When Etymology Meets German Genealogy, Ancestors Are Found

RecordClick professional genealogy research in Germany

Professional genealogist Joan Shurtliff isn’t about to let the fact that she doesn’t speak German fluently stand in the way of pursuing genealogy research on her German ancestors. Armed with a basic understanding of etymology (the study of the history of words and their origins), family history researchers can make sense of the documents they are reading, no matter what the language is. In this article, Joan will maneuver through umlauts and other diacritical marks to help make sense of the German language as it pertains to genealogical research.

Face it, Germans are intimidating. On one trip to Europe, my husband and I took a flight on Ryan Air, a truly budget airline. A number of flights destined for several European cities were scheduled to take off around the same time. Passengers crowded around the boarding areas in anticipation of getting on their flights . . . except for the Germans; they lined up in a nice queue.

The German language is not as orderly as their queue, but some of the words end up being almost as long; however, with a little patience and some tips, it can be understood. One of the first hurdles this RecordClick genealogist learned to overcome, when researching German ancestors, was the language. The good news is that family history researchers do not need to be fluent in the language to work with the language.

Four things to be aware of in working with the German language and genealogy are:

  1. Vocabulary
  2. Spelling
  3. Pronunciation
  4. Grammar


When it comes to vocabulary, I am interested in German genealogy – Genealogie. Many times I do research at a library – Bibliothek – or archives – Archiv. To remember Bibliothek, just remember the Bible; they have the same root word. A good many of the words we use are derived from German, while German and English are derived from the same language – Greek or Latin. Help can come in the form of a German/English dictionary or phrase book.

Spelling and Pronunciation

Then, there is spelling and pronunciation. I recently realized that I knew something about the German language that I didn’t know I knew . . . something I have known all along. My dad didn’t teach me how to speak the language, but he did teach me something about the language when he pronounced and spelled the names, and that is useful. The German pronounce “ie” as a long “e,” while “ei” is pronounced as a long “I.” I have g-grandparents Riepe – pronounced “Ree-pee,” and g-g-grandparents Heitmeier, “Height-my-er.”

As a family researcher, take a look at the names and how they might help in learning about the language. The “W” is pronounced with a “V” sound, which is actually pronounced more like an “F,” while “J”s are pronounced as “Y”s. There is also the pesky umlaut – two dots over a vowel – that changes the letter into a sound not found in the English language. Most of my German last names have come down pretty much intact – except for the ones with the umlaut. One of the names, Gössling, with the umlaut over the “o,” is rarely spelled the same way twice. The double “ss” takes on a different sound as well – something like a “z.”


German grammar can be tricky, but then so can English grammar. Don’t panic. Start with nouns. Lots of time the Germans like to capitalize a noun – it needn’t be proper, and it can be anywhere in a sentence. Quite often the noun is at the beginning of a sentence, and the descriptions follow it. Remember that the Germans, like almost every nationality, may have more than one way of saying something. Let’s take a look at birth records:

  • Geboren : Born (Don’t be surprised to see Geboren abbreviated Geb.)
  • Geburt : Birth
  • Geburten : Births
  • Geburtsbuch : Birth Records or Birth Book
  • Geburtsregister : Birth Records or Birth Register
  • Getaufte : Children Christened
  • Getaufte Kinder : Children Christened (Think of the “kinder” in “kindergarten.”)
  • Taufe : Christening (See the “tauf” in Getaufte?)
  • Taufen : Christenings (Add an “n” and it’s plural.)
  • Taufbuch : Christening Records or Christening Book
  • Taufregister : Christening Records or Christening Register

Some of the other terms that may be of interest to the genealogist are:

  • Ehen : Marriages (“n” makes it plural)
  • Heiraten : Marriages
  • Trauungen : Marriages
  • Standesamtliche Trauung : Civil Marriage (the noun is capitalized)
  • Tod : Death
  • Sterben : Die
  • Gestorben : Dead

Often death is abbreviated Gest. on German tombstones here in the United States.

A number of books are available to assist the family genealogist in researching German records. One that I have found helpful is Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents (GIRT publications, 2001) by Rogert P. Minert. The book is comprehensive in analyzing vital records written in Germany. It lists terms, gives numerous examples of the various records with many pictures and translations. He also delves into grammar and handwriting. Minert is a professor at Brigham Young University with extensive research in German records. Also available is The German Research Companion (Lorelei Press) by Shirley J. Riemer, Roger P. Minert, and Jennifer A. Anderson.

Are you still a little apprehensive about delving into your German ancestry? The expert, and friendly, genealogists at RecordClick are ready to help. We have professional genealogists in Germany who can assist with German family research and language questions, or search for that illusive document you need.