My family name has two spelling variants, which are alternating in the catholic church records I found. Many people in the village had my family name so we can immediately see the tendency, one priest would write spelling A, then another priest spelling B, but the next one would revert to spelling A, and so on, for the whole 19th century.

Even my great-grandfather who was born in 1892, after the German empire was stable, still has his birth record using variant "B", while only variant "A" has been used in the Army and his emmigration and his post-immigration life.

Today I do not think it is possible for people in Germany to have multiple spelling of their family names, at least not officially. I wonder at which point in history it became a requirement to have the family name to have a single, fixed, official orthography.

  • Not in Germany but even today I occasionally get semi-official letters with my surname misspelled (missing an "e")...
    – Harry V.
    May 14, 2017 at 20:50
  • 2
    If fixing is going on, is it the family name that is fixed or is it the individual's name that is fixed (until altered through some legal process)? The effect would tend to be similar (because the parent's name would drive the registered name of the child) but the "rules" would look quite different. I have zero knowledge of the German situation but in the UK, where there is no concept of an official name, spelling of surnames did seem to settle down from the mid1800s on, presumably with increased literacy.
    – AdrianB38
    May 15, 2017 at 12:10
  • @HarryVervet The fact you can have your name misspelt means there is a reference orthography, and that anything else is considered "wrong" by yourself. Back then, it would have been possible to have several "valid" orthographies of one's name, and they wouldn't be considered misspellings. I wonder when the transition from the old system toward the new was made.
    – Bregalad
    May 15, 2017 at 17:56
  • I wish you would not cling to this notion that there is only one official spelling of a name. You are making a roadblock for yourself for finding records. Even if there is a law which mandates that you use only one official spelling for your own name (which I doubt!), mistakes can still happen.
    – Jan Murphy
    May 15, 2017 at 18:59
  • 1
    When you talk about different variations by priests, are you talking about sacramental records written in Latin? If so, this would be due to Latinization of the name and resulting Latin declension. I saw researchers in my family get confused by these noun cases; in the records he was Petrus (nominative), Petrum (accusative), or Petri (genitive), but regardless of all this his actual German name was Peter. May 25, 2017 at 16:22

2 Answers 2


A (sad) upper bound is that starting from 1938, Jews had to wear an 'ID card'; in the early 40s this was extended to all German citizens. I believe that by then, the spelling of names must have been crystallized.

  • This answer would be greatly improved with sources and/or further development.
    – Bregalad
    May 17, 2017 at 6:44

"Set in stone" is a bit comical to me, because I sometimes find surnames which are never spelled the same way twice. A priest, clerk, or census-taker spells what they hear. The only way I can determine how the family truly spelled their own name, is to find their grave stones.

I've seen German surnames that have not changed in 700 years, but historically spelling wasn't as important as identification. If Johan Meyer got married, there might be three more people of the same name in town. The clerk spelled it Meier or Meijer or Meyer, but also gave his age, occupation, parents names, hometown, father's occupation, etc.

As far as language, there were few absolute "correct spellings" for any words prior to 1800. Compulsory education laws were passed in Prussia in 1763 (1852 in the USA) to bring literacy to the masses. The first spelling books were published in 1783 (USA), and selling in the 100 million range by 1900.

Today, the uniform spelling of surnames is seen as another identity clue, added to the Johan Meyer above. This uniformity mostly came about between 1870-1900 with the onset of literacy, city directories, mail delivery, banking, and social security. When old-age security began in Germany in 1889, Johan Meyer suddenly had to prove his age for the first time.

In the USA I have found several people approaching retirement age, who went to the courts with witnesses and had their birth record corrected. They had to be sure their first, middle and last name on the record matched what they had put on their social security application.

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