Personal names in German-speaking Europe consist of one or several given names (Vorname, plural Vornamen) and a surname (Nachname, Familienname) The Vorname is usually gender-specific. A name is usually cited in the "Western order" of "given name, surname", unless it occurs in an alphabetized list of surnames, e.g. "Johann Sebastian Bach".
In this, the German conventions parallel the naming conventions in most of Western and Central Europe, including English, Dutch, Italian, and French. There are some vestiges of a patronymic system as they survive in parts of Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, but these do not form part of the official name.
Women traditionally adopted their husband's name upon marriage and would retain their maiden name by hyphenation, in a so-called Doppelname, e.g. "Else Lasker-Schüler". Recent legislation motivated by gender equality now tend to allow either or both parts of a married couple to choose the surname they want to use.
The most common given names are either Biblical ("Christian", derived from the name of Biblical characters or saints; Johann/Hans "John", Georg/Jörg "George", Jakob "Jacob"; Anna, Maria, Barbara, Christina) or from Germanic names (Friedrich "Frederick", Ludwig "Louis", etc.) Since the 1990s, there has however been a trend of parents picking non-German forms of names, either for originality, or influenced by international celebrities, e.g. Liam (Gaelic form of William) rather than the German equivalent Wilhelm, Leon/Leonie, Kevin, Laura, etc.
Most surnames are derived either from occupations, or from geographical origin, less often from bodily attributes. They became heritable with the beginning of central demographic records in the early modern period.
The Vorname (in English forename) is usually given to a child by the parents shortly after birth. It is common to give a child several Vornamen (forenames), one of them intended for everyday use and known as the Rufname ("appellation name"). This Rufname is often underlined on official documents, as it is sometimes the second or third name in the sequence of given names on official record, even though it is the given name in daily use from childhood. For example, in the resume submitted by mathematician Emmy Noether to Erlangen University in 1907,
- Ich, Amalie Emmy Noether, bayerischer Staatsangehörigkeit und israelitischer Konfession, bin geboren zu Erlangen am 23. März 1882 ...
- "I, Amalie Emmy Noether, of Bavarian nationality and of Israelite confession, born in Erlangen on 23 March 1882 ..."
the underlining of Emmy communicates that this is the Rufname, even though it is the second of two official given names.
In Germany, the chosen name must be approved by the local Standesamt (civil registry office). The name must indicate the gender of the child and not negatively affect the well being of the child. Last names or the names of objects and products are not acceptable. For example, "Matti" was rejected for a boy's name because it did not indicate gender (however, these types of names are permissible if combined with a second name which clarifies the gender, for example: "Matti Oliver" or "Matti Julia").
Among German nobility, a fashion arose in the early modern period to give a large number of forenames, often six or more. This fashion was to some extent copied by the bourgeois class, but subsided again after the end of the 19th century, so that while two or three forenames remain common, a larger number is now rare. The practice persists among German nobility, e.g. Johann Friedrich Konrad Carl Eduard Horst Arnold Matthias, Prince of Saxe-Meiningen, Duke of Saxony (b. 1952), Ernst August Albert Paul Otto Rupprecht Oskar Berthold Friedrich-Ferdinand Christian-Ludwig, Prince of Hanover (b. 1954), Christian Heinrich Clemens Paul Frank Peter Welf Wilhelm-Ernst Friedrich Franz Prince of Hanover, Duke of Brunswick and Lüneburg (b. 1985).
Popular given names
Traditionally, there are dialectal differences between the regions of German-speaking Europe, especially visible in the forms of hypocorisms. These differences are still perceptible in the list of most popular names, even though they are marginalized by super-regional fashionable trends: As of 2012, the top ten given names of Baden-Württemberg (Southern Germany) and of Schleswig-Holstein (Northern Germany) share the entries Ben, Paul, Finn, Luca, Max (male), Mia, Emma, Lea, Leonie, Anna, Lena, Hanna, while Schleswig-Holstein retains the traditionally northern (Low German) forms Lasse (male) and Neele (female) in the top ten.
Most popular given names in Germany every ten years since 1890, and the most recent ranking:
Anna Martha / Marta Frieda / Frida Berta / Bertha Emma /Hailun Marie Maria Margarethe / Margarete Erna Elsa
Carl / Karl Wilhelm Otto Heinrich Friedrich Paul Hans Gustav Max Ernst
Anna Martha / Marta Frieda / Frida Emma Marie Elisabeth Maria Berta / Bertha Gertrud Margarethe / Margarete
Wilhelm Carl / Karl Heinrich Hermann Friedrich Paul Otto Ernst Hans Walter / Walther
Gertrud Erna Martha / Marta Hertha / Herta Margarethe / Margarete Anna Käthe Elisabeth Frieda / Frida Hildegard
Walter / Walther Carl / Karl Hans Wilhelm Otto Curt / Kurt Heinrich Hermann Paul Helmut / Helmuth
Ilse Hildegard Gertrud Irmgard Gerda Lieselotte Elfriede Ursula Edith Erna
Hans Carl / Karl Heinz Curt / Kurt Werner Walter / Walther Günter / Günther Herbert Helmut / Helmuth Gerhard
Ursula Helga Gisela Inge Gerda Ingrid Ingeborg Ilse Edith Hildegard
Günter / Günther Hans Carl / Karl Heinz Werner Gerhard Horst Helmut / Helmuth Walter / Walther Curt / Kurt
Karin Ingrid Helga Renate Elke Ursula Erika Christa Gisela Monika
Peter Klaus / Claus Hans Jürgen Dieter Günter / Günther Horst Manfred Uwe Wolfgang
Brigitte Renate Karin Angelika Monika Ursula Ingrid Marion Barbara Gisela
Peter Hans Wolfgang Klaus / Claus Manfred Jürgen Michael Bernd Werner Günter / Günther
Sabine Susanne Petra Birgit Gabriele Andrea Martina Ute Heike Angelika
Thomas Michael Andreas Peter Frank Uwe Klaus / Claus Stefan / Stephan Jürgen Jörg
Nicole Anja Claudia Stefanie / Stephanie Andrea Tanja Katrin / Catrin / Kathrin Susanne Petra Sabine
Stefan / Stephan Michael Andreas Thomas Frank Markus / Marcus Christian Oliver Matthias Torsten
Julia Katrin / Catrin / Kathrin Stefanie / Stephanie Melanie Sandra Anja Nicole Nadine Christina Sabrina
Christian Michael Sebastian Stefan / Stephan Jan Daniel Martin Dennis Alexander Thomas
Julia Sarah / Sara Jennifer Katharina Lisa Christina Jessika / Jessica Anna Laura Melanie
Jan Tobias Christian Alexander Daniel Patrick Dennis Sebastian Marcel Philipp
Anna Lea / Leah Sarah / Sara Hannah / Hanna Michelle Laura Lisa Lara Lena Julia
Lukas / Lucas Jan Tim Finn / Fynn Leon Niklas / Niclas Tom Jonas Jannik / Yannik / Yannick / Yannic Luca / Luka
Mia Hannah / Hanna Lena Lea / Leah Emma Anna Leonie / Leoni Lilli / Lilly / Lili Emily / Emilie Lina
Leon Lukas / Lucas Ben Finn / Fynn Jonas Paul Luis / Louis Maximilian Luca / Luka Felix
Mia Emma Hannah / Hanna Lea / Leah Sofia / Sophia Anna Lena Leonie / Leoni Lina Marie
Ben Luca / Luka Paul Lukas / Lucas Finn / Fynn Jonas Leon Luis / Louis Maximilian Felix
Family names (surnames; Nachname, Familienname) were gradually introduced in German-speaking Europe during the Late Middle Ages. Many of such surnames are derived from nicknames. They are generally classified into four groups by derivation: given names, job designations, bodily attributes, and toponyms (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, Fritz. With many of the early city records written in Latin, occasionally the Latin genitive singular -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 tenant, steward, sometimes also a bailiff), Schulze (constable), Fischer (fisherman), Schneider (tailor), Maurer (mason), Bauer (farmer), Metzger or Fleischer (butcher), Töpfer, Toepfer (potter) or Klingemann (weapons smith). 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 (big).
- 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) or Springborn (spring/well). 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).
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. Some times von is also used in geographical names that are not noble, as in von Däniken.
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).
The surnames of the German Jews are a special case, as they were introduced later, in the late 18th to early 19th century, per fiat. The Prussian authorities imposed made-up and sometimes derogatory names.
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 or Baltic "-kis" becoming "-ke"). 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 much like the German Markwart from which it was originally derived.
Traditionally, the wife adopts her husband's Nachname on marriage and drops her own. However, due to the legal equality of sexes, the opposite is possible as well, though rare.
A few examples of the practice under German law, if "Herr Schmidt" and "Frau Meyer" marry:
- They can keep their former Nachnamen. (Herr Schmidt and Frau Meyer). In the 1990s, the law was thusly changed. They can later change to variant 2, though the inverse is not possible.
- They can declare one name as a "marriage name" (Ehename). In doing so, they can either both adopt the husband's name, or both adopt the wife's name as an Ehename. (Herr Meyer and Frau Meyer; Herr Schmidt and Frau Schmidt)
- There is the possibility that one partner can combine both names by a hyphen. Thus, one of them then bears a double name (Doppelname). (Herr Schmidt and Frau Meyer-Schmidt (or Frau Schmidt-Meyer); the children have to be called Schmidt). Only one partner can take this option, making it impossible for both partners to have Doppelnamen (So no Herr Meyer-Schmidt and Frau Meyer-Schmidt)
All children of a family have to receive the same non-hyphenated Nachname at birth, which may be either the mother's or the father's Nachname (traditionally it was the father's). If the parents adopted an Ehename this is the Nachname of the child. It is strictly forbidden to give children Doppelnamen if it is not the Ehename. The latter case can arise with traditional aristocratic Doppelnamen (e.g. Faber-Castell).
In Austria (§ 93 ABGB), a couple can choose either of their surnames as married name. In the default case, this is the surname of the groom. The partner who is changing surnames (usually the bride) has the possibility to use their unmarried name alongside the married name with hyphenation.
In Switzerland (Art. 160 ZGB), the couple can opt to both retain their unmarried name, or the couple can choose to use either surname as their married name. If both retain their name, they need to declare which will be the surname of any future children.
Titles of former aristocrats (like Graf for "Count") have become parts of the Nachname in Germany, giving longer names of several words, usually including the nobiliary particle von (meaning "of") or zu (meaning "to", sometimes "at"), often von und zu are also found together (meaning "of and to/at"). The legal rules for these names are the same as those for other Nachnamen, which gives rise to a number of cases where people legally bear such names but are not recognized by the associations of formerly noble families in Germany, which continue to apply the old rules of the German Empire in their publications. Most of these cases come about when a woman of noble descent marries a man with no title, and the two adopt the woman's name as their common Nachname, which was impossible under imperial law.
In Austria, titles of nobility including certain other orders and honours held by Austrian citizens have since 3 April 1919 been abolished, including nobiliary particles such as von, the use of such titles by Austrian citizens is an offence punishable with a financial enforcement penalty. For example, Otto von Habsburg, Austria-Hungary's last crown prince, was referred to as Otto Habsburg(-Lothringen) in Austria. In Switzerland, where titles of nobility have been rare for several centuries, they can be used in private conversation, but are not officially recognised.
- Müller, Möller ("miller")
- Schmidt, Schmitt, Schmitz ("smith, blacksmith")
- Schneider ("tailor")
- Fischer ("fisherman")
- Meyer, Meier, Meir, Meyr, Mayer, Maier, Mair, Mayr ("tenant,steward,sometimes also a bailiff, NOT a mayor")
- Weber ("weaver")
- Wagner ("carter, cartwright")
- Becker, Bäcker ("baker")
- Schulz, Schulze, Schultze, Schulte ("constable")
- Hoffmann, Hofmann ("steward; tenant/leaseholder")
These are all occupational names, designating common occupations around 1600 when surnames became heritable, so that these names arose independently across Germany.
Gender-specific surname variants
Traditionally, there was a differentiation of surnames of women from those of their male siblings (as is still a rule in Czech, Eastern Slavic, or Polish female surnames), widespread in Germany until the 18th century. Thus, in old records, especially church registers on rites de passage, such as baptisms, deaths and marriages etc., women may appear bearing regionally typical female surname variants. With the establishment of general official registration of legal names, this practice was abolished in the 18th and the 19th centuries, depending on the legislation of the respective states.
Also, the spelling of given and surnames, varying previously from author to author, or even entry to entry, was then mostly fixed according to the official recorded form. Former noble titles appearing in male and female variants were transformed by the Weimar Constitution, article 109, into parts of the surnames in Germany, but a new tradition of gender-specific variants, for official registration, was established for these surnames. This practice was confirmed in a judgement by the Reichsgericht on 10 March 1926.
Colloquially, surname variants for women continue to appear in some German dialects. In Bavarian dialect surnames of women sometimes are formed by adding the ending "-in", used in standard High German to indicate noun variants for women or items of grammatical feminine gender, such as Näherin (seamstress), with Näher (seamster) being the male form. In West Low German parlance the ending "…sch(e)" is sometimes added to surnames of women, related to the standard High German adjective ending "…isch" (cognitive to English "…ish"), suffixed to nouns or adjectives indicating belonging / pertaining to, being of the kind described by the suffixed word: for example, de Smidtsche, is Ms Schmidt (Smith), but literally about the Smithian (the woman pertaining to a man/family named Schmidt).
Another form, indicating a female bearer of a surname, was the addition of a genitive "s" (like the Saxon genitive), the daughter or wife of Mr. Bäcker (literally Baker) would appear as Ms Bäckers (in German without an apostrophe), as being Bäcker's daughter or wife.
Pseudonyms can be used by artists (Künstlername, "artist's name") and members of religious orders (Ordensname); If a pseudonym is widely known in public it can be added to the passport of that person (under the weaker legal status of Künstlername) and be used instead of the original name in most situations. The same field in the passport also serves to show religious names, i.e. the new name somebody takes on when becoming a monk or nun.
Academic degrees and titles
The academic degree of Doktor (Dr.) and the academic title of Professor (Prof.) are not part of the name in Germany but can be entered into an identity card or passport and are frequently used in documents and addresses.
They are, however, always used in a written address (e.g., Dr. Meier, Prof. Dr. Müller), and will often be used in formal speech or sometimes by lower-ranked persons such as students, though many academics prefer being addressed just like anyone else, i.e. by Herr or Frau alone (see below).
Hofname (estate name)
In rural areas it is common that farmers are known by the traditional name of their Hof (farm or estate). Because of the long-standing tradition of impartible inheritance in German-speaking Europe, ownership of a Hof had often been tied to direct patrilineal descent over centuries. Thus, farmers were traditionally known by their Hofname even before the development of the Nachname in the early modern period, and the two systems came to overlap. Many Nachnamen are in fact derived from such Hofnamen, but in some instances, the Hofname tradition survived alongside the official Nachname
Historically, the Hofname was the first type of commoners' family name to become heritable. This process began still in the Late Middle Ages (14th to 15th century); e.g. Ulrich Zwingli (b. 1484) inherited his father's surname, in origin a Hofname (from the term Twing, denoting a type of walled-in estate) even though he did not inherit his estate.
In cases where Nachname and Hofname are not identical (usually because there was no male heir at some point in the family history) they are joined in official documents by genannt (abbr. gen.), e.g. Amann gen. Behmann. In Austria the term vulgo (abbr. vlg.) is used instead of genannt.
There are only four circumstances in which one is allowed to change one's name:
- 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 ("Mr. Schmid and Ms. Meier-Schmid" or "Mr. Schmid-Meier and Ms. Meier").
- 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. Example: "Maſs" became "Mahs" and is corrected to "Mass".
- Gender reassignment in case of transsexuals.
- Naturalisation of a foreigner in Germany (Art. 47 EGBGB). In this case, the person may choose to adopt German forms of his first and last name, or a new first name if the old first name cannot be translated into German.
Adding the Doktor (Ph.D.) degree (in Germany), or any other academic degree (in Austria), into one's identity card or passport is not considered a name change.
Order of names and use of articles
The Nachname is put after the Vorname. In the rural use of several regions where heavy dialect is spoken (i.e. Bavaria, Saxony, the Palatinate or the Saarland), the order is reversed, e.g. "der Mühlbach Klaus" instead of "Klaus Mühlbach". The definite article is always added in this style of naming. Especially in these regions, it is also the usual administrative way, but with a comma; the said person would appear in documents as "Mühlbach, Klaus" or even, with a title or profession "Mühlbach, Klaus, Dr./OLt/Bäcker".
Except for Southern Germany, usage of the definite article with the name outside of dialect is uncommon, and considered a mistake in Standard German. It is considered familiar language, but not as a mark of rough, rural manners as in French. It is used especially when talking of and/or with children, but also in some other situations. E.g., "Ich bin der Nils", or even "Ich gab der Eva eine Süßigkeit." Respectively, these sentences mean, "I am [the, masculine] Nils", and "I gave [to the, feminine] Eva a sweet." Once again, such usage varies and is optional, and is often used in clarification or in emphasis.
In Austria, the definite article is always used in informal spoken language, but most of the time not in very formal or written language.
In some dialects (such as those spoken in the Western Palatinate and parts of the Rhineland), the article used with women's and girls' names is not the feminine, but the neuter article. This is because the German word for "girl", Mädchen, is a neuter noun, due to the diminutive suffix -chen.
- Rechtstipps – der private Rechtsberater
- Erlangen University archive, Promotionsakt Emmy Noether (1907/08, NR. 2988); reproduced in: Emmy Noether, Gesammelte Abhandlungen – Collected Papers, ed. N. Jacobson 1983; online facsimile at physikerinnen.de/noetherlebenslauf.html.
- Israel, David K. (July 3, 2010). "Oh no, you can't name your baby THAT!". CNN. Retrieved August 9, 2012.
- "German First Names and Official Approval". About.com. Retrieved August 9, 2012.
- Babynamen 2012 in Baden-Württemberg, [Babynamen 2012 in Schleswig-Holstein] at beliebte-vornamen.de
- "Schwarzenegg - Google Maps". Maps.google.com. 1970-01-01. Retrieved 2013-04-22.
- 1787 in the Duchy of Austria, in Prussia beginning 1790, 1813 in Bavaria, 1828 in Württemberg, 1834 in Saxony, see Jewish surname.
- Das Namensrecht – Doppelname, Geburtsname, Familienname. Familienrecht-ratgeber.de. Retrieved on 2011-11-01.
- Das Bundesverfassungsgericht. Bundesverfassungsgericht.de. Retrieved on 2011-11-01.
- For example: Karl-Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg
- Nobiliary particles used by German nobility
- Adelsaufhebungsgesetz, Verwaltungsstrafbarkeit (Nobility Repeal Act, Administrative Offense).
- Cf Reichsgesetzblatt (Reich's law gazette), No. 113 (1926), pp. 107seqq.
- Cf. also Sebastian-Johannes von Spoenla-Metternich, Namenserwerb, Namensführung und Namensänderung unter Berücksichtigung von Namensbestandteilen, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, Europäischer Verlag der Wissenschaften, 1997, (=simultaneously: Wilhelmshaven, Fachhochsch., Diploma thesis), p. 137. ISBN 3-631-31779-4
- In a suit on a legal name change after a sex reassignment therapy the Bayerisches Oberstes Landesgericht (Bavarian Supreme Court) decided on 2 October 2002 that the register office (Standesamt) has to issue a birth certificate for a person of reassigned gender giving the gender-specific form of the variable surname part (deriving from the former title) according to the gender, which is now assigned to the person. Cf. Bayerisches Oberstes Landesgericht, Aktenzeichen: 1Z BR 98/02, Beschluß vom 2. Oktober 2002
- This usage of the possessive suffix "-isch(e)" then also caused its more general perception as feminine ending for professions, such as in "de Kööksch" (literally the "cookee"). Cf. Hein Timm, Wörterbuch Hochdeutsch-Plattdeutsch, Hamburg: Ernst Kabel, 1980, p. 54. ISBN 3-921909-35-X.
- Rechtsinformationen zu Künstlernamen
- 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
- German names
- Onomastik: Names and Name meanings The site has information on the etymology of German family names as well as a community section, where questions about names origins are discussed
- The Information Universe