Saturday, 23 January 2016

What's in a name?

Many researchers become frustrated when looking for records pertaining to their German ancestors. Why were there so many different ways that their names were written? Were they illiterate?

Today with names recorded in telephone directories, electoral rolls and the like, “correct spelling” of names is very important to us. However, historically, this has not always been the case. In previous centuries, especially in Germany, the sound of a name was far more important than its spelling. Consequently, spellings varied over the years and it is not unusual to find the same surname spelled several ways in the old German church registers.


With all of this in mind, what might have happened to the name of a German who migrated to Australia? Some German names might be accidentally or deliberately spelled differently in Australia based on the sound of the name. For example, Vogel might become Fogle, or Wahry might become Vahry. In German ‘ie’ is pronounced to rhyme with the English ‘see’ so could easily be replaced by ‘ei’ or ‘ee’ in English. Similarly, the German ‘ei’ is pronounced to rhyme with the English ‘sigh’ so could easily be replaced by ‘ie’ in English.

In earlier days, the sound of a name might be more important than its spelling. Thus one name was spelled Karaś in Polish and Karrasch in German – the sound was the same but the spelling was different.

However many names kept the German spelling at the expense (sometimes over time) of having the sound of the name change.

Some German names contained the umlauted letters ä, ö and ü. The two dots over the letter are the vestige of an e that used to be written over the letter, and the letters may be replaced by ae, oe and ue respectively. Some names containing these letters continued to be written that way, but since non-German speaking officials generally had no knowledge of such letters, the names would usually end up being written without the dots – thus Schäfer became Schafer, Schröder became Schroder, and Müller became Muller. Others replaced the letters with their equivalents – thus Schäfer became Schaefer, Schröder became Schroeder, and Müller became Mueller.

Some German names, based on an occupation or a characteristic, were simply translated into an English equivalent. Examples of this could be:
Klein – Small
König – King
Müller – Miller
Schneider – Taylor
Schwarz – Black
Zimmermann – Carpenter
Sometimes a letter or two might be changed or omitted to make a German name appear less obviously German – Brohmann, for instance, became Brohman. Many names were changed in such ways during World War 1.

A good source for the meanings and origins of German names is Deutsches Namenlexikon by Hans Bahlow and translated by Edda Gentry into English as Dictionary of German names. However this work covers only names from the traditional German areas. 

For those of us with family origins in the former eastern territories, Pommersche Familiennamen: ihr Geschichts- und Heimatwert also by Hans Bahlow (only in German) is a worthwhile reference.

Given names

Sometimes tracking your German family can be frustrating because of changing names in Australian documents. Why would someone who is referred to as Pauline on one document appear as Annie on another? Why should Johann Philipp suddenly become Philipp Johann? And why was Wilhelmine sometimes Wilhelmina – didn’t she know how to spell her name?

Some of this confusion can be explained when we understand that many 19th century Germans had two or three (or more) given names, and that they were known by other than the first of those names. In some German birth records, the name by which the person was to be known was underlined. This was the Rufname, or the called name. For example, one family had sons named Johann Philipp, Johannes, Johann Heinrich, Johann Franz and Johann Georg. They were known as Philipp, Johannes, Heinrich, Franz and Georg. Imagine what might have occurred when an official unfamiliar with German naming customs recorded Philipp’s details. “Your name?” “Philipp.” “Have you another name?” “Johann”. So it should not be a surprise to find Johann Philipp recorded as Philipp Johann, or Anne Pauline recorded as Pauline Annie.

In German, an “e” at the end of a name is almost always pronounced, so that there is not much difference in the pronunciation of Wilhelmine and Wilhelmina for example, especially to ears not used to German pronunciation.
As in English, German names may have diminutives: Friedrich could become Fritz (Freddie), Johann could become Hans (Johnnie or Jack), Wilhelmine or Wilhelmina could become Minnie, and Anne or Anna could become Annie.

Many given names in German have equivalents in English so it is understandable that Georg became George, Friedrich became Frederick, Heinrich became Henry, Franz became Frank, Wilhelm became William, Gertraut became Gertrude and so on.

As well, some people might adopt an English name where there was no obvious equivalent. Gustav Kopittke appeared as George in some Post Office Directories.

Things to note

  1. Many 19th century Germans had multiple given names and may have been known by the second or third name, the Rufname.
  2. The spelling of German surnames was sometimes changed. Keep an open mind when researching.
  3. German names might be translated. Many given names have English equivalents, and surnames based on occupations or characteristics could easily be changed to English ones.
  4. A good source for the meanings and origins of German names is Deutsches Namenlexikon by Hans Bahlow and translated by Edda Gentry into English as Dictionary of German names.
  5. For names from the former eastern territories, Pommersche Familiennamen: ihr Geschichts- und Heimatwert also by Hans Bahlow (only in German) is a worthwhile reference.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Birth, marriage and death certificates from Germany

Commonly, family historians commencing research into their German ancestors, want to obtain the relevant birth, marriage or death certificates. In Germany, such certificates are issued by the civil registry office (the Standesamt) from the area in which the event occurred. Each locality in Germany belongs to a specified Standesamt. In some cases, a number of smaller villages may belong to a Standesamt in a neighbouring town. In larger towns and cities, however, there may be multiple Standesämter each of which is responsible for a district of the town or city. Over the years, with the movement of people and the growth of some population centres and the decline of others, adjustments have been made to the location and jurisdictions of the Standesämter. Using the word Standesamt along with the name of the village or town in a search engine will usually find the address of the current Standesamt.
A search for the words 'Standesamt' and 'Bornstein' provides a link to the relevant Standesamt

The link leads to a page giving the location of the Standesamt in the neighbouring town of Gettorf

Some things to note:
  1. Concern in Germany (and in many other countries) over privacy and identity fraud restricts the issue of 'recent' certificates – for births less than 110 years ago, marriages less than 80 years ago and deaths less than 30 years ago – to the subject of the certificate and his/her children and parents. To obtain such a certificate would require the production of some form of proof of identity.
  2. In some cases, older registers have been transferred from the Standesamt to the local civil or state archive. A query to the Standesamt should reveal how to access such registers.
  3. Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths commenced at different time in different parts of Germany. Civil registration was introduced by the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic forces as they conquered the German states. After the defeat of the French, many of the German states did not continue with the system although copies (duplicates) of the church registers were often used instead. Civil registration commenced as early as 1792 in the western states of Baden, Alsace, Lorraine, and Rhineland, but it was not until 1 October 1874 that civil registration commenced in most of Prussia, and 1876 for areas such as Bavaria and Mecklenburg. Church records provide a good substitute in the years before civil registration.
More specific information and examples of German civil certificates of birth, marriage and death can be found in Researching in German Civil and Church Records published by Unlock the Past and available from Gould Genealogy & History.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Is German family history too difficult?

Many people in Australia have ancestral roots from Germany and the surrounding areas that were once in the German Empire. Some family historians baulk at researching those ancestors, believing that it's all too difficult or that the records have all been lost.

Although some records were destroyed during and after World War Two, the majority of records still exist and it is often possible to trace families back to the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries through civil records of birth, marriage and death, and church records of baptism, marriage and burial.

Researching church registers at Eckernförde, Schleswig-Holstein