In preparation for our upcoming Genealogist’s Guide to German Language Documents, beginning December 11, we sharing tips on how to understand German language and surnames.
- 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 tears 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.
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
- 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).
- 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
German Phonetics and the Spelling of Names
- 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.
- b and p
- d and t and th
- g and k and c
- the German w is pronounced like an English c
- 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
- 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
|Original Spelling in Europe||Early American Variants||Modern-Day Common Spellings|
German Given Names Traditions
- The first is that 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.
- The second meaning tradition involves 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.