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Making sense of old handwriting

German Names

Reading names in German sources allows you to identify a genealogically valuable entry in a church book or other German document. Varying spellings and writing styles add complexity to the task. Identifying names may be easier by using compiled lists of German names. This website provides lists of given names and surnames organized by first letter:

Given Names Surnames

Additionally, see this document for examples of German names written in Kurrent and Roger P. Minert's Spelling variations in German names: solving family history problems through applications of German and English phonetics.


There are in general four different types of German last names: Occupational, Geographic, Patronymic, and Characteristic.

  • Occupational Surnames are taken from the ancestor's occupation. For examples, these could be Schneider (Tailor), Fischer (Fisherman), Müller (Miller), Schumacher (Shoemaker) and Weber (Weaver). Sometimes these names were translated to the English version after immigration to the United States. 
  • Geographical Surnames are taken from any geographical place your ancestor could be connected to such as:
    • "Von" names. Von is a German preposition that literally means: from, by, out of, or about. Thus the names von Meer means "by the Sea" and von Friesen means "from or out of Friesland." It was also used to indicate nobility.
    • Place names. Surnames can also be a descriptive geographical place such as Bergmann (man of the mountains) or Ackermann, Bauermann and Hoffman (farmer).
    • Town and region names. Surnames could also be derived from town names or regions of origin. For example, Frank (from Franconia), Hess (from Hesse), or Bayer (from Bavaria).
  • Patronymics literally means to be named after the father. Martin, Erntz or Paul are common German patronymic names.
  • Characteristic or Descriptive Surnames describe a person, such as Altmann (old man), Klein (small), Hartmann (strong man), and Krause (curly haired).

The German language and spelling was not institutionally or universally standardized before the 20th Century, although regional standards existed since the early modern period. In historic handwriting, spelling can be different than the modern equivalents so knowing some possible surname spelling variations is a good idea. A few hints for German surname deciphering:
Vowels with an ‘e' after it, such as 'ae' can be written with its umlaut instead such as ä, ö, or ü. These are used interchangeably before 1900. For example, Göthe could also be spelled Goethe.

Double 's' or 'ss' can be an 'ß' depending on the scribe, area, or time period. For example, Voss could also be spelled Voß.

German surnames tend to be compound names. Almost all common prefixes can be combined with multiple suffixes. For example, the surname prefix Eck can match with any potential suffix or stand alone as a surname. Some instances of this are Eckmann, Eckler, Ecke, Eckstein, Eckhardt, Ecker, Ecklich, etc. These last syllables can also be combined, such as: Ek -haus-en-bach, -en-berg, -en-bach-er, -ing-er-mann, en-decker, etc.

You can find more names and their meanings at these websites:

Given Names

Hearkening back to earlier times when names existed as singularities, names were often combinations of words with various meanings (for example, Gud-run or Burk-hart). In the Christian era, many German names were of biblical extraction, then later many Germans were named for those in power positions (for example, Frederick or Wilhelm).

Similarly to other religious states in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, at baptism German children would receive a Christian name (for example, Johann or Paul) which would be subsequently unused in daily life. The name that the child would go by (in German: Rufname) was one or two given names. The name or names could be after their baptism sponsor or godparent, or contain commonly held name with their siblings (i.e. all the males of a given family having a given name Friederick with a second name, such as Gustav or Heinrich). Additionally, after a child died their name could be used again with the next child of the same gender.