German Genealogy Tip #4: Name Spelling Didn’t Matter to Germans

Today’s German genealogy tip of the day is this: do not get tripped up by differently spelled names. Prior to the 20th century, name spelling really didn’t matter, especially to Germans. Many Germans from that area could not even write, and would sign documents with their “mark” (usually an “X” or a “+”).

This can sometimes make it difficult to find your German ancestors in written/typed indexes, even when searching by a Soundex or similar system. “Lindemann” may have also been written as “Lindeman,” “Linderman,” “Lendeman,” “Lenderman,” “Linden,” or even “Lingemann.” The given name “Gertrud” may have also been written “Gertraut,” “Gertraudt,” “Gertrude,” “Gertruda,” “Gertrued,” “Gertrüt,” etc. This wasn’t just a mistake on the part of the census taker or clerk–the individuals themselves may have spelled their own name these different ways on different occasions.

Germans prior to the 20th century spelled proper nouns phonetically. They just made sure it sounded correct. This also applied to town and place names. An ancestor from “Hessen Kassel” might have also variously spelled his place of origin as “Hesse Cassel,” “Kurhessen,” “Cohassen,” or other variations.

If you can’t find your German ancestor, try searching for them under every conceivable spelling that sounds phonetically like how they would have pronounced the name. If you can’t decide which name spelling is the right spelling, don’t worry. For the most part, they are all correct, as long as they’re pronounced correctly.

2 thoughts on “German Genealogy Tip #4: Name Spelling Didn’t Matter to Germans

  1. Pam Hickmann

    Thank you so much! So Wölbert could be Wilbert in some records. I may now be able to find my husband’s 2nd great grandmother.

    1. Josiah Schmidt Post author

      Oh, definitely. Germans also used “b”s and “p”s interchangeably, so don’t discount Wölpert or Wilpert. They used “d”s and “t”s and “dt”s interchangeably, so you might see Wölberdt or Wilberd. Their spelling was also pretty loose with vowels, so you could even see Wölbart or Wilbart. And, of course, don’t forget that “ö” (o with an umlaut) is essentially the same as “oe”.


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