German Names that Come Out of American Mouths

There’s a school-of-thought that says if you can speak at least one foreign language than you have the basic foundation to learn several more. So in theory, because I speak two languages I should have been able to pick up the basics of the German language. After returning from Germany on business, I can tell you that German has to be one of the most difficult languages I ever tried to learn. After six months of trying in advance of my trip, I was lucky to just barely grasp the pronounciation of some surnames.

Many German surnames have their origins dating back to the Germanic middle ages. And German names – like many other nationalities – no doubt follow this same evolution. This doesn’t make pronunciation of German names or even German baby names any easier. But at least there’s an historical context to place my lack of diction skills. The process of forming German family names began around the year 1100 and extended through 1600. The development of German names owed everything to a person’s social class and demographics. For example, first names identified specific persons. Over time the first name began to be applied to the bearer’s whole family. I don’t believe this process exists in America. For example, I consider my demographic “Poor”, yet my first name – thankfully – is not “Poor Gary”.

Anyway, if you know a little German, you will – as the saying goes – obviously go a long way, and have more luck with the language and diction in general. Certainly you will be able to recognize German names more easily. If you’re like me, and have no grasp of the German language, at least you can look for several language clues to help you with your struggle.
Regarding German surnames, look for names which begin with sch. In English this sound is best represented by sh, like in “shine”. You can easily then pronounce names like Schaefer (Schafer), Schmid (Schmitt), Schnitzel, Schrader, Schroeder, and Schultz (Schulz), just to name a few. Names with ei are mostly German (although there are exceptions): for example Reichmann, Reimann, Reimers, Klein, and Weider. If a name ends in -mann, -burg, -lich, or -stein, it’s a likely indication that the name is German. But in certain settlement areas – again we’re talking geographics and demographics – those same endings could also refer to Swedish and Russian Jewish backgrounds.

With no intention of offending anyone, I can tell you I have always found the German language to be the least attractive in terms of sound. That is – how it sounds rolling off my lips. Names like Bruno, Dieter, Dietmar, Friedrich and Fritz are somewhat intimidating to me. They are cold names. To me, these are German names that recount images of people working in coal mines or steel mills or worse. German names of females are not much better: Berta, Brunhilde, Elfrieda, Gertrud, and Helga for example. These names do not conjure up images of forest nymphs splish-splashing naked in a pond somewhere. I’m convinced that a name makes the person and not the other way around. With cold German surnames or German baby names like those mentioned above, I believe a person creates a persona that is inescapable.

Take the German name Adolph for example. It’s no secret that Adolph Hitler yearned to be an artist as a youth. Perhaps world history might be completely different if Adolph’s art instructors had liked his artwork and spurred him on in the field of graphic design or whatever. As it stands – for whatever reason – Adolph just isn’t a German name of an artist. It’s a name of a dictator and is forever linked with that image in mind.

Like any nationality, the names and language are specific to the region. Every culture is ego-centric to a certain degree. So while I don’t particularly find any German surnames to my liking or even the entire language for that matter, there are plenty of Germans who probably don’t enjoy pronouncing Western languages. English and American for example. I’ve always felt my name “Gary” is pretty easy to pronounce. That is until I spent time in Korea and Japan. Heck, it’s not even pronounced well in Italy. In fact, even now, after all these years overseas, I seem to have lost my name and am now identified as “The American”. That is not exactly a morale-builder. Especially in these days of tense inter-cultural relations. Whenever I hear someone say “Hey, It’s the American!” I want to dive under a table. But I digress, every language has it’s problems with diction, tenor and timber of words other their own. In this I take some solace, because I know that my German counterparts are having just as much of a struggle as I am. Now will someone teach me how to ask where the restroom isâÂ?¦?

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