[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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