German Name Spellings

For those unfamiliar with, or simply wishing to learn more about, conducting German/ Prussian genealogical research this is my second posting in a series on the topic of German-Prussian Genealogy Pointers.research

One of the greatest difficulties people have with researching Germanic family members involves name spellings.  This is especially true for those English speakers.  Over the centuries, Germans who emigrated into English speaking lands have either tried to spell their names in ways that would be pronounced correctly or had assistance with their name spellings upon arrival or ‘later’ in Census takings.  This ‘help’ has lead to numerous challenges in finding the right folks in the old homeland (Heimatland).

Here are a couple of rules of thumb I use when attempting to find ancestors in the old country:

  • ie- ei: Do you remember the old rule, when two vowels go walking the first one does the talking? If you do remember the rule, be aware that when dealing with German names the reverse is true (assuming you are using American vowel sounds).  Imagine if you will your name was Stein… in the states that often is pronounced as Steen so you change the spelling and presto your relatives are now just a bit harder to find.
  • sh – sch: Or suppose a valued surname was once Schlatter, in the US the name is frequently spelled as either Shlatter or Shlater.  Notice, these are all a bit different!
  • V – F: Another interesting one I have stumbed across is the German surname Vogel, when pronounced using US sounds it is often spelled as Fogel.  This places your searches in a whole new location within the alphabet.
  • W – V: W in German sounds very much like an American ‘v’ and the V sounds like an American F.  Just blend this option in with the one immediately above and imagine the permutations you can begin to develop.
  • ss- sz- ß or plain s: All these sounds in US English pronounce about the same, but not quite so in German.  However, your emigrant/ immigrant relatives could easily have changed their names to use ss, s, sz in the English speaking world while the real family name could have been spelled with ss, sz, or ß in the alte Heimat (old home).
  • AE – Ä – E: In German, Ä and AE offer the same sound which sounds roughly like an American ‘eh’.  Depending upon your original surname this can lead to interesting permutations of family names.

If you couple all the above options, with the fact that many immigrants were less than perfect in their spelling and literacy skills, you can begin to find great variations in name spellings within the US and across the pond.

For more on this subject, you might wish to read the following:


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