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German Naming Patterns

Originally posted in ROOTS-L by on Mar 25, 1998.

From: ayoachim@thecni.com (Avril Yoachim)

I noticed some queries on German surnames and in my travels of library material I found a good source explaining how and why our German surnames may have been changed. I have posted this to Penna-Dutch list, but thought it may be helpful to some people on this list as well..... "Pennsylvania-German Family Names" Appendix from The German and Swiss Settlements of Colonial Pennsylvania, a study of the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch by Oscar Kuhns, 1971.

A knowledge of family names is often of great value for the genealogist and even for the historian. This is especially true when, owing to change in environment, such names have under-gone great variations of form. For this reason a brief outline of the subject is given here, so far as it concerns the group of people discussed in this book. Pennsylvania-German family names, like all other German names, may be divided into three distinct classes: first, those derived from personal names; second, those derived from occupation; and third, those derived from the place where the individual lived (including house-signs) or whence he came. In this last class may likewise be properly included nicknames, or those due to personal peculiarities, physical or mental.


are by far the oldest, often running back to the early centuries of the Christian era, and in every case are of noble and dignified meaning, in which the old German love for war, belief in the northern mythology, and ideals of life, are clearly seen.

These personal names exist today in Pennsylvania, some of them but little changed; such are Albrecht = of distinguished race (P.G. Albright); Arnwald = one who rules as the eagle; Bernhard = strong as a bear; Conrad = bold in council; Dietrich = ruler of people; Eberhart = strong as a boar; Eckert = strong sword; Garman = spearman; Gebhard = generous giver (P.G. Kephart); Gerhard = strong spear; Gottschalk = servant of God; Hartman = strong man; Heidrich = of noble rank; Hildebrandt - battle-sword; Hubert = bright of intellect; Irmintraut = friend of the Walkyrie Thrudr (P.G. Ermentrout); Luhr = war-people; Reinhard = strong in counsel; Reinhold = ruler of council; Trautman = follower of the Walkyrie Thrudr.

In most cases, however, these double-stem names were shortened by dropping the second stem, whence such names as Kuhn (from Kunrat), Hein (from Heinrich), Ott (from Ottmann), Traut (from Trautmann), Bar, Barr (from Berhard). To these stems diminutive suffixes were added; thus from i we have the forms Burki (from Burkhard), Ebi (from Ebarhard), Egli (from Agilbrecht), Hagi (from Haginbert), Lichti (from Ludger: P.G. Light), Staheli (from Stahal), Welti (from Walther), Geissle (from Gisalhart): P.G. Yeissley); from izo we get Boss and Butz (from Bodomar), Dietz (from Dietrich), Fritz and Fritschi (from Friedrich: cf. Barbara Frietchie), Heintz (from Heinrich), Kuntz (from Kunrat: P.G. Koons and Kuhns), Landis, Lentz, and Lantz (from Landfrid), Lutz (from Ludwig), Seitz (from Siegfrid: P.G. Sides), Tietz (from Dietrich), Waltz (from Walther), from iko we get Frick (from Friedrich), Illig and the genitive Hilleges (from Hildebrand), Kundig (from Gundobert), Leidig (from Luithart); from ilo we get Ebli and Eberli (from Ebarhard), Bechtel (from Berchtold), Bickel (from Botger), Diehl (from Dietrich), Hirzel (from Hiruzleip: P.G. Hartzell), Hubeli (from Hugubert), Markel and Markli (from Markwald, Meili (from Maganhard), Nageli (from Nagalrich, Rubli (from Hrodebert = Robert), Schnabeli (from root Sneo = snow: P.G. Snavely); from “z” plus “l” we Kunzel (from Kunrat), Reitel (from Ricohard = Richard), and Tietzel (from Dietrich).

From all the above forms patronymics in “mann”, “inger”, and “ler” are formed: Bausman, Beidleman, Denlinger, Dietzinger, Gehringer, Grissinger, Heinzelman, Hirzler, Hollinger.

In addition to the purely German personal names we have also many names taken from Biblical characters and from the lives of saints: Bartel (from Bartholomaeus), Klause (Nicholas), Martin, Theiss, and Theissen (Matthias), Peters, Hensel (Johannes), Jaggi and Jackli (Jacobus: P.G. Yeagy and Yackley), Jorg, Jorges (George : P.G. Yerrick and Yerkes), Brosius (Ambrosius), Bastian (Sebastian), Flory (Florus), Johst (Justus : P.G. Yost).


family names are derived from the occupation of the individual; among the best known are becker (baker), Baumgartner (orchard-grower), Brenneisen (blacksmith), Brunner (well-digger), Dreher, Trachsel, Trechsler (turner), Fischer, Gerber (tanner, currier: P.G. Garver), Glockner (bell-ringer: P.G. Klackner), Heilman (doctor), Huber (one who owns a hube = small farm), Jager (hunter), Karcher (carter), Kohler, Koehler (coal-burner: P.G. Kaler, Cayler), Kaufman (merchant), Kufer, Kufner (cooper), Kuster (sexton), Maurer (mason), Metzger (butcher), Lehmann (one under feudal tenure), Leineweber (linen- weaver), Mueller, Probst (provost), Reifschneider, Riemenscheider (harness- maker), Sauter, Suter (shoemaker), Schaffner (steward), Schenck (cup-bearer), Scherer (barber), Schlegel (one who hammers), Schmidt (smith), Schneider (tailor), Schreiber (writer), Schreiner (joiner), Schutz (shooter, archer : P.G. Sheets), Schultz (mayor), Siegrist (sexton), Spengler (tin- smith), Steinmetz (stone-cutter), Txchudi (judge : Swiss), Vogt (bailiff), Wagner (wagoner), Wannemaker (basket-maker), Weber (weaver), Wirtz (landlord), Widmeyer Widmer (one who has land from church or monastery), Ziegler (brick-maker), Zimmerman (carpenter).

For the meaning of German names see Heintze, Die Deutschen Familiennamen; Tobler-Meyer, Deutsche Familiennamen (Swiss); Steub, Oberdeutsche Familiennamen. In the above list of names, P.G. = Pennsylvania German.


comprises those which denote the place where one lives or whence one comes; such are Algauer (from the Allgau in Switzerland), Amweg (beside the road), Amend (at end of village), Bach, Bacher, Bachman (who live near a book), Berner (from Berne, Switz.), Basler (from Basel), Berger (lives on mountain), Beyer (a Bavarian), Biemensdorfer, Blickensdorfer (from village in Canton Zurich), Boehm (a Bohemian), Brechbuhl (unploughed hill: P.G. Brightbill, Brackbill), Breitenbach (village in Solothurn, Switz.), Brubacher (village in Zurich), Buttigkoffer (from village Buttikofen, Berne), Detweiler (village in Canton Zurich), Diefenbach (Tiefenbach, in Canton Uri, Switz.), Diffendorfer (from Tiefendorf), Fluckiger (village in Canton Berne), Fahrni (village in Berne), Frick (in Aargau, Switz.), Haldi, Haldeman (from Halden, common name for village in Switzerland), Hofstetter (name of several villages in Zurich, St. Gall, and Berne), Eschelman (from Aeschi, village in Canton Berne), Imgrund (in hollow land), Imboden (in bottom-lands), Imhof (in farm-yard), Kollicker (village in Aargau), Longenecker (village in Berne), Mellinger (village in Aargau), Neuenschwander (village in Berne), Oberholtzer (several villages in Berne), Ruegsegger (Berne: P.G. Ricksecker), Schollenberger (castle and village, Zurich, Schwab (a Swabian : P.G.Swope), Urner (from Canton Uri), Zug (Canton Zug), Zurcher (from Zurich).

During the Middle Ages the houses were not numbered as now, but had signed painted on them, something after the manner of hotels at the present time. From theses many names were derived: Bar (bear), Baum (tree), Bieber (beaver), Bischof (bishop), Engel (angel), Fasnacht (Shrove-Tuesday), Faust (fist), Fuches (fox), Funfrock (five-coats), Haas (hare), Hahn (rooster), Helm (helmet), Hertzog (duke: P.G. Hartsook), Holtzapfel (wild-apple), Kalb (calf: P.G. Kulp, Culp), Kaiser (emporer), Konig (king), Krebs (crab), Munch (monk), Oechsli (little ox : P.G. Exley), Pfaff (priest), Ritter (knight), Vogel (bird), Voegli (little bird: P.G. Feagley), Wurfel (die, cube), Wolf. Finally we have names given from personal peculiarities. Such are Braun, Durr (dry, thin), Frohlich (cheerful : P.G. Frailey), Frei (free), Freytag (Friday), Gut (good), Hubschmann (handsome), Hoch (tall), Jung (young), Kahl (bald), Klein (small), Kleindienst (small service), Krause (curly), Krumbein (crooked legs), Kurtz (short), Lang (long), Lebengut (good-liver: P.G. Livingood), Rau, Rauch (rough), Reich (rich), Roth (red), Rothrock (red-coat), Rothaermel (red- sleeve), Schwartz (black), Seltenreich (seldom rich), Weiss (white).

Such were some of the names brought by the Pennsylvania Germans from the Palatinate and Switzerland to the New World. It was but natural that these names should undergo certain changes in their new environments - changes which took place from the very beginning.

An interesting illustration of the way in which many names received an English form is seen in the Pennsylvania Archives, Second Series, vol. xvii., which contains a list of the German and Swiss settlers in Pennsylvania during the eighteenth century, the names of the vessels in which they came, and the dates of their naturalization. Often there are two lists given, one called the original list, which apparently was made by an English-speaking person, who took down the names as they were given to him orally, and who spelt them phonetically. These duplicate lists throw a great deal of light on the pronunciation of the names by the immigrants themselves. We find the same person's name spelled Kuntz and Coones, Kuhle and Keeley, Huber and Huffer, Gaul and Kool, Vogelin and Fagley, Krautz and Grauce, Froehlich and Frailick. Often there are some marvellous examples of phonetic spelling. Thus, Albrecht Graff is written Albrake Grove, Georg Heinrich Mertz is called Jurig Henrich March, and George Born is metamorphosed into Yerrick Burry. Thus even before the immigrant landed the impulse toward a change of name was given.

Sometimes the change was gradual, and we may trace many intermediate steps between the original name and its present form. Thus, for Krehbiel we have Krehbill, Grebill, Grabill, and finally Graybill. So Krumbein gives us Krumbine, Grumbein, and Grumbine, and Kuehbortz gives Kieportz and Keeports. Often members of the same family spelled their names differently. In Lancaster there once lived two bothers, one name Carpenter, the other Zimmermann, and we are told by Francis Lieber (The Stranger in America), that one family in Pennsylvania had the three forms, - Klein, Small and Little.

In some cases the changes were slight, owing to the similarity between the English and the German, as in Baker (Becker), Miller (Mueller), Brown (Braun), Weaver (Weber), Beaver (Bieber), Pepper (Pfeffer); of course Schmidt became almost at once Smith. In other cases the differences are so great that it is difficult to discover the original German form, and it is only by searching public documents and church records that the truth is found. Who, for instance, could see any connection between Seldomridge and Seltenreich, or between Rhoades and Roth? Yet nothing is surer than that in many cases these names are one and the same. It is undoubtedly true that most Pennsylvania Germans of modern times have no conception of the changes that have taken place. The remark of a farmer who spelled his name Minich (with the guttural pronounced), Oh, that Minnick is an Irishman; he spells his name with a k, illustrates the ignorance of the people in regard to their own names; for Minich and Minnick both come from the original Muench.

In the present discussion we must bear in mind that we are speaking of the names of those Germans who came to America before the Revolution, and who were subject to an entirely different set of influences from the German of recent times, who changes his name consciously and according to forces with which they had little to do. The difference between the two is like that between the mots savants and the mots populaires of French philology.

These German names almost all came from the Palatinate and Switzerland. Even to-day we can trace the Swiss origin of many, as, for instance, Urner (from Uri), Johns (Tschantz), Neagley (Naegeli), Bossler (Baseler). Some are of French Huguenot origin, which by combined German and English influence have often received a not very elegant or euphonious form: examples are Lemon (Le Mon), Bushong (Beauchamp), and Shunk (Jean); the original Fierre was changed to German Faehre, and later became anglicized into Ferree.

The number of different ways of spelling even the simplest names is often surprisingly large: thus, for the original Graf we find to-day Graaf, Graff, Groff, Groft, Graft, and Grove. So Baer gives us Bear, Bare, Bair.

Of course the vagaries of English orthography are largely responsible for this. An interesting fact to note in this connection is the difference yet to be seen between the some names in town and country. The farmers of Pennsylvania are a conservative people, and even to-day, after nearly two hundred years of settlement in America, the people still speak their dialect. Naturally, the cities were most subject to English influence, and it is there that we find the greatest changes in names. Take as an example of this the name of Kuntz (with the later forms of Kuhns and Koons) in the town and environs of Allentown. In the town proper there are recorded in the directory twenty-two Koonses, twelve Kuntzes, and fourteen Kuhnses; while in the smaller villages around Allentown we find sixty-two Kuhnses, a few Kuntzes, and no Koonses.

Some of these names may come from homonymous places in the Palatinate; almost all the Lancaster County family-names, however, which are derived from places, are of Swiss origin.

The author has written and extended treatment of this subject, which is soon to appear in the Americana Germanica.

Other Huguenot names in Pennsylvania are Fortune (Fordney), Correll, Flory, De Frehn, Farny Ruby, Salade, Benetum, Bevier, Bertalot, Broe (Braua), Lebevre, Levan, Erny (this name may be Swiss), Gobain, Hubert. (See Keiper, Franzosische Familiennamen in der Pfalz and Gerschichtsblatter des deutschen Huguenotten-Vereins.)


There were three ways in which the change of names took place: first, by translation; second, by spelling German sounds according to English methods; and third, by analogy. The former is the most natural in cases where English equivalents exist for the German; hence for Zimmermann we have Carpenter; for Steinbrenner, Stoneburner; for Schumacher, Shoemaker; for Seidensticker, Silkknitter; for Lebengut, Livingood; for Fuchs, Fox; for Hoch, High; and so forth. Often only half the name is translated, while the other half is changed phonetically, as in Slaymaker (for Schleiermacher), Wanamaker (for Wannemacher).

But the true field for the philologist is found in the second class, that of English spelling of German sounds.

The "a" in Pennsylvania German was pronounced broadly, like English "aw", and this sound is represented in such names as Groff and Grove (from Graff), Swope (Schwab), Ault (Alt), Aughey (Ache), and Rawn (Rahn). "E" was pronounced like English "a", and this gives us the names Staley (Stehli), Gable (Gebel), Amwake (Amweg). "I", pronounced "ee", gives Reed (Rith), Sheeleigh (Schillig), also written Shelley. "U" in German has two sounds, one long and one short. The long sound is represented by "oo" in the names Hoon (Huhn), Fooks (Fuchs), Booker (Bucher), Hoover (Huber). The short sound, being unfamiliar to English ears, was lengthened, as Kootz (Kutz) Zook (Zug). Sometimes an "h" was added to indicate the lengthening of the vowel, as in Johns (Tschantz), Kuhns (Kuntz). "O" is usually retained, although sometimes spelled "oa", as in Hoak (Hoch), Boats (Botz).

Of the diphthongs, "au" naturally is spelled "ow" or "ou", as in Bowman (Bauman), Foust (Faust), Mowrer (Maurer).

More interesting and complicated than the above is the change in the diphthong "ei". The regular German pronunciation of this is represented by English "i" or "y" : hence such names as Hines (Heinz), Smyser (Schmeiser), Whitesel (Weitzel), Snyder (Schneider), Tice (Theiss), Rice (Reis), Knipe (Kneipe). In the names Heilman, Weiser, and Beiler the German spelling and sound are both retained. The Pennsylvania Germans, however, pronounced "ei" as English "a", and thus we find the names Sailor (Seiler), Graty (Kreidig), Hailman (Heilman), Espenshade (Espenscheid).

The mixed vowels were simplified, "o" (my note: I don't have the key so it's the "o" with the umlaut) becoming "e" in Derr (Doerr), Sener (Soehner), Kelker (Koellicker), Mellick (Moehlich), "ea" in Early (Oehrle), Beam (Boehm), and "a" in Hake (Hoeck). "Ue" is long and short in German. The former fives "ee", as in Keeney (Kuehne), Keeley (Kuehle); the latter usually gives "i", as in Bitner (Buettner), Kindig (Kuendig), Bixler (BBuechsler), Hiss (Huess), Miller (Mueller). In Sheets (Schuetz), however, short "ue" is lengthened to "ee".

In the following names the umlaut is ignored: Stover (Stoever), Shroder (Schroeder), Shober (Schoeber).

Of course the changes undergone by consonants are not so great as in the case of vowels, yet we have some interesting phenomena. "J" is naturally changed to "y:" hence Young (Jung), Yost (Johst). "Z" becomes "s" in many names, as Curts (Kurtz), Butts (Butz). "K" and "c", and often "g", are interchangeable, as in Coffman (Kauffman), Cline (Kline), Capehart (Kephart = Gebhard), Grider (Kreider), Givler (Kubler). At the end of a word, "ig" usually becomes "y", as in Leiby (Leibig), Leidy (Leidig). "T" is changed to "d" in Sides (Seitz), Road (Roth), Widmayer (Witmeyer).

"H" is omitted in Sener (Soehner), Cole (Kohl), Fraley (Froehlich), Leman (Lehman). "Pf" becomes simplified to "f" in Foutz (Phautz), or to "p" in Kopp (Kopf). "B" was often pronounced by the Pennsylvania Germans like "v", and this gives rise to a large number of new names, among them being the following : Everly (Eberle), Hoover (Huber), Garver (Gerber), --also written Carver--Whitescarver (Weissgerber), Lively (Leibly), Snavely (Schnaebele), Beaver (Bieber).

The change of "ch" into "gh" has also brought in a large number of names, as in Light (Licht), Albright (Albrecht), Hambright (Hambrecht), Slaughter (Schlachter), and the numerous class of names in baugh (bach), as Baugher (Bacher), Harbaugh (Herbach), Brightenbaugh (Breitenbach), Rodenbough (Rothenbach). "Ch" usually becomes "k" in the suffix "maker"; probably this is largely due to translation. Of course "sch" is simplified to "sh" or "s" in the names Slagle (Schlegel), Slatter (Schlatter), Shriner (Schreiner).

One of the most interesting of all these changes is that of "er" to "ar", thus illustrating a phenomenon common to all languages. As the Latin "mercantem" becomes French "marchand", as the English Derby is pronounced Darby, Clerk Clark, and so forth, so the German Gerber becomes Garver, Herbach becomes Harbaugh, Berger becomes Barger, Werfel becomes Warfel, Merkley becomes Markley, Hertzell becomes Hartzell, and Herzog becomes Hartsook. Similar to this is the change of Spengler to Spangler.

Interesting also is the tendency to introduce an extra syllable between certain consonants, as Minich for Muench, Sherrick for Sherk, Widener for Waidner, Keneagy for Gnege, Yerrick for Jorg.

As in all language-changes, so here analogy exerted more or less influence. When the simple spelling of foreign sounds did not produce an English-looking name, often a name which resembled the German in sound or appearance was substituted, as, for example, Rush for Roesch. This is probably the explanation of the inorganic "s" in Rhoades (for Roth), Richards (for Reichert). Probably the spelling "baugh" for "bach" may be more or less influenced by such names as Laughlin, Gough, or by American names of Dutch origin.


At baptism, if two given names were given to the child, the first given name was a spiritual, saint's name, originally developed from Roman Catholic tradition and continued by the Protestants in their baptismal naming customs. The second given name was the secular or call name, which is the name the person was known by, both within the family and to this rest of the world. The spiritual name, usually to honor a favorite saint, was usually repeatedly given to all the children of that family of the same sex. Thus the boys would be Johan Adam Kerchner, Johan George Kerchner, etc., or Philip Peter Kerchner, Philip Jacob Kerchner, etc. Girls would be named Anna Barbara Kerchner, Anna Margaret Kerchner, etc., or Maria Elizabeth Kerchner, Maria Catherine Kerchner, etc. But after baptism, these people would not be known as John, Philip, Anna, or Maria, respectively. They would instead be known by what we would think of now as their middle name, which was their secular name. Thus these people would be known respectively as Adam, George, Peter, Jacob, Barbara, Margaret, Elizabeth, and Catherine in legal and secular records. For males, the saint's name Johan or John was particularly heavily used by many German families. The child's secular name was really John, if and only if, at baptism he was named only John, usually Johannes, with no second given name. Many researchers, new to German names, who find a baptism of an individual with a name such as Johan Adam Kerchner, thus mistakenly spend a lot of time looking for a John Kerchner, in legal and census records, when he was known after baptism, to the secular world, as Adam Kerchner. Also when reading county histories, etc., especially those written by individuals in the 20th century, and the author is referring to someone as John Kerchner, and you are not looking for a John Kerchner, but the history sounds otherwise familiar, further research may turn up that this person was really not a John Kerchner, but instead was someone else such as a Johan George Kerchner. You would thus find all his 18th century records recorded under the name George Kerchner and not John Kerchner and therefore after checking the data and correlating the facts you may find this is really a story about your missing George Kerchner.


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