is a step-by-step guide that was created with one goal in mind: To help complete beginners learn how to speak German fast.
Surfing for surnames
In addition to trying out phonetic variants of surnames, some online tools let you get an idea of where those surnames are found in today’s Germany. While there’s no guarantee that the highest concentrations of a surname in modern Germany will be an exact match of those names’ historical concentrations, these databases do give you a starting point for a geographic hypothesis on your family origins when other records haven’t borne fruit.
Another tool, the Geogen Surname Mapping site, generates three types of data on surnames:
- relative distribution: gives the number of instances of the surname per million phone book entries, which adjusts for the potential of a lot of instances of a surname purely because of an area’s population
- absolute distribution: puts the actual numbers of entries into groups
- pie chart: shows the percentages in which the surname is found in current German states
Mapping it out
With all these language and geography resources, you probably feel like a race car driver waiting for the green flag to take off. Understanding some basics about your ancestors’ language and hometown is the first step in journeying to the old country. So, Damen und Herren: Start your engines.
From the March/April 2016 Family Tree Magazine