German Genealogy – What’s in a Name?

No – I will not explain family names in the following scribble. And I’m sure there are tons of „how to“-instructions available on the net about genealogy in Germany – there is surely no need for another one. I like to speak about genealogy in Germany from the practising researcher’s point of view. And one of the most important things are names.
Let us assume that your forefathers emigrated from Germany sometimes in the 19th century. They went overseas by ship – and that means that there are good chances to find them in the passenger lists of the Auswandererhaus *. You should know a year – or at least narrow down the year of their passage, it helps with the search.
But the most important thing is the name. The 19th century did not have something like a Duden (Ger., Eng.), Konrad DUDEN published his lexicon 1880 for the first time. There were no fixed, holy, rules of orthography – strictly speaking there are none today: Outside the official use of the German language in written form I am free to write the way I like. I can follow old rules, and can set my own.
The way names were spelled can vary a lot; and names in these lists were often wrote down as they were heard. For example: “Schäfer” (shepherd) can be spelled “Schäffer”, “Sche(f)fer”, “Scho(f)fer” and “Schif(f)er”. A Franconian speciality is the difference between consonants pronounced “hard” and “soft”: For reasons unknown to me a written “B” is mostly pronounced “P”, the same goes for “G” and “K”, “D” and “T” – and of course vice versa, the written “hard” consonant is pronounced “soft”. And speaking about dialects: The emigrants from the South of Germany surely had difficulties to understand Northern Platt (Ger., Eng.), and the rich variety of Franconian dialects surely was of limited beauty to the Hamburgian or Prussian officials, who had to write down these names.

The other very important name is the one of the place of origin. Normally the name of the location the emigrants come from is recorded in the passenger lists, but sometimes a vague description or only the name of the province is given. Family lore and tradition may have preserved and passed down the place of origin over the generations – but with all due respect, I have to say that this is not always a reliable source of information. You may be lucky and letters of the emigrants’ family in the old Heimat and a written name of the place survived. If you are in doubt about the spelling, please let someone have a look on it: A single letter does make a difference! It is a difference whether a place is for example called “Unterregenbach” or “Unterengenbach” – they belong to different administrative bodies, different church parishes – and hence the records are kept in different places.
A further complication arises from the fact, that many names are not unique: A place called “Haslach” can be found at least more than eight times in different parts of Franconia.
Since the middle of the 19th century a lot changed in the public administration and in the administration of the two large christian churches too. From the kingdom of Bavaria – with some Franconian specialties – via the Deutsche Reich from 1871, through the whole brutal 20th century up to now, places changed names, were incorporated into larger administrative entities or even stopped existing. The dreadful Gebietsreform of the 1970s brought the last major change in this respect. The religious administration changed too: Parishes and Dekanate were changed, reformed, united and separated again.
But the 19th century knew such reforms too: Between the newly formed kingdoms of Bayern and Baden the frontier was corrected in the 1850s. This let to the fact that church records of places originally belonging to Bavarian/Franconian parishes for quite a time, today are kept in Karlsruhe in the Badisches Kirchenarchiv.

All I want to say is, that the time used to identify the place or origin of the family – which is the starting place for a genealogical research and important for finding the records – is well used time: Finding the right place of origin saves a lot of fruitless, frustrating and expensive research.
If one has the correct family name and knows the right place of origin a research can be started – let’s look for the records.

* Strangely enough one has to go via the German page (“Migration/Recherche” on the left) to find the button “Rechercheauftrag”; it’s a pdf-application, they charge 40 Euro. And btw – you can turn the sound off down left.


2 thoughts on “German Genealogy – What’s in a Name?

  1. As I understand it, some times the US immigration official in New York Ellis Island would “Americanize” the family names of immigrants and change the spelling! Although I’m thinking it might have been less of a problem with German names since they are more like English names. Have you encountered that whilst doing research?

  2. I do not know whether the official (der Beamte) in the US changed the name “mit Absicht” or systematically, but names were written down as heared. That was common practice in Germany (think: shiplists!) – and it is a noticeable difference between f.e. Franconian, Bavarian or other Southern and Northern dialects. And I guess that in Ellis Island there was no other practice. Again – I have no idea whether “they” tried regularyly or even systematically to “Americanize” or “Englishize” names. (I would doubt this idea, I think there was simply a lot of stress in these halls.) An example for this is when the writer Ephraim Kishon immigrated to Israel – I think it was still British protectorate then – and he “received” his familyname “Kishon”. Originally it was Kish-hont, he came from an area in the former Austrian Empire (k.u.k. Monarchie, Österreich-Ungarn) and it was a geographical name. I think it was a river or something. The official just wrote this down and that was that. Kishon wrote a story about it.
    Anyway – from a researcher’s point of view: One has to pronounce it – that’s the “secret”. Americans and Germans use the same kind of signs, the (Arabian!) alphabeth, but what is written on either side of the ocean means another sound, is vocalized diferrently – one just has to look for this when doing research – it’s a bit like bungt 🙂
    Names become anglisized, like Fischer becoming Fisher, Schaefer turning to She(a)f(f)er etc – it’s just a matter of pronunciation and spelling, and what was written down changed, is different from the “original”, this is undeniable. But see that the “original” may also be something that was – heared.

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