German Language Insight for Genealogists

While learning German is obviously not required for German genealogy research, it often helps to have at least a bit of understanding of the language when looking for your ancestors.  In addition to being able to recognize the most important genealogy words in German records, knowing a little about how the German language works can help you to narrow down what documents you think are important for your genealogy research. Below, I have summarized some of the most basic facts about the German language, in the hopes that this may give you a bit of a leg up when looking at your German documents.

1. All nouns are capitalized.

In the German language, all nouns (persons, places and things) are capitalized, no matter if it is a “proper noun” or not. For example, the word birth (Geburt) is capitalized in German, as is the word child (Kind). So if you see a capital letter, you now know that it does not necessarily mean that the word is a name – it’s likely just a noun.

The word Geburt (birth) is written with a capital “G”.

2. German has many different words for the word the.

 

Crazy, right? Depending if the word is the subject (Nom), direct object (Akk), indirect object (Dat), or possessive (Gen)*, the German word for the changes. No need to worry about what these grammatical terms mean for this article (unless you are a grammar nerd like myself – in that case, see below), but if you see any of the words above, you will know they all mean the. 

3. Lowercase words starting with ge- are likely past tense words.

The German past tense is formed with either  haben/sein (to have or to be – see how they conjugate below) + the past tense of the verb, which is usually formed with ge-. For example, the German word for to eat is essen. To say I ate, you would say Ich habe gegessen. The German word for to drive is fahren. To say I drove, you  would say Ich bin gefahren. 

Some verbs use a “t” form in their past tense instead of the “-en” ending. For instance, the word for to play is spielen in German, with the past tense (I played) written as Ich habe gespieltWhile getting into all the rules of the past tense here would take a bit too long, the important idea to take away is that if you see haben or sein plus ge-verb, the sentence is likely in past tense.

4. Umlauts can also be written out with an “e” after the vowel. 

Most German writers do use the umlaut (ä, ö or ü), but in some texts, you will see this sound written as ae, oe and ue instead. In genealogy, this is especially relevant for the spelling of certain last names. For instance, the last name Mueller is spelled M-u-e-l-l-e-r in America, but our German ancestors spelled it M-ü-l-l-e-r. The ü changed to a ue in English spelling. 

5. German loves compound words.

The German language consists of many compound words, or two words combined together to form one. How does this help you? Well, if you come across a word and can’t find it in your dictionary, try looking up the two parts of the word individually. This should then help you to form a better idea of what the author could have meant. 

Some fun examples of German compound words include:

6. Sometimes the verb is written at the very end of the sentence. 

While many German sentences do use Subject-Verb-Object word order (just like we do in English: “I ate the burger”, in which the verb, ate, comes right after the subject, I), sometimes German puts the verb at the very end of a sentence or phrase. Why would they do such a crazy thing, you ask? Well, if the sentence includes a certain type of word (a subordinating conjunction*, to be exact), such as weil (because)dass (that), ob (whether), während (during), etc., this is a signal for the verb to move to the end of a sentence, as it cannot be directly after the subject when one of these words are present. So if you don’t see the verb after the subject, keep reading, and it may be the very last word in the sentence. See this article on German word order for more information: https://www.fluentu.com/blog/german/learn-german-word-order/.

Mark Twain explains this crazy grammar best in his article “The Awful German Language“: 

“An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech — not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary — six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each inclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses which reinclose three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens within pens: finally, all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it — after which comes the VERB, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the verb — merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out — the writer shovels in “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein,” or words to that effect, and the monument is finished. I suppose that this closing hurrah is in the nature of the flourish to a man’s signature — not necessary, but pretty. German books are easy enough to read when you hold them before the looking-glass or stand on your head — so as to reverse the construction — but I think that to learn to read and understand a German newspaper is a thing which must always remain an impossibility to a foreigner.”

You can see what Mark Twain means in this newspaper article I had the pleasure of translating below. The subject of the sentence, Termin (appointment), is in the second line, while the verb festgesetzt (was set) doesn’t appear until 9 lines later! So if you can’t find the verb in your document, don’t give up – just read on for a few more hours and it may eventually appear. 

While there are of course many more intricacies to the German language, it is my hope that these basic tips will give you a bit more of an idea of how German works. The German language is at times fascinating, at times entertaining, and yes, as Mark Twain put it, at times awful  – but overall, it is a great language to know, especially if you’re researching your German genealogy. Until next time, auf Wiedersehen (which happens to be another great compound word: wieder means again, sehen means to see)!

Image Credit: www.itchyfeetcomic.com

* Cases in German, explained with English examples:

Example Sentence: The girl threw me the ball. 

Nominative case is the subject, which answers the question “who is doing the action?”.  

Who threw the ball? The girl. Girl is therefore the subject of the sentence.

Accusative case is the direct object, which answers the question “who or what after the verb?”. The girl threw what? The ball. Ball is therefore the direct object of the sentence and in the accusative case.

Dative case is the indirect object, which answers the question “to whom or for whom after the verb?”.

The girl threw the ball to whom? To me. Me is therefore the indirect object of the sentence and in the dative case.

Genitive case in German is the possessive case, expressed as “The sister of my father….” 

Of my father would be in the genitive case in German.

*Subordinating conjunction: http://grammar.yourdictionary.com/parts-of-speech/conjunctions/subordinating-conjunctions.html

Think Like a German: Spelling Variations in Genealogy Documents

You have your German genealogy document. You are feeling relatively confident with the handwriting. But those letters just don’t seem to be forming any word you can find in the dictionary. What could be going on?

As German spelling was not standardized until the end of the 19th century, the spelling of words in handwritten documents can often be rather “creative”, to say the least. In these types of situations, the trick to deciphering the handwriting is: Think like a German! (*For a simple chart of spelling variations, see the end of the article*). 

What does it mean to think like a German, you ask? Well, in the German language, even today, many certain letters sound the same to German speakers. Case in point: I was once in a book shop in Austria, and had placed an order for a book. The bookseller asked for my last name, upon which I replied with my maiden name, Portnoy. He looked at me and said, “Now, would that be with a hard P or a soft B?” Confused, I replied, “It’s just a P. You know, Puh, Puh!” 

Upon further inquiry, I found out that the Germans have a hard time telling the difference between their spoken P and B. They have therefore applied adjectives (hard and soft) to the letters to clarify which consonant they mean. For Americans, P and B are very distinct (although they are made at the same place in our mouth), but for Germans, they need that extra description to be sure which letter is meant. And this leads to the fact that many German writers of the past misspelled P words with B’s and vice versa.

K and G: For any linguists out there, you may now be recognizing a pattern. Just as B and P are spoken at the same place in our mouths, K and G are also formed in the same part of the mouth as one another (what differentiates these letters from each other is that the B and G are voiced, meaning our vocal cords vibrate when we make these sounds, while the P and the K are voiceless, with no vocal cord vibration). Again, English speakers make a bigger distinction between these sounds than German does, which means that our German ancestors often mixed up the K and the G in writing (in very creative cases, a K or a G may also have been used for a CH). 

T and D:  Just as  the above letter pairs, the only distinction between these letters is whether the vocal cords vibrate or not, meaning that there is not a big difference in these sounds for German speakers. So if a word is not making any sense and you can’t find it in a dictionary, try replacing the T with a D or vice-versa.

F and V: In German, the letter V sounds like the F sound, meaning many German speakers often mixed up the two letters. Case in point: I once translated a letter from a German person living in America, written in German. The author was describing his occupation, and wrote the word “Varmer.” After puzzling what this random German word could be, I then realized that the author meant “farmer” in English, but had misspelled it with a V.

C and K: C is not a very common letter in German today, but in some words of the past, they did use a C where a K would be written today.

Extra H’s: You will often see many words in old German documents that have an H included where no H would be written today. Some examples include:

  •  verheirthat (verheiratet) – married
  • thun (tun) – to do
  • Thräne (Träne) – tears
  • Monath (Monat) – month

For further examples, see here: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deutsche_Rechtschreibung_im_sp%C3%A4ten_19._Jahrhundert

Umlauts: Most German writers did use the umlaut (two dots above A, O, and U) but some preferred to write this sound as AE, OE, and UE.  You can see this in the spelling of certain last names today. For instance, my German ancestors’ last name was “Müller”, but our family spells the name “Mueller” today. So if your ancestor wrote a word with “ae”, but you can’t find it in the dictionary, try typing “ä”.

 

EI and EY: Some words spelled with EI today were spelled with EY in the past (with two dots over the Y). Examples:

  • bey (bei) – preposition meaning many different things, depending on the context (http://dict.leo.org/englisch-deutsch/bei)
  • seyn (sein) – to be
  • Freytag (Freitag) – Friday

EU and EI: Depending on the region of Germany, Austria or Switzerland, some authors may have pronounced EU words (normally pronounced as the OY in boy) as EI (like the I in bike). Some examples:

  • eich (euch) – you all
  • Freind (Freund) – friend

ß and S: ß (Eszett, or sharp S, pronounced as S) is still used in German today, although the rules on when to use it have changed. This means that you may often see ß in words where an S or two S’s would be used in German today.

I and IE: In the past, German writers often substituted an IE for what would only be an I today. Example:

  • giebt (gibt) – to give (or Es giebt/Es gibt – There is…)

I and J: If you go centuries back into the past, you may see some words written with a J today that were written with an I back then. One example is:

  • Iahr (Jahr) – year

While there are many more spelling variations, these are some of the most common ones. So if your word is not appearing in any online dictionary, try substituting its German equivalent, and see what you can find! And if you don’t want to puzzle through the mysteries of German spelling, you can always contact me here for translation help. 

German Spelling Variations

Letter One (These Were Interchanged With One Another) Letter Two (These Were Interchanged With One Another)
b p
k g
t d
f v
The Below Letters Are the Standard Spelling Today: The Below Letters Were Used More Often in the Past (as substitutes for left column):
k c
no h additional h
ä, ö, ü ae, oe, ue
ei ey
eu ei
s/ss ß (also used in standard spelling, although not as often)
i ie
j i