10 Must-Knows to Decipher Your German Ancestor’s Name

Deciphering names in genealogical documents can be a bit of a challenge. After all, you can’t just look in the dictionary to see if your transcribed name is correct. Having a grasp on the German naming system, therefore, can be very helpful for your research. Remember these ten facts below, and understanding those German names will become much more simple!

  1. “in” on the end of a last name is usually just a grammatical marker, indicating that the person with that last name was a female. My last name, Schober, may have been written “Schoberin” on a church record or certificate. When I am translating from German to English, therefore, I simply leave off the “in” of the last name, as it is a mere suffix to show that I am a female.This record reads “Jgfr (Jungfrau – Miss) Johanne Friederike Caroline Probstin”. Her last name would actually be Probst.

2. A straight line over a letter in a name will usually mean that the letter below is an “n” or an “m”, and that it should be doubled. You may see this on names such as “Anna” and “Johann”, and in last names as well. The “n” in Johann has a line above it. This means it should be doubled, and written as  “Johann”.

3. Names were sometimes written in the “normal” Latin script (the script we use) instead of the old German handwriting. You may have a document that’s written entirely in the old German script, but with your ancestor’s name written in  a script that looks like our modern cursive. 

Here the name August is written in the normal Latin script – no “swoops” above the “u”, a regular cursive “s”, etc.

4. If you see a name underlined in your document, that means that this name was the Rufname, or the name your ancestor was called. Below, the child listed is “Johann Gottfried”. As “Gottfried” is underlined, this would have been the name his family called him.

5. In older documents, you may see the Latin suffix “us” on a male name: Jakobus, for example, instead of Jakob. This is the same name, so it is important to recognize both variations in your records.

6. If an older sibling died in childhood, their name may have been used for the next child born (assuming it was also a boy or a girl).

7. Children were often (but not always) named after their godparent or baptismal sponsor. If you can’t read the name in the child’s column, look to the godparent/sponsor column to: 1)See if it could be the same name, and 2) To see if that name is easier to read there.

8. “chen”, “lein”, “l”, “el”, “erl”  are diminutive suffixes in German (the final three are more common in Bavaria and Austria). A young Barbara, for example, may have been called “Bärbchen”. This would be the English equivalent of writing “Danny” for “Daniel.”

9. Spelling was not always the same from record to record. You may see the name Schmitt in one record, Schmidt in the next, and Schmid in the third. Knowing the different variations of names and spelling can be very helpful, as it allows you to broaden your search for your ancestor. See Think Like A German: Spelling Variations in German Documents for more information. 

10. If you aren’t sure if a first or last name exists, google “name guess + Vorname” or “name guess + Nachname) and see if any results come up. “Vorname” means “first name”, and “Nachname” means “last name”. This will show you if your transcription guess exists in German.

Above, I typed in “Kunigunde + Vorname” to see if Kunigunde is a name in German. Looks like it is! 

Now that you know some tips about the German naming system, it’s time to go out there and find the names of your ancestors. Enjoy filling in that family tree!

5 Websites to Verify Last Names in Genealogy (PREMIUM)

Geogen            Last names can be difficult to decipher, as you cannot look them up in a dictionary to see if your transcription guess is correct. Fortunately for us, however, there are some great websites that can help us to verify these tricky handwritten words in our genealogy documents. Simply make use of these sites … Continue reading 5 Websites to Verify Last Names in Genealogy (PREMIUM)

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What’s in a Name?: 10 Popular Boys’ and Girls’ Names in German Genealogy (with handwritten examples!)

Image result for name quotes

Names, along with dates, are a genealogist’s treasure.  Yes, they are the key to filling in our family trees, but they are also much more than that. Names are windows to the past, providing us with hints of the person our ancestor could have been, offering us a small glimpse into his or her life. But alas, as with many things in German genealogy, these names are often written in the old German script – and thus hard to decipher.

In cases like these, it often helps to be familiar with what kind of names you may come across. Our German ancestors weren’t always the most creative in naming their children – names were supposed to have meaning, after all – and thus the same names tend to pop up again and again in German genealogical documents. If you are familiar with what these common names are, deciphering your ancestor’s name becomes that much easier. Below, I’ve compiled tables for you of the ten most common boys’ names and ten most common girls’ names in German genealogy (in my translating experience).  I’ve also included real-life samples of how these names could look – but remember, everyone’s handwriting was different, so your ancestor’s name may be a slight variation on the name provided below. And finally, make sure to read to the bottom for three more tips about names!

Boys’ Names

Girls’ Names

Three More Tips

  1. Names were sometimes written in the “normal” Latin script (the script we use) instead of the old German handwriting. You may have a document that’s written entirely in the old German script, but with your ancestor’s name written in  a script that looks like our modern cursive. In that case, deciphering it should be no problem – as long as you’re older than ten years old (I’ve heard they’ve stopped teaching cursive in schools! Will our cursive become a thing of the past as well?)  
  2. If you see a name underlined in your document, that means that this name was the Rufname, or the name your ancestor was called. Below, the child listed is “Johann Gottfried”. As “Gottfried” is underlined, this would have been the name his family called him.
  3. If there is a straight line above an “n” or an “m”, this means that you should double that letter. For example, the name below is written “Johan Gottfried”, with a straight line above the “n”. Since the straight line means that you should double the “n”, the name is therefore “Johann Gottfried.” 

Do you have a favorite name in German genealogy? I’d love to here. Let us know in the comments below.

Think Like a German: Spelling Variations in Genealogy Documents

Author’s Note: If you are interested in more tricks for deciphering the old German script in your genealogy documents, check out my new book on the topic, Tips and Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting!

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:

  •  verheirathet (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