German family names
were introduced during the late Middle Ages
in the German language
area. Usually, such family names
are derived from nicknames
. In etymology
, they are generally classified into four groups, based on the origin of a nickname: given names
designations, bodily attributes, and geographical
references (including references to named buildings). Also, many family names display characteristic features of the dialect of the region they originated in.
- Given names often turned into family names when people were identified by their father's name. For example, the first name Ahrend developed into the family name Ahrends by adding a genitive s-ending, as in Ahrend's son.
Examples: Ahrends/Ahrens, Burkhard, Wulff, Friedrich, Benz. With many of the early city records written in Latin, occasionally the Latin genitive plural -i was used such as in Jakobi or Alberti or (written as -'y') in Mendelssohn Bartholdy
- Job designations are the most common form of family names; anybody who had an unusual job would have been bound to be identified by it. Examples: Schmidt (smith), Müller (miller), Meier (farm administrator; akin to Mayor), Schulze (constable), Fischer (fisherman), Schneider (tailor), Maurer (mason), Bauer (farmer), Metzger or Fleischer (butcher), Töpfer or Toepfer (potter). Also, names referring to nobility such as Kaiser (emperor), König (king), Graf (count) are common, with the name bearers probably only a minor functionary of a monarch.
- Bodily attribute names are family names such as Krause (curly), Schwarzkopf (black head), Klein (small), Groß (tall).
- Geographical names are derived from the name of a city or village, or the location of someone's home. They often have the '-er' postfix that signifies origin (as in English New Yorker). Examples: Kissinger (from Kissingen), Schwarzenegger (from Schwarzenegg or Schwarzeneck), Bayer (from Bavaria, German Bayern). Böhm indicates that a family originated in Bohemia.
- A special case of geographical names were those derived from a building or landmark, e.g. a Busch (bush). Before the advent of street names and numbers, even for long times afterwards, many important buildings like inns, mills and farmsteads were given names (see also Der Lachs zu Danzig). Such a place was often better known than the people living in it; the people would get their 'family' name from the building. This name could be combined with a profession: Rosenbauer (rose-farmer, from a farmstead called 'the rose'); Kindlmüller (child's miller, from a mill named 'the Christmas child', 'the prodigal child' or 'the king's child'). The name of the building could also be used as is: Bär (Bear); Engels (from Engel, angel).
- Immigration, often sponsored by local authorities, also brought foreign family names into the German speaking regions. Depending on regional history, geography and economics, many family names have French, Dutch, Italian, Hungarian or Slavic (e.g. Polish) origins. Sometimes they survived in their original form; in other cases, the spelling would be adapted to German (the Slavic ending ic becoming the German -itz or -itsch). Over time, the spelling often changed to reflect native German pronunciation (Sloothaak for the Dutch Sloothaag); but some names, such as those of French Huguenots settling in Prussia, retained their spelling but with the pronunciation that would come naturally to a German reading the name: Marquard, pronounced marcar in French, ended up being pronounced Markuart as it would as a German word.
The preposition von ("of") was used to distinguish Nobility; for example, if someone was baron of the village of Veltheim, his family name would be von Veltheim. In modern times, people who were elevated to nobility often had a 'von' added to their name. For example, Johann Wolfgang Goethe had his name changed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This practice ended with the abolition of the monarchy in Germany and Austria in 1919. In some areas, such as Switzerland, von is also used in geographical names that are not noble, as in von Däniken. The same is true in the Netherlands and Flanders, where Dutch is spoken (a language closely related to German), and where this type of family name is very common. Many German towns occur in Dutch surnames (Van Gogh, Van Keulen, Van Gulik, Van Bon, etc.) but not in German ones.
With family names originating locally, many names display particular characteristics of the local dialects, such as the south German, Austrian and Swiss diminutive endings -l -el, '-erl, -le or -li as in Kleibl, Schäuble or Nägeli'' (from 'Nagel', nail)
Many family names have no obvious connection with a community, occupation, or station in life. One of these is Geier, which connotes a bird (vulture) and the oral history of peasant origin pertaining to a myth that human babies were abducted by gigantic Birds of prey who gave up their captives only after the villagers attacked and destroyed their nests.
- Rosa Kohlheim, Volker Kohlheim : Familiennamen: Herkunft und Bedeutung von 20000 Nachnamen (Family Names: Origin and Meaning of 20,000 Last Names), 2000, Duden, ISBN 3-411-70851-4