Beyond History Blog

The history of German family names - Part 1

Andrea Bentschneider - 07. September 2016 - Family, Onomastics, Traditions

The Chinese were first, introducing family names already about 2.850 B.C. The ancient Romans were then followed on the European continent; they usually had three names. For the German speaking regions, the history of family names starts in the 12th century. Here, for many centuries a single forename was sufficient to identify a person. However, even back then there were fashionable names so that the variety of names was reduced and led to a decline of Germanic forenames.

In addition, the population grew drastically between the 12th and 14th century. At some point there were, for example, three persons by the name of "Josef" in one village. Thus one name was not enough anymore to clearly identify a specific person.

For this reason, a descriptive word (occupation or physical appearance, character, birth place or residence of the person) was added to the forename for each of the "Josefs". From now on there was "Josef the smith", "Josef with the curly hair", "Josef the wild", or "Josef from Bremen" who had moved from the said place to the village. These descriptive words were called surnames. From now on, each person had a forename and a surname. The surname was just used for this one person only. If the son of "Josef the smith" was also named Josef, but he became a baker then he was "Josef the baker".

It became problematic in cases when the son of the smith became a smith, too, because now there were two persons called "Josef the smith" in the same village. For this reason, name additions like "the younger" developed over time. A new problem arose when "Josef the smith" became the sheriff of the village; then he suddenly was "Josef the sheriff". In small places where all residents knew each other this method may have worked but in larger cities it became more and more difficult to determine a certain person. Cities grew quickly and the governments needed to register more and more details of their subjects in their files. Taxation and especially the military service made it necessary to identify a person exactly. In rural areas the governing monarchs had books about land ownership and the families residing there.

For administrative reasons a new way of naming people had to be found which would live up to these defaults: the name had to be officially obligatory, it had to be valid for the entire lifetime of the person, and it had to be handed down to the next generation. As a consequence the surname vanished and the firm last name (family name) was established. "Josef the smith" became henceforth "Josef Smith" and this remained unchanged even if Josef took up another occupation or moved to another place. His son also received the last name Smith.

This development of forename + surname towards first name + last name did not take place overnight. It began in southwest Europe about the 12th century and spread to the northeast in the 13th and 14th century. The new way of naming pertained to the cities sooner than to small villages. In remote areas the old way of naming was partly kept up until the 17th or even 18th century.

Possibilities of finding last names:

Surnames often became the last name of a person. Generally there are five categories of last names:

We will refer to these categories in the blog. Stay tuned!

New comment



29. March 2023



After finding your page it has given me some hope that you may be able to help me find something " out " about my surname.

It has been extremely difficult thus far to gleen anything but the that there may be some ancestral connection in the US

I thank you regardless of the outcome


Harold Goodermote

27. March 2023


Any chance that you have any information on this name? I would appreciate anything.

thank you.

Beyond History

24. November 2022

Dear Jennifer,


Unfortunately, you will need a little more information than a surname to do research in Germany (especially, if the surname was shortened and we have no idea what the original name was).


You would need to do some additional research in your country first (are there naturalization documents? Passenger lists from when the family arrived? Any information within church books regarding the origin?).


If you have actual (full) names, rough dates and an idea on a place to look for them (as detailed as possible, just a state won't help much since there is no general index and therefore research depends heavily on knowing about a place to start), research in Germany might be possible.


We are very sorry that we cannot tell you more.


We keep our fingers crossed that you will be able to uncover more regarding your ancestors on your mother's side!


Jennifer Cullen

21. November 2022

German names

I’m trying to figure out my history on my deceased mother name “May”. I don’t know much about her except her parents came from Germany but changed it shorter to “May” Any help would be great full

Beyond History

24. June 2022

We are very happy to hear that you like our blog and that the post helped you. :-) Thank you very much for your kind words!


Unfortunately, we have no ad hoc insights into the surname BAHLBURG. We would have to do research on it first. However, it sounds like it might come from a place. Especially since there is a Bahlburg in Lower Saxony...


21. June 2022

Thank You

Thank you very much for this explanative and rather serendipitous breakdown of the traditional German naming structure. I have attempting to begin the review of my historical genealogy as it ties back to Lower Saxony. Your Blog is much appreciated as well as any insight you personally may have into the surname Bahlburg

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