Family Name Changes

German Name Changes-Why did the Family name change?

My Mom named me Michele. My friends call me Shelley. My given name is my first name and what I am called. My surname or family name identifies me as part of a family to society as a whole. As I discover more and more with respects to my family history and the fact that my family name originated sometime in the mid 1500’s I become more and more proud of those roots and the name.

Many of our surnames were based on words that continue to mean something in the language of our ancestors, whether in English or German. Names such as Schmidt or Smith, Carpenter or Zimmerman, etc., tell us that our ancestor may have been a carpenter or a smith of some sort. Even names not as simple retain their meaning through family folklore and ancestral stories.

Surnames normally fall into one of the following categories.

  1. Surnames derived from given names. Examples in this category include Fritz, Friederick (Frederick) etc.

  2. Surnames derived from nicknames-Nicknames, in the middle ages, became a way to distinguish one John from another or in this case one Johann from thousands of others. The tall John could have been referred to as Gross (later becoming Johann Gross) or the Johann that made shoes became Der Schumacher and later John Schumaker) in the occupational surnames below.

  3. Occupational surnames refer to the job of the bearer. This is probably the largest category and one that most of us can relate to. The family was identified by the work, i.e. Bauer (Farmer); Metzger (Butcher); Müller (Miller); Schulze (constable); Fischer (Fisherman); Maurer (Mason), etc.

  4. Locational or topographic surnames are derived from the place where the bearer lived. Examples of surnames in this category include Frankfurt; Bayer (Bavaria or Bayern); etc.

  5. Bodily attributes. How many of you know a Klein (small) or a Schwarzkopf (black head)?

So because these surnames are so important to us, what happens to those names during the emigration process can be problematic. Many German names were changed, butchered, amended and those that carried that surname lost the meaning and harmony that existed when in their native country.

First, in Germany, name changes are allowed for four reasons:

  • On marriage: the couple can choose the name of either partner, they can both keep their original names, or (provided the original family name of neither partner contains a hyphen), one partner can modify their own name, appending the partner's family name to their own, creating a hyphenated name.

  • Correction of a name: if the state has made an error with the name and this can be proven, the original name can be restored.

  • Gender reassignment, in the case of transgenders.

  • Naturalization of foreigners-In this case, the foreigners may choose to adopt German forms of their first and last names, or adopt new first names if their old first names cannot be adapted into German.

What were some of the reasons behind ‘name changes’?

Name Changes on the Immigrant Ships: When the immigrants boarded their ships at Rotterdam, the English captains had difficulty writing the manifests or ship lists. They did not speak German and were unfamiliar with the many German dialects. The names were written as they were heard. Think of some of the German differences. There are very few names that are pronounced the same in German and in English. The immigrants, in this situation, however, were in no way obligated to use the name after arrival.

Once they arrived names were often changed again. Keep in mind that Ellis Island did not open until 1892 and prior to this the immigrant received no official immigration documents. Here also consider the fact that many of the immigrants could not read so did not recognize the differences initially.

Anglicized Spelling Pronunciation: Pronouncing the German name using the sounds of each letter of syllable in English affects all names of German origin. Just think about the difference with the letter ‘z’. It is pronounced ‘z’ in English, however, in German it gets the ‘ts’ sound (ex. Tsetse fly). Keep in mind also that German vowels, the German e is replaced by the English ‘I’.

This is also true of those names beginning with letters that are silent in English, however, spoken in German. As an example ‘kn’, Knobloch, which in English is pronounced ‘Nobloch’, but in German the k is pronounced. The same is true if the kn is in the middle of the name, such as Frischknecht. The ‘k’ is dropped in English.

Silent Letters: There are some letters in German that are not pronounced. The most common is an ‘h’ that follows or is at the end of the name. An example would be Freuhauf (the ‘h’ not pronounced in German), which becomes Freuhauf and pronounced in English.

Special Characters in German and not in English: The letter β or the es-tset, is used to express a sharp ‘s’. This letter may be found in the middle of the name or most often at the end. Many Americans think that it is a capital ‘B’. Because the character was not and is not used in the English language, upon immigration it was often changed to an ‘ss’. This option also exists in Germany.

Then we have German’s umlauts. These are the letters with the little dots above them, ‘ä’, ‘ö’, and ‘ü’. The letters themselves represent vowel sounds…nothing like those used here in the USA. When immigrants arrived there were several alternatives for the umlaut that they could choose:

1. The most common is spelling with the base letter and adding an ‘e’. This is also used in Germany when the umlaut symbols are not available. This results in ‘ae’, ‘oe’ and ‘ue’. Using this method allows the pronunciation of the name to remain very similar to the German pronunciation. There were some related problems to this. The ea is much more common in the US than the ae, making names that contained the ae over time to be written or spoken as ea. Jaeger became Jeager. What about the name Kramer. Do you think it could have been Krämer? A common German name in the US is Mueller, which was probably origianlly Müller.

2. Spelling with the base letter only which leads to a totally different pronunciation. For example the German name Jäger would be either Jaeger or Jager.

3. The other option was to continue to use the umlaut. This worked for some, but for others, especially the use of ü, which became ‘ii’. The ‘ii’ is a sequence not found in either German or English. Language is a funny thing.

Even with the changed spellings to reflect the German umlaut, names are pronounced incorrectly because they are spelled odd…the pronunciation more toward the common English spelling of the name. Examples include Gabel or Gable for Goebel (German Göbel) as in Clark Gable; Freuhauf (German Fruehauf) and Yingling for Yuengling (German Jüngling). While using Clark Gable as an example, we should also note that the ‘el’ letters were often inverted. One of my family names was Nagel (nail in German) and was ultimately spelled Nagle. The same is true for Gable and Engle. This is the familiar English spelling of el…le.

Changing the spelling to preserve the German Original Pronunciation: Many changes to surnames fall within this category. A few paragraphs ago, we spoke about the name Jäger. This has been spelled Yaeger to retain the sound, the same is true of many names beginning with ‘J’ which is pronounced like a ‘Y’ in German. Another common re-spelling is those containing a ‘w’ pronounced ‘v’ in German. Consider Schwartz being re-spelled as Schvartz. In German the ch sound is pronounced ‘x’. This often results in the ‘k’ sound as in ache.

It also hasn’t been uncommon for us Americans to toss away the letters that we do not pronounce or aren’t heard in the name. Examples such as Schneider becoming Snider/Snyder or Schwartz becoming Swartz is pretty commonplace. The same is true with double consonants used in names. Germans maintain the second ‘h’ in Buchholz and in most cases the English spelling eliminates one of the ‘h’s. The German’s maintain the double ‘n’ in Hoffmann, the English spelling is often with one ‘n’.

Shortened Names: German names, often longer than English surnames, were often shortened to make the spelling easier to write and pronounce.

As with other parts of the German language, compound words are not uncommon, nor are compound names. In surnames either part can be changed. The German Messerschmidt becomes Messersmith, the German Apfelbaum becomes the English Applebaum, etc. There is no determinant as to which part gets changed however, it appears that most change the part that is closest to the English equivalent, such as Apfel to Apple or Schmidt to Smith.

Substitutes or Anglicization: This is where the only common factor is the meaning. Very rarely do they sound alike (except maybe Fuchs and Fox and a few others). Many of the substitutes took place during WWI when many Germans anglicized their name. This wasn’t the earliest, however, it is said that William Penn, if he could translate a German name to English, he would change it. Again, however, during the course of the two World Wars, Germans felt it prudent to hide their connections to the Fatherland. Many changed or anglicized their name for fear of retribution from the likes of the ‘Know Nothings’ and similar anti-German groups. This was when Schmidt became Smith, Schwartz became Black, Fuchs became Fox, etc. For a listing of anglicized names see our click here. Of course today we have moved beyond ‘forced cultural amnesia’ and many are now proud of the German ancestry and their surnames.

There are so many changes to German names that only dedicated research can determine if your ancestry is actually German. Many German names today have went through ‘the change’ and will require family research and combing through census records etc., to determine the time the change occurred.

Speaking of name changes…remember John Denver? He was born John Deutschendorf.

As a matter of record, what are the 10 most common surnames in Germany? They are all occupational.

  1. Müller

  2. Schmidt

  3. Schneider

  4. Fischer

  5. Weber

  6. Meyer

  7. Wagner

  8. Schulz

  9. Becker

  10. Hoffmann