With roots in the Germanic middle ages, German surnames have been around since the 1100s. They are often very easy to identify if you either know a little German or know which clues to look for.
Names that contain the vowel clusters ue and oe indicate umlauts (Schroeder — Schröder), providing a clue to German origins. Names with the vowel cluster ei (Klein) are also mostly German. Beginning consonant clusters such as Kn (Knopf), Pf (Pfizer), Str (Stroh), Neu (Neumann), or Sch (Schneider) indicate possible German origins, as do endings such as -mann (Baumann), -stein (Frankenstein), -berg (Goldberg), -burg (Steinburg), -bruck (Zurbrück), -heim (Ostheim), -rich (Heinrich), -lich (Heimlich), -thal (Rosenthal), and -dorf (Dusseldorf).
Origins of German Last Names
German surnames developed from four major sources:
- Patronymic & Matronymic Surnames – Based on a parent’s first name, this category of surnames isn’t as common in Germany as in many other European countries. Patronymic surnames are found primarily in the Northwestern areas of Germany, although they may be encountered in other areas of Germany. (Niklas Albrecht — Niklas son of Albrecht).
- Occupational Surnames – More commonly found in German families than almost any other culture, these last names are based on the person’s job or trade (Lukas Fischer — Lukas the Fisherman). Three suffixes which often indicate a German occupational name are: -er (one who), commonly found in names such as Fischer, one who fishes; -hauer (hewer or cutter), used in names such as Baumhauer, tree chopper; and -macher (one who makes), found in names like Schumacher, one who makes shoes.
- Descriptive Surnames – Based on a unique quality or physical feature of the individual, these surnames often developed from nicknames or pet names (Karl Braun — Karl with brown hair)
- Geographical Surnames – Derived from the location of the homestead from which the first bearer and his family lived (Leon Meer — Leon from by the sea). Other geographical surnames in Germany are derived from the state, region, or village of the first bearer’s origin, often reflecting a division in tribes and regions, i.e. low German, middle German and upper German. (Paul Cullen — Paul from Koeln/Cologne). Surnames preceded by “on” are often clues to geographical surnames, not necessarily a sign that an ancestor was of nobility as many mistakenly believe. (Jacob von Bremen — Jacob from Bremen)
German Farm Names
A variation on locality names, farm names in Germany are names which came from the family farm. The thing which makes them different from traditional surnames, however, is that when a person moved onto a farm, he would change his name to that of the farm (a name which usually came from the farm’s original owner). A man might also change his surname to his wife’s maiden name if she inherited a farm. This practice obviously results in a dilemma for genealogists, with such possibilities as children in one family being born under different surnames.
German Surnames in America
After immigrating to America, many Germans changed (“Americanized”) their surname to make it easier for others to pronounce or merely to feel more a part of their new home. Many surnames, especially occupational and descriptive surnames, were changed to the English equivalent of the German.
- BECKER – BAKER
- ZIMMERMANN – CARPENTER
- SCHWARZ – BLACK
- KLEIN – LITTLE
When a German surname did not have an English equivalent, the name change was usually based on phonetics – spelled in English the way it sounded.
- SCHAFER – SHAFFER
- VEICHT – FIGHT
- GUHR – GERR