GermanNames Shareware

Surname Search Strategies


When starting to research a surname it is important to determine what the original spelling might have been in Germany. Many immigrants, or descendants of immigrants, change the spelling of their surname in their new country. This can be for reasons of pronounciation so that the name will pronounced correctly when read in the new language, or because of the presence of umlauts in the original spelling, or just simplification of the name. Some names get anglicized or even translated into the new language. Additionally, if the immigrant was illiterate the spelling adopted by later generations may just be how the local residents thought it should be spelled based on the pronunciation. All of this can lead to a surname that is quite different from the original German name.

The best way to start to determine the original spelling of a surname is to go to the earliest records that exist for an immigrant. These may be the closest to the original spelling, especially if it is a signature from the immigrant himself (or herself).

If the surname does not currently "sound" German, check for such changes as translation - Zimmerman to Carpenter, Weber to Weaver, Schneider to Taylor, Schmidt (Schmeid) to Smith, etc. These changes are very common, and are frequently seen in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania where I live.

Other changes to watch out for are letter substitutions. Examples of sets of interchangeable letters include D and T, G and K, J and Y, V and F, V and W, B and P, P and F. Vowels are also sometimes changed in various ways, such as a to e, e to i, o to u, etc. The ending of words are also sometimes changed, for example -bach vs. -back and -el vs. -le. Also, single letters and double letters may both be found: Schmit vs. Schmitt, Koler vs. Koller, etc.

In many cases there are a variety of spellings for a surname in Germany. Some of this variation is found in certain regions, while in other cases the pattern seems more random. Knowledge of these patterns can potentially help to find the correct part of Germany in which to look for you ancestor's place of origin.

Some specific examples of spelling variation and letter changes are given below, with counts of the number of current telephone listings for each:

Changes in consonants:
Changes in endings: Changes in vowel: