A new standard in surname research

The research project ‘Digital Dictionary of Surnames in Germany’ is designed to provide an overview of the current surname status in the Federal Republic of Germany and is making the results available online to both the general public and for more in-depth academic research purposes. This long-term project involves collaboration between Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) and TU Darmstadt under the aegis of the Mainz Academy of Sciences and Literature. It is the aim of the project team to gradually lexographically collate and register roughly 200,000 of the surnames that occur in Germany and also to trace their origins.

The website of the Digital Dictionary of Surnames in Germany (DFD)

The objective of the ‘Digital Dictionary of Surnames in Germany’ research project is to provide a record of the status of surnames in Germany in 2005 and make the results freely available online. (Photo: Peter Pulkowski)

In Mainz, Prof. Damaris Nübling (front) of JGU’s German Department and Dr. Rita Heuser (back) of the Mainz Academy of Sciences and Literature are supervising the work on the Digital Dictionary of Surnames in Germany.  (Photo: Peter Pulkowski)

In Mainz, Prof. Damaris Nübling (front) of JGU’s German Department and Dr. Rita Heuser (back) of the Mainz Academy of Sciences and Literature are supervising the work on the Digital Dictionary of Surnames in Germany. (Photo: Peter Pulkowski)

Prof. Nina Janich (l.) and Prof. Andrea Rapp (r.) of TU Darmstadt are involved in the long term Digital Dictionary of Surnames in Germany (DFD) project. (Photo: Stefan F. Sämmer)

Prof. Nina Janich (l.) and Prof. Andrea Rapp (r.) of TU Darmstadt are involved in the long term Digital Dictionary of Surnames in Germany (DFD) project. (Photo: Stefan F. Sämmer)

‘German Surname Atlas’ project flyer

The Digital Dictionary of Surnames in Germany has its origins in the 'German Surname Atlas' project that was funded by the German Research Foundation from 2005. (Photo: Peter Pulkowski)

Since 2012, scholars of the history of linguistics in Mainz have been collaborating with their colleagues in Darmstadt to put together a unique digital dictionary of surnames - a task that involves painstaking entry-by-entry progress. The underlying source material is the 2005 database of Deutsche Telekom, the German telecommunications provider. Every surname that has at least ten or more phone book entries is being incorporated in the Digital Dictionary of Surnames in Germany (Digitales Familiennamenwörterbuch Deutschlands, DFD). This includes the different spelling variants of surnames. But the objective is not merely to just record the current situation with regard to surnames in Germany. The meanings of names are also explained while a specially developed mapping system is used to show their distribution. It perhaps thus comes as no surprise to learn that this project has a planned duration of 24 years.

Dr. Rita Heuser opens the DFD website that has been available online since mid-2015 and selects a name. "Let's take 'Aydin'," she says. "This surname is not particularly uncommon in Germany. It actually ranks 1134th by frequency.” A diagrammatic map of the Federal Republic now appears on the screen of her computer. Red circles show where Aydins have been registered. The name most commonly occurs in towns and urban conurbations. "We rarely find the name 'Aydin' in rural areas, and it hardly occurs in the former East Germany." It is most probably the case that the first Aydins came as guest workers from Turkey to West Germany in the 1950s and 1960s. That would explain the distribution pattern. Heuser has even more information to offer: "The name means 'light' or 'illuminated'." This may be one of its main meanings, but the internet page also provides alternative interpretations.  It is possible that the Seljuk Prince Aydin who lived in the 14th century may have once stood godfather to an Aydin ancestor or the name could derive from a region in Turkey, although this is much more unlikely. A concise and clearly intelligible entry provides all this information. Its author is one Mehmet Aydin, who is studying at JGU and is a student assistant working on the DFD project.  

"Our personnel often provide important input," explains Prof. Damaris Nübling of the German Department of JGU.  Together with Heuser, who is a research associate at the Mainz Academy of Sciences and Literature, she is responsible for the project in Mainz. "What we particularly need is information on non-German surnames," says the linguist. "Student assistants with the necessary language skills who come from, say, the Baltic region, Sweden or Turkey would be of considerable help in this respect.” Heuser adds: “There is no single region in Germany in which we find names that are exclusively of German origin.” The name landscape is colorful - and this dictionary makes it fully apparent just how colorful it is. 

The DFD represents the continuation of the ‘German Surname Atlas’ (Deutscher Familiennamenatlas, DFA) project commenced in early 2005 by JGU and Albert Ludwigs University Freiburg that was sponsored by the German Research Foundation (DFG) - the aim of this was also to document the status and distribution of surnames in Germany. "This project had a specialized linguistic slant and the results were actually primarily intended for academics," clarifies Nübling. "But we received a large number of inquiries from journalists and private individuals while working on it. It seems there is enormous public interest in this subject." So a concept was needed through which it would be possible to provide ready access to the latest findings in research not just to specialists but also to laymen. “As a result, the idea for the DFD came into being and we got TU Darmstadt on board.” "In the beginning, there were a lot of technical issues we needed to deal with," discloses Heuser. “So we decided to develop a digital design and also had to consider what we should include." That took them two years. "This sort of aspect is often underestimated, but we knew that it would take that long." Here it was TU Darmstadt that was able to provide the necessary linguistic expertise and, in particular, the required IT skills. "What began as a marriage of convenience has become a love match," says Nübling with a grin, describing the cooperation between the three institutions. 

Surprisingly little is known about family names in Germany. It is estimated that there are 800,000 surnames here. The previous standard works on the subject listed at best 70,000 of them. "We are also still identifying frequent inconsistencies or errors with regard to the previous information available on origin or meaning," says Heuser. And nowhere else are there carefully plotted maps showing the distribution of family names. This is something that the DFD is only now putting right while, at the same time, this demonstrates how important surname geography is when it comes to interpreting the morphology of family names.

"The Telekom database we are using is the only source of the information available,” points out Nübling. “But it is particularly suitable since it covers the entire country." The linguists are employing the 2005 records as there was a subsequent significant increase in the use of cell phones, meaning that later landline phone books became less informative. "We register every surname that has at least ten or more phone book entries - these include typically German names such as ‘Meyer’, ‘Müller’ and ‘Schmidt’ alongside those of foreign origin,” clarifies Heuser. When complete, the DFD will cover about 200,000 surnames. The result will be a resource that will prove invaluable to many research disciplines and a reference work that can be used by everybody.  

“Now 'Müller', the most common surname in Germany, might not seem particularly interesting," Heuser admits. "But that is only at first glance." All the personnel working on the DFD project are assigned a particular name group. In the case of ‘Müller’ there are also alternative versions such as ‘Neumüller’ and ‘Kumpfmüller’, so that information on different types of mill suddenly becomes of interest, the names all being related to the profession of miller. This means that variants have to be dealt with in addition.  It could be assumed that the German variant 'Miller' has its origins in the English-speaking world. The map, however, shows that those called 'Miller' are predominantly at home in southern Germany. The local dialect meant that an 'i' came to be used instead of the 'ü'.

Many German surnames actually originate from outside this country, although it is frequently the case that these are no longer perceived as such. The names 'Endrulat' and 'Wowereit' come from the region around the Baltic, 'Schimanski' and 'Grabowski' have affinities with Poland while 'Schirra' is French in origin. The ‘Lunkenheimers’, on the other hand, have their origin in the Rheinhessen region. But where exactly? “The name seems clearly to be derived from that of a settlement that must have been called ‘Lunkenheim’,” states Heuser. "But such a place no longer exists and there are no historical records that refer to it." Each name seems to generate fresh puzzles. “This is also pioneering work," remarks Nübling. And work on the DFD thus provides opportunities for students and young academics. "You take on a surname group, are thus thrown immediately in the deep end when it comes to research, and you can even publish through us. The authors of our articles are all named.” 

The interests of the DFD extend beyond the borders of Germany. Information on the surname landscape outside Germany is indispensable. “In the Netherlands and in Sweden, family names are systematically corrected to ensure they conform to the established rules of orthography,” says Heuser, describing national characteristics. “As a result, there are far fewer spelling variants. It would thus be inadmissible to have a 'Weißbrod' alongside a 'Weisbrodt' there. What makes German surnames so very special is their diversity." 

Prof. Andrea Rapp and Prof. Nina Janich are responsible for ensuring that all features of the online dictionary function as they are supposed to.   Janich and Rapp represent the Darmstadt team involved in the long term project. “Our focus is on the Digital Humanities,” explains Rapp. Basically, the idea is to use computer technology to explore fundamental aspects of the humanities and cultural studies. “The Digital Humanities are at the interface between computer science and the humanities but are also at the point where the various individual humanities disciplines converge,” says Rapp. “TU Darmstadt is acting as a bridge builder here.” 

When it is complete, the DFD will be unique in surname research but, at the same time, it will not simply take the form of some brick of a book gathering dust on a shelf but will be made freely available to everyone online. “I am a strong believer in open access,” emphasizes Rapp. “Thanks to digitization, we are now giving something back to the populace.” The German Studies scholar was involved when Trier University began to post the dictionary prepared by the Brothers Grimm online in 1990. "“We were thus able to make people aware of the fact that the Grimms did more than just collect fairy tales.” 

“We have set a new standard in surname research,” points out Janich. “We were forced to consider how exactly we should present the information online. We had to think about what needed to be included in an article about a surname and what could be left out. Then there was the question of how articles could be standardized to the point where each new contributor would be able to start working with the surname database immediately.” 

“We asked ourselves the fundamental question of what a dictionary like this can actually be used to illustrate,” continues Rapp. “So we wondered if it would be better to use a strict categorization approach or more of a free form.” In the end, they decided to strike a balance between the two. “We also wanted to make sure that our Digital Dictionary of Surnames in Germany remains useful over the long term. We thought about what would happen if, for example, a business whose software we were using stopped providing support so that the program ceased to be compatible.” Open source software was used to prevent this eventuality from occurring. “In addition, we also gave the entire thing a modular structure.” So if the worst thing that happens is that a single component fails, it all becomes much easier to repair. 

“Another important factor for us was citability,” asserts Janich. The Digital Dictionary of Surnames in Germany will represent an important resource for many different academic disciplines. “But we are constantly updating it. We can quickly correct an error in an entry about the etymology of a name. This is one of the advantages of the dictionary.” However, what would happen if somebody were to cite an older version of the Digital Dictionary of Surnames in Germany and the original entry has been changed so it is no longer possible to verify the citation? “Together with the Digital Academy Mainz, which also has extensive IT know-how, we are working on a concept to give each version of the dictionary an independent address,” reports Rapp. This means that it will be possible to track edition history and verify each citation.

But one thing is already clear: The DFD will form part of a constantly growing, increasingly closely interwoven network online. Citations will be made and cross-references will be provided that link to other digital sources. “These are things over which we have no control,” acknowledges Rapp. "The Digital Humanities are simply providing the bridgework.” This is something everyone can stand on to look down and contemplate the flow of information. But the teams in Mainz and Darmstadt have already been working for years on collating, interpreting and making available the information - and they will continue to do so for many years yet. An online dictionary is the kind of work to which it is impossible to add the final touch.

Digital Dictionary of Surnames in Germany (DFD)
German Surname Atlas (DFA)