If you happen to be visiting a city in Germany or you’re an expat living here, you might notice that some Germans have unique or unusual names. German names can carry a family’s history and may be a great source of pride. To the uninitiated, they can sometimes present something of a challenge (especially when it comes to pronunciation!)
To help you navigate your way through naming practices in Germany, we've put together this handy guide to German names, including naming rules, popular and traditional boy and girl names in Germany, and information on how to change your name.
Names in Germany
Personal names in Germany follow the structure common in Europe and the rest of the western world. Parents usually give one or more first names (Vornamen) to a child, followed by the family name (Nachname).
In Germany, the rules around naming children are stricter than in a lot of other countries. As part of the process of obtaining a birth certificate, baby names have to be approved by the civil registration office (Standesamt). The Standesamt will typically consult a list of approved names, and with foreign embassies for foreign names. If the name is rejected, the parents can appeal or submit a new name. Each submission commands a fee.
An appropriate German name is one that is first recognised as a proper name. It cannot be associated with evil (e.g. Satan, Lucifer) or deemed religiously insensitive (e.g. Christus or Jesus). A name cannot be a product, brand, surname or a place name. Finally, German names have to indicate the child’s gender and they are not allowed to cross (one exception is Maria, which can be used as a boy’s second name). Neutral names (e.g. Alex, Kim) must be followed by a second name that indicates the child’s gender.
German first names
A child’s first name (Vorname) must adhere to the rules outlined above. It is common for a child in Germany to have several first names, with one designated as their “call name" (Rufname - the name that everyone calls them by). The Rufname is usually underlined on official documents as it is sometimes someone’s second or even third given name. A famous example is the current Duke of Saxony: despite being christened Johann Friedrich Konrad Carl Eduard Horst Arnold Matthias, he is known to everyone as Prince Konrad.
Surnames were gradually introduced to Germanic Europe during the late Middle Ages. They tend to reflect one of four areas: family, occupation, bodily feature or geographical.
Family names are derived from the given name of a family anscestor, to identify their relations. So, the surname Ahrends is created from the name Ahrend by adding the genitive -s ending, to mean “Ahrend’s son” or “son of Ahrend". Wulff, Benz, Fritz and Friedrich are all examples of given names used as family names.
Occupational names, as the name suggests, reflect the occupation of a family’s ancestor. Schmidt (smith), Müller (miller), Schulze (constable), Fischer (fisher) and Zimmermann (carpenter) are all examples of occupational names.
These types of names reflect a particular or unusual feature: Schwarzkopf (black head), Groß (big) or Krause (curly) are ones that you might come across fairly often in Germany.
Geographical names are derived from a particular area, such as a city or village or a feature of where someone lives. Geographical names give us Kissinger (Kissingen) and Bayer (from the German word Bayern, meaning Bavaria). They also give us names like Rothschild (red sign) or Rosenbauer (rose-farmer).
The use of the preposition von is common in German surnames. Traditionally, it was used to signify nobility or landownership. Those who gained higher status could have von added to their name. For instance, Johann Wolfgang Goethe had his name changed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This practice ended in 1919, but von can still sometimes be used alongside a geographical name, such as von Eschen.
Popular & Common German names
Traditionally, the most popular given names in Germany tend to be biblical. Since the 1990s, however, there has been a surge in fairly untraditional, not-typically-German names.
First names for boys
As of the 1990s, some of the most popular / common names for boys in Germany are:
- Lukas / Lucas
- Luka / Luca
- Finn / Fynn
First names for girls
Some of the most popular names for girls are:
- Lea / Leah
- Hannah / Hanna
The most common surnames in German are all occupational names. These names came into being around 1600 when surnames began to be systematically designated to individuals. The top 10 most common are Müller (miller), Schmidt (smith), Schneider (tailor), Fischer (fisher), Weber (weaver), Meyer (leaseholder), Wagner (cartwright), Schulz (constable), Becker (baker) and Hoffman (steward).
German baby names
Although international names have been gaining popularity in Germany since the turn of the millennium, many traditional German names have remained popular throughout history and are still widely used today.
German boy names
International-sounding boy names becoming more and more common in Germany, and present little change to English speakers when it comes to pronunciation.
Common & Popular German boy names
As of 2018, these are some of the most common and popular names for baby boys in Germany:
Traditional German boy names
These names might be traditional, but that doesn't mean that they're not popular. In Germany, you're likely to come across plenty of people with these names:
German girl names
German girls’ names tend to change in popularity more frequently than the boys and so certain traditional names on the list may not be as common or popular as some of the traditional boy names.
Common & Popular German girl names
These are some of the most popular and common names for baby girls in Germany, as of 2018. They seem to like girls' names that end in "a" sounds!
Traditional German girl names
These are some traditional girl names in Germany that you might come across:
Naming a baby in Germany
As you might have gathered from the strict rules, anyone considering having a baby in Germany will have to think carefully about names.
On top of all the rules surrounding a baby’s forename, parents have to decide what surname the child will take. If the parents have both taken the same married surname (Ehename), the child will take that name. In a family, all children have to receive the same non-hyphenated name. So, if the mother has hyphenated her name, the children will take the single surname of their father.
Changing your name in Germany
There are only a few instances in which you are able to change your name in Germany. The law that applies to name changes, Namensänderungsgesetz, is very rarely invoked; however, it does allow name changes where there is an “important reason”. This could be:
- If an error is made when recording a name.
- If someone has undergone gender reassignment.
- If someone with a "foreign name" wants to change it into a German form.
- If someone's current name causes ridicule or is too complicated, common or insensitive (like "Adolf").
Another acceptable circumstance for a name change in Germany is also marriage. When two people get married, they have three options when it comes to surnames: either one partner's surname is taken by both of them (Ehename), one partner adopts the other’s surname on top of their own, forming a hyphenated name (Doppelname), or they can both keep their original names.