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Understanding customs used in Swiss names can help you identify your ancestors in records. Learn to recognize name variations and see clues in names.

Online Tools

Regional Differences

For German-speaking regions of Switzerland, see also Germany Personal Names.
For French-speaking regions of Switzerland, see also France Personal Names.
For Italian-speaking regions of Switzerland, see also Italy Personal Names.
Romansh is a Romance language spoken predominantly in the Swiss canton of the Grisons (Graubünden).

Surnames

Register of Swiss Surnames

Swiss citizenship is kept on three levels: the nation, the canton, and the "Heimatort, or home community. For most people, citizenship was inherited, and residency was not a requirement. The home community was charged with keeping track of its citizens. Therefore, if a birth, marriage, or death of a citizen took place in another parish, notice of the event was often sent to the Heimatort. The information may have been entered in the regular parish register or a special section reserved for “auswärtige Bürger” [out-of-town citizens].

Because Swiss citizenship was time-consuming and costly to move, most kept their ancestral citizenship no matter where they moved.  The Register of Swiss Surnames is a list of all surnames in Switzerland as of 1962 and where they held citizenship. This registry is invaluable in locating towns of origin. 

To learn how to use the Register of Swiss Surnames, check out the "How to" Guide. First, read through the Instruction; Then test your knowledge with the short Assignment - the Answer Key is provided to check your answers.

Common Name Endings

With family names originating locally, many names display particular characteristics of the local dialects, such as the south German, Austrian and Swiss diminutive endings -l -el, -erl, -le or -li as in Kleibl, Schäuble or Nägeli (from 'Nagel', nail).[2]

Surname Changes of Immigrants in the United States

As Immigrants moved into English-speaking countries, their surnames were impacted in a variety of ways.


  • Most of the time the surname spelling changed to accommodate the different phonetic spelling in the English language. In other words, the recorder tried to write the name the way he heard it.
  • Surnames may also have been translated outright into English, sometimes with a slight twist.
  • Within the community, such as the local parish, immigrants may continue to use the original name, while at the same time using English-language equivalents when dealing with local government, census takers, and other English speakers.
  • Different branches of the same family may adopt various surname spellings.
  • Prior to 1900, formal surname changes documented in local court records are relatively rare.
  • During the early 20th Century, especially the World War I era, surname changes are recorded more frequently, as immigrants or, more often, their children, tried to adopt more neutral surnames.

Surnames Historical Development

  • Before record keeping began, most people had only one name, such as John.
  • As the population increased, it became necessary to distinguish between individuals with the same name. The problem was usually solved by adding descriptive information. John became John the smith, John the son of Matthew, John the short, or John from Zürich.
  • At first surnames applied only to one person, not to the whole family. After a few generations, these names became hereditary and were passed on from generation to generation.
  • Surnames developed from several sources. For example:
    • Occupational (based on a person’s trade, such as Carter or Smith)
    • Geographical (based on a person’s residence, such as Drayton or Debenham)
    • Patronymic (based on a person’s father’s name, such as Jones, son of John)
    • Descriptive or nickname (such as Joy or Child)
  • The nobility and wealthy land owners were the first to begin using surnames.
  • Merchants and townspeople then adopted the custom, as did the rural population. This process took two or three centuries.

Given Names

Given Names in Foreign Languages

Switzerland has French, German, and Italian speaking regions. Early records can be in Latin.

Some given names are often very different when translated into different languages, as shown by the following table.

French Latin German Italian
Adalbert Adalbertus Albrecht Alberico, Alberigo
Anne Anna Anna Anna
Isabelle Elisabetha Elisabeth Elisabetta
François Franciscus Franz Francesco
Georges Georgius Georg Giorgio
Bogomil Bogumilus Gottlieb Boleslao
Jean Joannes Johann (Hans) Giovanni
Charles Carolus Karl Carlo
Catherine Catherina Katharine Caterina
Laurent Laurentius Lorenz Lorenzo
Louis Ludovicus Ludwig Liugi
Marguerite Margarita Margareta Margherita
Marie Maria Marie Maria
Guillaume Guilielmus Wilhelm Guglielmo


The following online source contains given names translated into 23 different European languages, including English:

  • Janowowa, Wanda, et al. Słownik imion (Dictionary of names). Wrocław, Germany: Zakład Narodowy im Ossolińskich, 1975. (FHL book Ref 940 D4si; film 1181578 item 2; fiche 6,000,839.) Names are listed alphabetically by the Polish name, as the author is Polish. An index at the back gives the Polish form of each name. Use that name to find the 23 translations in the main list.

For Further Reading

FamilySearch Library

References

  1. "Old French Records", at"BYU Script Tutorial", https://script.byu.edu/Pages/the-french-documents-pages/the-french-documents(english, accessed 15 February 2021.
  2. "German names', in Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_name, accessed 17 February 2021.