[Schplock goes English] Last names in Germany

This is a (slightly modified) translation of a text I wrote in January on the distribution of last names in Germany. It was requested by Petra and I hope it meets your expectations! My heartfelt thanks go to Robert for proofreading, all remaining errors are of course my own.

During the Christmas holidays I noticed once more how names can shape a region. When I’m travelling south, I realize that I’ve arrived home not only because the Alemannic dialect creeps into people’s speech but also because people are suddenly named Himmelsbach, Göppert and Ohnemus: Names that are, to my ear, deeply rooted in the region.

And sure enough: All of them can be shown to have the highest frequency in “my” or one of the neighboring districts (“Landkreise”). I then discovered an excellent strategy to find more of these last names: I scrolled through the facebook friends of my relatives. (And I got lots of ideas doing that – you could analyze public facebook profiles that specify the place of residence in order to created a city’s “name profile”. You could put more weight on names of high school students, because they tend to live were they were born. Major cities would have to be ignored because people move a lot, etc. However that research strategy might border on illegality and would set a rather bad example concerning privacy.)

So, what to do if you suspect that a last name is typical for a certain region? How can you localize it? In Germany, the best data for such a purpose are found in electronic phone directories – they make a direct connection between a name and the postal code in which the bearers live and there’s software that can pinpoint those entries on a map.

The best of those programmes is used by the Deutscher Familiennamenatlas (a research project by the universities of Mainz and Freiburg, based on a directory from 2005), but it’s not open to public access. There’s another very useful option which I’ve mentioned before, namely Geogen (using data from 2002).

In this blog post I’d like to show last names that can be found everywhere in Germany and names which show differences on a large scale. (A second, currently untranslated post deals with small scale differences.)

The everywhere names: Müller and Schmidt

There are, of course, several last names that can be found in huge amounts all over Germany. The Top 10 (for 2000) can be found in the awesome dtv-Atlas Namenkunde by Konrad Kunze:

Müller, Schmidt, Schneider, Fischer, Meyer, Weber, Schulz, Wagner, Becker and Hoffmann.

I’ve chosen three of them to illustrate the distribution, Müller (# 1, the German form of Miller), Schmidt (# 2, the German form of Smith) and Fischer (# 4, the German form of Fisher):

(The numbers are relative to the population of the districts (so that densely populated areas don’t distort the picture). They refer to the number of telephone mainlines. Geogen estimates 2,666... persons per connection.)

As you can see, there’s none to very little information to be found. These names show at the most that they are German, so they might be interesting on maps of the surrounding countries but are rather boring for Germany itself.

The widely held names

Other names cannot be found all over Germany, instead they show characteristic distributions allowing a very rough guess as to where their bearers might be from. Such distributions may have several reasons, for example:

Sound changes: Pape and Pfaff

The Low German area didn’t participate in the so-called High German consonant shift, a series of sound changes that took place somewhere in between the 5th and the 10th century AD. These changes are quite complex, but I’ll just tell you the salient points for now: Some sounds like Germanic p shifted to either pf or ff in the south of the German language area. That’s why German words like Apfel and Schiff correspond to English words like apple and ship: They had a common Germanic ancestor (*aplu-, *skipa-), but German underwent that consonant shift and English didn’t.

(Map by Rex Germanus via Wikipedia)

But … neither did all of the dialects spoken in today’s Germany. The usual explanation is that the sound shift took off in the very south (green area on the map) and made its way northwards, but lost momentum somewhere in Central Germany (turquoise) so that the Low German area (yellow) wasn’t affected by the changes at all.

As last names stem from ordinary words that were used to describe their bearers (like their professions in the case of Müller or their parentage in the case of Christiansen ‘son of Christian’), they reflect dialectal pronunciation and vocabulary from the time when they first turned into names and stopped changing (the process started somewhere in the 11th century, i.e. after the consonant shift).

Therefore you should expect to find reflections of that consonant shift in the names of people living in the south, but not in the north (although many names were “standardized” later). In the abovementioned book, Kunze shows a map for Pape and Pfaff. Both names can be traced back to the Latin papa and were used for a priest. As expected, Pfaff (with former p to pf and ff) can mostly be found in the south and Pape in the north. I made the same map with Geogen:

Different vocabulary: The Meierloch

A phenomenon that has gained a relative amount of fame in the science of last name geography is the so-called “Meierloch” (verbatim: Meier hole). Meier is last name #3 in Germany if you count all written forms as one (Meier, Maier, Meyer, Mayer) – but strangely that doesn’t lead to an all-red map:

(Attention: Disctricts with less than 1000 landlines per million were left white!)

The explanation: Meier is a name referring to the profession of a (farm) administrator or tenant. (The word isn’t used anymore, although it still appears in History books in the now obsolete title Hausmeier ‘majordomo’.) But not in Central Germany: Here, the same job description answered to the name of Hofmann (verbatim something like ‘farm man’). And indeed, it’s quite easy to fill the Meier hole with Hoffmanns and Hofmanns:

Another cool example is Richter (today’s meaning: ‘judge’). One would think that the word is known all over Germany, so the name should be distributed evenly as well, but no: It shows a strong concentration in Saxony, Berlin, Brandenburg and Saxony-Anhalt:

The reason can be found in the dtv-Atlas: Eastern Central Germany and the regions further east (e.g. Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia) only gained speakers of German dialects through the Ostsiedlung. These settlements were led by so-called “locators”. As a reward for all their hard work, they were bestowed with a cool and hereditary office which these settlers called Richter, a word used elsewhere in Germany for the (partially overlapping) job of a judge.

You can confirm that the Richters extended way beyond today’s border if you have a look at older data: the so-called “Reichstelefonbuch” (a historical phone directory) from 1942. It can be found on Genevolu, a very useful tool which includes data from 1998 as well. (Thanks for the hint go to my colleague Luise who provided me with the Richter example as well.) There were, of course, fewer entries in 1942, but there’s still a pretty clear picture:

(Creative Commons by-nc-sa 3.0)

Migration: Relocation and immigration

Richter has already proven to be a phenomenon linked to migration. I now want to give two further examples in which population movement has created interesting name distributions.

Many familiy names are names that refer to the place of the first bearer’s origin: Someone moved from A to B and was henceforth called A. This can be seen on a large scale, as in Unger ‘Hungarian’, Schwab ‘Swabian’ or Sachs ‘Saxon’, as well as on a small scale, as in Frankfurter ‘person from Frankfurt’ or Helmstetter ‘person from Helmstedt’. Schweizer ‘Swiss’ shows quite nicely how far the name bearers moved from their home country. The name is most frequent in counties that are pretty close to Switzerland, but not too close:

The last cool group of names are the Turkish ones: They allow us a glimpse into recent German history. The area of the former GDR – where there were no Turkish Gastarbeiter – is practically devoid of Turkish last names. The following map shows the four very frequent names Aydin, Yildiz1, Özdemir and Öztürk2:

(The blue line encloses the former GDR.)


1 Both of these names don’t dot the i’s, but German phone directories do it anyway.
2 Grain of salt: This map was created in a pretty strange way. As there is no possibility to combine several names into one map via Geogen, I simply created an overlay of the individual maps, putting the most frequent one on top. So you’ll only see the frequency for Yildiz if there are no Aydins in a given district, you’ll only see Öztürk if there are neither Aydins nor Yildizes, … the method is very crude (less freqent Aydins may sit on top of more frequent Yildizes in a district etc.), but I think it works to show that none of these names is frequent all over the former GDR whereas they are very much in the former FRG.


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