Identifying Place Names in German documents

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

       What do these place names have in common: Geminipontis? Duobus Pontibus? Biponte? Deuxponts? 2brücken? Czweynbrucken? Tzweinbrucken?    Each place refers to the locality name Zweibrücken as found in original German documents.  Interpreting place names in German documents can be challenging, even for experienced researchers.
     When you find two or three German family researchers huddled around one microfilm reader in animated conversation, with puzzled looks on their faces, they may be trying to determine the correct spelling of a place name [or surname]. Place names as they occur in German documents are not really misspelled. They reflect the language, dialect, the education, and sometimes even the frugality of the scribe. The location [place] where the document was written must also be taken into consideration.        

Researchers should ask these questions:

  • In what language was the place name written?
  • Has the name been Latinized?
  • Was the document written near the boundary of another language area, for example: France, Denmark, Belgium, or Poland?
  • Was the document recorded in a German colony such as in Russia or Hungary?
  • When was the document written?
  • Is the handwriting difficult to decipher?
  • Could the name have been abbreviated?
  • Who was the scribe?

Answering these questions will help you determine the spelling of a given name so you can locate the place name on modern maps and in modern gazetteers. Luckily, modern resources, like "reverse-sort indexes" and gazetteers available on the Internet, can help simplify the search.

     German research is first of all "locality" research, then surname research. To begin genealogical research in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and other German-speaking areas, it is necessary to know the exact place of origin. Researchers all too often discover, especially in early American pedigrees, that a search in an incorrect locality for someone with the same name has produced a pedigree of incorrect lineage!  Verify the location in gazetteers and on maps, search for complete family units, analyze the names of associates and witnesses of your ancestor, search specific time periods, and search all available records pertinent to your research question to build a correct pedigree.

Phonetic Spellings[edit | edit source]

     When a phonetic spelling of a place name is given, it can mislead the researcher to the extent that it is impossible to proceed with the research on a certain ancestral line. Gerhard Jeske, retired reference consultant at the Family History Library once recounted an interesting account of a perplexing German place name brought to the library by a patron. It shows how misleading a phonetic spelling can be.

       The patron was looking for a place in Germany by the name of "Viceneck." When the reference consultant looked at the given spelling of this place name, he knew immediately that this was a phonetic spelling. He was sure that a place with such spelling would not be listed in any of the German gazetteers, but he checked the gazetteers anyway to satisfy the patron.

       After the gazetteers had been searched without success, the reference consultant began to analyze the problem to determine what the German spelling for this place could be. Viceneck is not a German spelling but a phonetic American spelling. The German spelling could be Weisneck, Weissneck, Weisnek, Weissnek, Weisseneck, Weissenek, Weisnick, Weissnick, Weisnik, Weissnik, Weisnich, Weissnich, etc.

       None of these spellings were found in the gazetteers. After some questioning, he was informed that the name of the place was given by word of mouth by a living relative from Germany who did not speak English too well.  When the patron asked this relative where his ancestor was born, the answer given was: "Weiss nicht." Of course, "Weiss nicht" translated into English means "I don't know." The patron thought that "Weiss nicht" was the place where the ancestor was born, which he phonetically spelled as "Viceneck."

Places by the Same Name[edit | edit source]

       Another difficulty occurs when there are several places by the same spelling in the same province or canton of a German-speaking country. More often there are places by the same spelling found in different provinces or cantons of a certain country. It is also possible that the place name could refer to a place name in a German-speaking area outside of Germany. Problems of this nature are often difficult but not uncommon.
The gazetteer of the 1871 Empire of Germany is titled Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs- Lexikon. This gazetteer lists:

     35 places by the name of Rosenberg
     44 places by the name of Kirchberg
     60 places by the name of Bruch
     32 places by the name of Bruck
     48 places by the name of Bühl
     75 places by the name of Holzhausen
     81 places by the name of Grünhof
     96 places by the name of Weinberg
     100 places by the name of Moos
     308 places by the name of Neuhof
     347 places by the name of Neumühle

     In a recent article in the German periodical Saarländische Familienkunde Bernd Gölzer discusses some of the common errors that can occur in family history research. Focusing on place names, he identifies some of the problems that have occurred in the compilation of local family books and family histories when the wrong assumptions have been made by the authors. He illustrates with the place name "Brücken," denoting the word "bridge." He notes that in the church books of Niederkirchen, "Brücken" stands for "Osterbrücken," in the church registers of Mimbach, it stands for "Ohmbachbrücken," and in the court records of Blieskastel, it stands for "Bliesbrücken." He also questions why researchers only search records of Kutzenhausen by Augsburg or Herbitzheim an der Blies when they find these names listed in a family book, when the same place names can be found in the bordering areas of France. He suggests that authors compiling local family books and family histories should clearly identify small localities, such as mills and farms to make searching easier for other researchers.
     In another example from this same article, Gölzer mentions the entry of the marriage of Georg Pitz of Biernbach and Anna Gitinger from Kirkel. The author of one town family book has assumed Biernbach is the same as Birnbach im Rottal. This false assumption has misled many researchers. He explains that "Biernbach" is generally known as "Bierbach bei Blieskastel," and there the marriage entry Bietz-Gutdücken will be found, noting the spelling variation of the surnames.

     In "Place Names in German-Speaking countries", Gerhard Jeske gives this research example:

Family Tradition might say that an ancestor who spoke German came to the United States from Europe in 1825 from a place by the name of Baden. If this ancestor came from Germany, there are at least three possibilities as to the place of origin.

    1) The ancestor may have come from the former Grand Duchy of Baden.
    2) His place of origin might be the city of Baden, now known as Baden-Baden, which is a district city in the Schwarzwald area (Black Forest) in the former Grand Duchy of Baden, now in the German state of Baden-Württemberg.
    3) The ancestor could have come from the village of Baden in the district (Kreis) of Achim in the former Prussian province of Hannover, now in the German state of Niedersachsen.

In addition to these three possibilities in Germany, there are at least two more possibilities, one in Switzerland and one in Austria.

    1) The ancestor may have come from the city of Baden in the Canton of Aargau, Switzerland.
    2) His place of origin might be the city of Baden in Niederösterreich (Lower Austria), Austria.

In such cases every possible effort should be made by the researcher to find some facts in addition to family tradition as to the place of origin of the ancestor.  Search existing records in the United States to extract clues as to the ancestor's origin.

Gazetteers and Place Name Dictionaries[edit | edit source]

     Did your ancestor come from Hog village [Schweindorf]; Black Cat [Schwarze Katze, Pomerania]; Sumatra [in Brandenburg]; Over-seas [Übersee, Bavaria]; White Flea [Weisse Floh]; Yorkstown [Brandenburg]; Pommern [in Rhineland]; To the Seven Electors [zu den sieben Kurfürsten, Silesia]; or did he live in one of the 20 places in Germany called Amerika? These are just a few of the unusual place names found in German gazetteers.
     A "gazetteer" is a geographic dictionary. Genealogists use gazetteers to obtain information such as, where, in a certain country, their research is centered, where a given place is found, how its name is spelled, or, if the place is small, where, in a nearby town or village, parish, court, or civil records can be located. Place name dictionaries provide examples from documents showing the evolution of a place name and its many spelling variations.
     When an exact place of origin is known and the researcher wants to find it, gazetteers must be checked. Gerhard Jeske identifies some of the important gazetteers for Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and German settlements in other European countries. Many others are available in print and many are also available on the internet.

Gazetteers - Germany
Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs- Lexikon des Deutschen Reichs [FHL 943 E5mo; Film 496,640 and 496,641; fiche 6000001 to 6000029). This gazetteer is available on the internet.
Müllers Grosses Deutsches Ortsbuch [FHL 943 E5m]
Gemeinde und Ortslexikon des Deutschen Reichs [FHL 599,563].
Amtliches Gemeinde- und Ortsnamenverzeichnis der Deutschen Ostgebiete under fremder Verwaltung [FHL 943.8 E5b; film 824,243].
Kleiner historischer Städtenamen-Schlüssel für Deutschland und die ehemaligen deutschen Gebiete [FHL 943 E5ve].

Gazetteers -Switzerland
Schweizerisches Ortslexikon [FHL 949.4 E8s].
Geographisches Lexikon der Schweiz [FHL 949.4 E5g; film 599,323]
Historisches-Biographisches Lexikon der Schweiz [FHL 030.494 H629a].

Ortsverzeichnis von Österreich [FHL 943.6 E5o]
Müllers Ortsbuch für das Land Österreich [FHL 943.6 E5om].
Verzeichnis der Post- und Telegraphenämter in Österreich, Ungarn, und in Bosnien-Hercegovina sowie der Österreichischen Postanstalten im Fürstentum Liechtenstein und in der Levante [FHL 943.6 E5a]

German Settlements in other European Countries
Deutsch-fremdsprachiges (fremdsprachig-deutsches) Ortsnamenverzeichnis [FHL 940 E5kt; film 583,457 and 590,387]
Gemeindeverzeichnis für Mittel- und Ostdeutschland und die früheren deutschen Siedlungsgebiete im Ausland. [FHL 940 E5g].

Place Name Dictionaries
     The following are examples of place name dictionaries available for German areas. Many others are available.

• Germany - General:
Förstemann, E. Altdeutsches Namenbuch, II Die Ortsnamen, 3 Aufl. Bonn 1913-16.

• Baden:
Krieger, A. Topographisches Wörterbuch des Grossherzogtums Baden. Heidelberg, 1904.
Karlsruhe Stadtamt. Eingemeindungen und Namesnänderungen von badischen Gemeinden. [Name changes and incorporations of towns in Baden, Germany. [FHL 1180442].

• Brandenburg:
Enders, Lieselott. Historisches Ortslexikon für Brandenburg. Teil VIII. Uckermark. [FHL 943.15 E5e v. 8].

Lehmann, Rudolf. Historisches Ortslexikon für die Niederlausitz. Band 2. Die Kreise Cottbus, Spremberg, Guben und Sorau. Marburg, 1979. [DD 491 .L395 L39 Bd. 2]

• Hessen:
Kaufmann, Henning. Rheinhessische Ortsnamen. Die Städte, Dörfer, Wüstungen, Gewässer und Berge der ehemaligen Provinz Rheinhessen und die sprachgeschichtliche Deutung ihrer Namen. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1976. [DD 801 .P491 R485].

• Palatine [Pfalz]
Dolch, Martin and Albrecht Greule. Historisches Siedlungsnamenbuch der Pfalz. Speyer, 1991. [LOC DD 801 .P43 D65].

• Posen:
Königliche Preußische Regierung. Verdeutschung polnischer Ortsnamen 1867-1919. [Germanization of Polish place names in Posen and other ethnic Polish areas during the rise of Prussian authority in Germany]. [FHL 474893-474909; 474920-474921].

• Rhineland:
Dittmaier, Heinrich, Melchers, P., Bach, Adolf. Rheinische Flurnamen: [Dictionary of Rhenish field names. Bonn: Ludwig Röhrscheid Verlag, 1963. [FHL 943.42 E2].

• Silesia
Slownik etymologiczny nazw geograficznych Slaska [Etymological dictionary of place names in Silesia, Poland, formerly in Germany]. Warsaw, 1968- [FHL 943.85 E2r vols. 1-9].

Research Examples Using Gazetteers[edit | edit source]

     Since gazetteers are incomplete it is important to check more than one gazetteer to find certain places. The importance of checking several gazetteers is illustrated in two examples provided by Gerhard Jeske in "Place Names in German-Speaking Countries".

Example 1:
     A place from which an ancestor came was given as Gellen, Brandenburg, Prussia. Meyers gazetteer did not list a place by this spelling in the former Prussian province of Brandenburg, but there were three places listed by this spelling in other parts of Germany, two of which were in Prussia. These places were:

1. Gellen, Oldenburg, Germany
2. Gellen, Westpreussen (West Prussia), Prussia
3. Gellen, Pommern (Pomerania), Prussia

     Other places in connection with this research problem were given as Jädickendorf and Nordhausen, both in Brandenburg, Prussia. When checking Meyers gazetteer for Nordhausen, reference was made to Göllen. Checking the gazetteer for Göllen reference was found to Jädickendorf. According to these findings the given spelling of Gellen was wrong and the correct spelling should be Göllen.
Meyers gazetteer indicated that there is no parish in Göllen. Trying to find the parish for Göllen another gazetteer was checked. This gazetteer, Gemeindelexikon für den Freistaat Preussen (Gazetteer for the Free State of Prussia), year 1932, microfilm 806,636 did not list a place by the name of Göllen as given in Meyers, but here it was spelled Gellen, and the parish was given as Nordhausen for Evangelical church records and Königsberg/Neumark for Catholic church records.
     Next, maps were checked. The map of the German Empire of 1871 [FHL 068,814] page 246 gave the place as Göllen. Another map (#53) published by GEO Center in Stuttgart, Germany listed it as Gellen. The gazetteer Amtliches Gemeinde- und Ortsnamenverzeichnis der Deutschen Ostgebiete unter fremder Verwaltung was also checked, and here the place was also given as Gellen. However, in part B of this gazetteer on page 813 reference was made that the former spelling of Gellen was Göllen.

Example No. 2
     A patron wanted to find out where the town of Kleinich, now in the state of Rheinland-Pfalz, was formerly located. Meyers gazetteer was checked but a place by the name of Kleinich was not listed. Then Müllers gazetteer was checked and here Kleinich was found. However, this gazetteer does not indicate the former state or province in which the places were located before World War II. Next the German General Atlas (Deutscher General Atlas), [FHL Ref Q 943 E3m] was checked and on page 71 Kleinich was found. In addition a place by the name of Oberkleinich, south of Kleinich, and a place by the name of Thalkleinich, north of Kleinich, were found in the atlas.
     All three of these places are listed in Müllers gazetteer, but only one of them, Thalkleinich, is listed in Meyers gazetteer. When the gazetteer of Prussia was checked it was found that Kleinich was formerly spelled with a "C," Cleinich. This was the reason why it was not found in Meyers under "K," Kleinich. Oberkleinich was also spelled with a 'C," Obercleinich, but Thalkleinich was spelled with "k." The spellings of the places as listed in the Prussian gazetteer (on microfilm 475,861) were also found in Meyers gazetteer and the former province in which these three places were located was Rhineland, Prussia.

Listed below are some of the most common reasons why place names cannot be found when the given spelling is wrong:
     1. Misinterpretation of handwriting.
     2. Incorrect spellings given by those recording the information, including official scribes, ministers, and civil registrars.
     3. Localities have been absorbed by larger towns.
     4. Places are no longer in existence because of destruction by nature or through wars.
     5. Place name changes have occurred over the years.

An excellent overview of German gazetteers and how to use them can be found in A Genealogical Handbook of German Researchby Larry O. Jensen.

Checking Detailed Maps[edit | edit source]

       Some places can only be found by checking detailed maps for various time periods.  Maps of the German Empire of 1871 (FHL film 068,814) is an excellent source for locating older place names.  These and other maps are now available on  

Place Names in Foreign Languages[edit | edit source]

     Place names can take a variety of forms when applied to different languages. Note these endings of German place names and the changes that can occur when applied to various languages.

     -dorf = ville [French] = wies [Polish] = village
     -hof = -gaard [Danish] = farm
     -feld = mark [Danish] = field
     -wald = -fôret [French] = forest
     -mühle = mølle [Danish] = mill
     -holz = skov [Danish] = grove


Below are a few French place names and their German equivalents:
     Aspach le Haut [Upper] = Oberaspach
     Blanche Eglise = Weisskirchen [White church]
     Basse Rentgen = Niederrentgen
     Bellefosse = Schöngrund
     Petite Rosselle = Kleinrosseln
     Zabern = Saverne

Slavic Influence[edit | edit source]

     Both Polish and Russian are highly inflected languages. This means that endings are added to stems of words to signal changes in meanings. Nouns, adjectives and pronouns can be declined and change the structure of a word. A place name can take on a different look when various endings are added. This can be confusing to researchers even if the Polish or Russian equivalent name of the place is known. Some common place name forms in German and Polish are:
     Ober = górny = upper
     Unter = dolny = lower
     Gross = wielki = large
     Neu = nowy = new

German and equivalent Sorbic place names from the German Postal Directory. Wendish (Sorbic) areas of Germany include these:

Latinization of Place Names[edit | edit source]

     Latin names for localities are found frequently in parish register entries. Villa nova (Latin); Villeneuve (French); and Neuhof (German), and Newtown or Newton (English) are names for the same place.  Latin or Greek place names are very common in University matriculation records.  The Latin prepositions "ex" [from or out of] and "de" [from] often precede the Latin places names. Latinized place names when following a preposition commonly have these endings: -anus, -inus, and -ensis. Examples of Latin places names:
     Parthenopolis = Magdeburg
     Regiomont(i)um or "ex Regiomontanus" = Königsberg or "from Königsberg"
     Borussia = Prussia
     Marchia = Mark Brandenburg
     Gryphiberga = Greiffenberg, Schlesien, Prussia
     Guelferbytum or Wolfenbuttela = Wolfenbüttel, Braunschweig

     Thomas Otto Achelis in "Die Bedeutung der Universitätsmatrikeln für den Familienforscher" [The importance of University Registers for the Family Researcher] states that students often gave the name of a larger, more well-known city as their place of origin instead of their native village or birthplace. Place names in Latin can be found on the internet at Orbis Latinus online .

Key to Locating Place Names[edit | edit source]

     Often the first letter of a given spelling for a certain place name is incorrect, but many times other letters in the middle of the place name are also incorrect. Some place names may have additional letters at the end which should not be there, other place names may have letters missing that should be there. The researcher who is familiar with German place names may recognize the correct name of a misspelled town or village, but often it is very difficult and sometimes almost impossible to determine the correct spelling of a given place name. The examples below from actual research problems indicate how certain letters may have been used by the scribe and how they appear in modern gazetteers. 

  • Letters A and E

Example:  Aichberg, Württemberg found in gazetteer as Eichberg

  • Letters B and P

 Example:  Bermesens, Pfalz, Bavaria was the place name given in United States records.  It was identified as Pirmasens in German gazetteers.

  • Letters C and K

     Calbine, Arswaldy, Brandenburg = Kölpin, Arnswalde, Brandenburg

  • Letters C and Z

      Example: Cyzow was found in the gazetteer as Züssow, Pommern.

  • Letters Ch and G

       Bercheim = Bergen

  • Letters Ch, Ck & K

     Nache = Nack

  • Letters Cz and Sch

     Caczulin (parish Zirke) Posen = Katschulin

  • Letters D and T

     Breedsen = Brietzen, Schlesien

  • Letters E and A 

     Gutmeudingen = Gutmadingen

  • Letters E and I

     Borodeeno, Bessarabia = Borodino, Bessarabia

  • Letters Ei and I 
  • Letters F and V

     Alfertissen = Alverdissen

  • Letters F and Pf

     Rhinefalls = Rheinpfalz

  • Letters F and W
  • Letters F and Ph
  • Letters G and K

     Igen = Ecken, Schleswig-Holstein

  • Letter H  (it can be added to a word or omitted).

     Hoen-Selchow = Hohenselchow, Pommern

  • Letters I and E

     Posin = Posen

  • Letters I and Ei 

    Kris = Kreis [district]

  • Letters I and Y

     Baiern = Bayern

  • Letters I and J

     Gierrup = Gjerrup

  • Letters J and Y
  • Letters J and I
  • Letters K and C
  • Letters K and Ch

     Tükskov = Tüchschau, Schleswig-Holstein

  • Letters K and G

     Aklitten, East Prussia = Auglitten, Ostpreussen

  • Letters Ks and X

     Rocksheim = Roxheim, Pfalz

  • Letters L and N
  • Letters M and N
  • Letters N and M
  • Letters O and U

     Bookheim, Friberg = Buchheim, Freiburg, Baden

  • Letters Ow and Au

     Schwiesow = Schwiesau

  • Letters P and B

     Stoppen Holstein in United States records is identified as Stubben Kr. Stormarn,

  • Letters Ph and F
  • Letters p and ss (Transcriber deciphered ß as p)

     Prupia [Prußia]= Prussia

     Hepe [Heße]= Hessen

  • Letters Qu and Kw or Kv

     Quars [German]  is the same as Kvaers [Danish]

  • Letters R and H
  • Letters S and Z

     Elsens = Elsenz, Pfalz

  • Letters Sch and Sz

     Borschymman, East Prussia = Borszymmen, Ostpreussen

  • Letters Sch and Ch
  • Letters Sch and S

     Schwanstrup = Svanstrup  [Also note that w and v are interchangeable].

  • Letters Sch and Cz
  • Letters Sch and G
  • Letters Sch and Sk

     Scheldegaard [German] is found in Danish gazetteers as Skeldegaard.

  • Letters Sh and Sch

     Bamesh Leebow = Böhmisch Liebau

  • Letters T and D

     Alfertissen = Alverdissen

  • Letters Ts and Z
  • Letters Tsch, Tzsch and Z
  • Letters Tz and Z
  • Letters T and Th

     Tedinghaused = Thedinghausen

  • Letters U and O

     Stulp = Stolp, Pommern

  • Letters U and V
  • Letters V and F
  • Letters V and U

     Faverby = Fauerbye, Schleswig-Holstein

  • Letters V and W

Vestermølle = Westermühle, Schleswig-Holstein

  • Letters W and V
  • Letters W and M
  • Letters X and Z
  • Letters X and Chs

     Hexum = Hechtsheim

  • Letters Y and J
  • Letters Y and I

     Bylevelt = Bielefeld, Westfalen

  • Letters Z and C
  • Letters Z and S
  • Zelnowo = Sellnowo

Note: Vowel sounds can be substituted in a variety of combinations: For example:

ai = aj = ay = ei = ej = ey = eih = eu = äu = oi = oy = ei
aa = ah = a
ä = ae = äh = aeh = ee = eh = ö = öh = e
ie = ih = j = ü = ue = üh = ueh = ui = uy = y = i
o = oh = oa


1. Ferguson, Laraine K. "Census Records in Northern Germany, Pt. 1 Schleswig-Holstein" in German Genealogical Digest Vol. 6 No. 4 (Winter 1990).
2. Gardner, Duncan B. German Towns in Slovakia and Upper Hungary. A Genealogical Gazetteer. Lakewood, Ohio, 1988.
3. Gölzer, Bernd. "Fehler in der Familienforschung" in Saarländische Familienkunde, Vol. 9, pp. 96-107.
4. Heintz, A. "Verschollene Ortsnamen" in Mitteilungen des Historischen Vereins der Pfalz 5 (1875), pp. 49-122.
5. Jensen, Larry O. A Genealogical Handbook of German Research. Revised Edition. Pleasant Grove, Utah: 1978.
6. Jensen, C. Russell Ph.D. Parish Register Latin: An Introduction. Vita Nova Books, 1988.
7. Jeske, Gerhard. Place Names in German-Speaking Countries. Unpublished manuscript.
8. Kowallis, Gay P. and Elly Poulsen. The Danish Genealogical Helper.  Everton Publishers.
9. Minert, Roger. Spelling Variations in German Names: Solving Family History Problems Through Applications of German and English    Phonetics. Woods Cross, Utah, 2000.
10. Ortell, Gerald. A. Polish Parish Records of the Roman Catholic Church, Their Use and Understanding in Genealogical Research. Genun Publishers, 1989.
11. Schlyter, Daniel M. A Handbook of Czechoslovak Genealogical Research, Genun Publishers, 1990.
12. Shea, Jonathan D. Russian Language Documents from Russian Poland. A Translation Manual for Genealogists. Genun Publishers, 1989.