The landscape of surnames

4 January 2012

As Professor of Historical Linguistics at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), Damaris Nübling's special interest is the development of the German language from its first documented form as Old High German, dating to around 800 AD, to contemporary German. Her current projects are witness to the fact that historical linguistics is actually anything but a drab and dry-as-dust discipline. Currently she is investigating the morphology of surnames in Germany.

On being asked whether today's students find the subject of historical linguistics interesting, Nübling replies with a grin: "Much more than you might think." Although most students only become aware of the existence of such a discipline when they come to university to study, they soon discover that it has its own unique fascination. Nübling's own experience was no different to that of most freshman students today. "I'm actually a frustrated biologist," she confesses. It was her ambition to study biology, but because she did not get a place to study this discipline at first, she decided to take German studies for a semester to fill in the time. Back then she was studying in Freiburg and she became so enamored of linguistics that when she was subsequently actually offered a place to study biology she decided to let the chance slip. As a result, her field of study is now the evolution of language rather than the evolution of the species.

One of the undertakings that Professor Nübling is currently involved in is the German Surname Atlas (Deutscher Familiennamenatlas) project that is being sponsored by the German Research Foundation (DFG). Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz is cooperating with the University of Freiburg in this project, the objective of which is to map the distribution of surnames in Germany. For this purpose, Nübling and her team obtained information on all surnames registered in Germany and the associated postal codes using the documentation compiled by Deutsche Telekom. This enabled the researchers to see which surnames tend to occur in which regions. They were able to conclude from this not only how surnames had originated and spread, but were also able to formulate important premises with regard to how the German language has developed. This project is the first undertaking on this scale to look at the distribution of surnames.

Time capsules

Some 500 years ago, people in Germany started to assume what we now call surnames. "There were only a limited number of forenames in use in the Middle Ages," explains Nübling. There might, for example, have been ten men all called "Georg" living in a particular locality. So that people could differentiate between them, they were each given an individual cognomen or byname, which eventually became that person's surname. As a rule, a byname was derived from a particular individual characteristic of the person, such as their place of origin, their profession, or even some aspect of their appearance. If one of the Georgs worked as a blacksmith, he might be called Georg (the) Schmied ("Smith"), and his descendants would continue to bear the byname of their eponymous ancestor even if they never once came into contact with hammer and anvil.

There are currently some 1.1 million different surnames in Germany (including spelling variants, surnames of non-German origin, and double-barreled surnames). For linguists like Nübling, these represent an absolute treasure trove of research material. "They are time capsules that preserve the language of 500 years ago." The various dialects of German in use at the time when names were being developed have survived in written form only in surnames. This means that, with the help of surnames, Nübling and her colleagues can draw important inferences with regard to the dialects of the period and can reconstruct the name landscape of 500 years ago on the basis of current surname distribution. "And this," she concludes, "is a revolution in linguistics." It is only possible to draw such inferences because there is an up to 85% stability within the various name landscapes. In other words: "People tend to stay living where their ancestors once lived." This is perhaps a somewhat surprising revelation in this age of globalization and mobility.

So what do these name landscapes look like? Nübling clicks around a couple of times on her laptop and large numbers of colorful maps that she herself has generated appear on the screen. Recognizable within the outline map of Germany are regions of various hues in which differently colored circles are located. "This is not the chaos it might appear to be at first; these are actually name landscapes," she elucidates, and provides by way of illustration an introduction to the distribution of the common surname "Schmitt" ("Smith") and its spelling variants. The region in which the variant "Schmitz" predominates is green, while the blue area is where the version "Schmitt" is more common. "Those called 'Schmied,' on the other hand, are clustered down here," Nübling points to the red-colored region in the south of Germany. There are clear demarcations between the areas with preferred spelling variants and these roughly coincide with the linguistic frontiers of the old dialect regions.

Why the "Schwab" families do not live in Swabia

Surname distributions can also provide evidence of the migration of population groups, an aspect that is of particular interest to Nübling and her team. The current distribution of the provenance-derived surname "Schwab" (i.e. "Swabian") reveals the migration pattern of the Swabians. With the help of mapping, it is possible to see not just the direction the migration took but also its intensity. "As you can see," Nübling indicates a map, "there are relatively few people living in the Swabia region (or "Schwaben" in German) who have the surname 'Schwab'." But, as she goes on to explain, this is unsurprising in view of the fact that there is nothing unusual about a Swabian living in Swabia. The provenance of a person only becomes an identifying characteristic once they are outside their place of origin. A Michael could have migrated from Swabia to another district and to distinguish him from all the other local Michaels, he may well have been called Michael (the) Swabian (or "Schwab" in German).

Aspects of cultural history can also be revealed by name landscape maps. A map showing the distribution of all surnames associated with wine-growing would make it possible to determine the distribution of various professions, such as that of cooper - represented by the German surnames "Küfer" and "Fassbinder", and the extent of viticulture 500 years ago. Moreover, it allows for the identification of regions where wine was the drink of choice.

The Digital German Surname Dictionary project

It is not the objective of the Digital German Surname Dictionary project to uncover the meanings of personal names, as it is often the subject of popular radio programs in Germany. "We are much more interested in the linguistic and cultural historical aspects," clarifies Nübling. However, the etymology of surnames, in other words, their origin and meaning, is to be investigated in a follow-up project. The year 2012 will see the initiation of a long-term project that is expected to have a duration of 24 years and will result in the creation of the first comprehensive Digital German Surname Dictionary (Digitales Familiennamenwörterbuch Deutschlands). Collaborating on this project are Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz and the Darmstadt University of Technology under the supervision of the Mainz Academy of Sciences and Literature. The dictionary will list all German surnames that occur within Germany, including surnames of foreign origin. This project is unique worldwide in that this is the first time that the full current range of surnames within a particular country will have been collated.

What exactly was the initial motivation for this mammoth undertaking? Damaris Nübling has a simple answer to this question: "There is a massive amount of interest in the meaning of surnames." And existing dictionaries only cover a tiny fraction of surnames while many of the provided interpretations of surnames are simply wrong. One of the stated aims of the project is thus to provide factually based reinterpretations of their etymologies. An example of such a misinterpretation is the assumption that the surname "Hunger" was originally associated with vagrants and vagabonds. A glance at the relevant map shows that the name mainly occurs in the Erzgebirge region in the east of Germany and is actually a variant of the name "Unger," which was used to distinguish immigrants from Hungary. Of course, Nübling is aware of the derivation of her own family name: Nübling means "little Norbert."

Whoever "little Norbert" may have been, his descendant claims that the Digital German Surname Dictionary will be a flagship project. Further cooperation with Austria and Switzerland is already at the planning stage. The project will be made available online, and will be free to use for both the general public and those who wish to use it for academic research purposes.

Although she will have her hands full with work on the project over the next 24 years, Nübling does not intend to restrict herself solely to the study of surnames. She finds forenames and the gender aspects of linguistics just as interesting and this has led her to discover that the forenames given to girls and boys in Germany have tended to become increasingly similar in phonetic terms since the 1970s. Thus Leah and Noah have much more in common than the names Heinz and Ursula that were popular 60 years ago. She is busy preparing an application for a new research project in which she intends to investigate the forename changes adopted by transsexuals. "This area is, as yet, completely uninvestigated," she states. Another field of interest is the linguistic ambiguities of the German language. She has worked on the "Duden Grammatik," the standard German grammar reference work, where she repeatedly encountered ambiguities such as the variant forms adopted by certain nouns in the genitive case (for example "des Atlas/des Atlasses" = of the atlas). As she herself emphasizes, none of these variants is actually wrong; what they indicate is that German is a living language that undergoes the changes common to other languages, too. These ambiguities can also represent pointers to what the German language will be like in 100 years time. It is apparent that there is nothing static about language and that the "frustrated biologist" will continue to have much more to do in future.