The Dialect Basis of Spelling Variation in German Surnames

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Perhaps you have had the experience of coming across a surname that has been spelled in several ways. Often, but not always, the spelling variation is based on dialect differences and such spellings can often give a clue to the origin of the name. It is the purpose of this article to give a brief outline of the dialect basis for German surnames. Of course, it is impossible to treat every possible dialect variation. So, we will consider only the main dialect features. We will look at only a few consonants.

About 1500 years ago, for some unknown reason, certain sounds started to be pronounced differently from before. The sounds in question are ‘p,’ ‘t,’ ‘k,’ and ‘d’. This sound change started in the southern part of the German-speaking region and slowly spread northward. Linguists call this change the “Second Consonant or Sound Shift” or the “High German Consonant or Sound Shift.”

In the first half millennium of our era, there was no single or official German language; there were many Germanic tribes, such as the Saxons, the Alamanni, the Bavarians, the Franks, and some others, each speaking closely related dialects. The consonant inventory of these early Germanic dialects was more or less the same as that of Modern English. So, we will illustrate the changes in German by comparison with English words, while keeping in mind that the English consonants represent the old Germanic consonants.

First, we look at the sound ‘p.’
English  German
plum      Pflaume
plant      Pflanze
pan        Pfanne

pipe       Pfeiffe
pepper   Pfeffer
open      offen
From this list, we see that old, Germanic ‘p’ changes to ‘pf’ or ‘f(f)’ in German.

Next, we look at ‘t’
English  German
two        zwei
tide        Zeit ‘time’
ten        zehn
twenty   zwanzig

water    Wasser
better    besser
eat        essen

From this list, we see that old, Germanic ‘t’ changes to ‘z or ‘ss’ in German.

Next, we look at ‘k’
English  German
make     machen
seek      suchen
book      Buch

From this list, we see that old, Germanic ‘k’ changes to ‘ch’ in German.

Next, we look at ‘d’
English  German
deer       Tier ‘animal’
daughter Tochter
dead      tot

From this list, we see that old, Germanic ‘d’ changes to ‘t’ in German.

As previously mentioned, these changes started in the southern part of the German-speaking region and slowly moved northward. Each change started and moved at its own pace. And each change stopped at different points in Germany. So, it is possible to find dialects that have some, but not all the changes. The northernmost point of the High German Sound Shift is a line that runs east to west, south of Berlin and Magdeburg, north of Kassel, crossing the Rhine just south of Duisburg. To the north of this line are the ‘Low German’ dialects. Low German, therefore, is a set of dialects spoken in northern Germany. Some people erroneously believe that ‘Low German’ refers to social status of its speakers, or to the language itself. Such is not the case; the term refers to those dialects which have remained unaffected by the High German Sound Shift.

But what does all this have to do with variation in names? Names have also been affected by these sound changes. Those people who lived south of the line described above have names that were affected to various degrees by these changes. The names of those people who lived north of the line remained unaffected by the changes. Of course, migration from one area to another often obscures this pattern, as we now find many people who live ‘on the other side’ of the dialect dividing lines. Also, the origin of a name is sometimes impossible to know because the name might have been changed from a dialect to a standard form.

Low German Standard German
p>pf, ff
Piper           Pfeiffer
Pannes       Pfannes
Pörtner        Pförtner
Pund           Pfund
Appel          Apfel
Tappe         Zapf

Töllner       Zöllner
Tange        Zange
Tappe        Zapf
Bockholt    Buchholz
Kloth*         Klotz

Watermann Wassermann
Freter        Fressle
Grot          Gross

Danner       Tanner
Dartsch      Tartsch
Daube        Taube
Deubel       Teufel
Diebold      Tiepold
Deichmann Teichmann
Dalmann    Thalmann*

Bockholt     Buchholz
Bekerer       Becher

 *‘th’ in German sounds like ‘t,’ not like ‘th’ in English.

So, for example, if your ancestor has the name ‘Danner,’ you can reasonably suppose that he or she came from northern Germany. This process can give a clue to the origin of the name and person who originally had it. So, if you find a name that is spelled differently from what you are familiar with, don’t discount it; it might just be a dialect form of a more familiar name.

For further reading:

Bahlow, Hans.  2002. Dictionary of German Names.  Translated and Revised by Edda Gentry.

     Madison, Wisconsin: Max Kade Institute.


Baker, Theola Walden. "Internal Dialectical Clues in German Surnames." Missouri State

     Genealogical Association Journal 25:3 (2005).

Lockwood, W.B. 1976.  An Informal History of the German Language with Chapters on Dutch and

     Afrikaans, Frisian and Yiddish. London: Andre Deutsch.

Watermann, John T. 1976.  A History of the German Language. Seattle and London: University of 

     Washington Press.