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German Names

Place Names (Ortsnamen)

Part 3: Place Names in German

Germanic Genealogy: Tracing your Germanic roots

MORE > German Geographic Glossary - Place names around the world

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Onomastics is the study of the origin and forms of names for people and places. Here we're going to concentrate on German toponymy, or the names given to places and geographic features in the German-speaking region. OK, no more big words. Let's get to the fun stuff!

German Place
Name Elements
Deutsch English
Au meadow
low area
Bach brook
Bad bath, spa
Berg mountain
Burg fortress
Fels rock, cliff
Furt ford
Hof farm
T(h)al valley, dale
Wald forest
Source: A Short History of German Place Names by Harry Davis, 1988, Atlantik-Brücke, Hamburg
German city names such as Berlin, Berchtesgaden, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Leipzig, Munich (München), Salzburg, Dresden or Zurich (Zürich) are easily recognizable. Geographic features such as das Matterhorn, der Rhein (Rhine), die Elbe, der Harz (mountains), or die Zugspitze, Germany's tallest mountain, are equally well known. Other regional or state names may be just as familiar: Schleswig-Holstein, the Rhineland (Rheinland), Saxony (Sachsen), and others. Sometimes these geographic names also became surnames or part of a family's Germanic last name. But what do all those names actually mean? How did these places get their names?

A closer look at German place names reveals that many of them are not German or even Germanic. River names are often a good example of this. The Rhine (der Rhein) and the Isar both got their names from the Celts or even the pre-Celtic, Indo-European people who once populated the European continent. Such names are often the only remaining evidence of the existence of those early European inhabitants. Die Isar (all German river names are either masculine, der, or feminine, die), the river that flows through Munich and is a tributary of the Danube (die Donau, Latin Danuvius), shares its pre-Celtic name with several distant European rivers: the Esera in Spain, the Isère in France, the Yser in Belgium, and the Jizera in the Czech Republic (der Iser in German). Der Rhein first received its Celtic name Renos, then the Romans latinized it into Rhenus. Many other German rivers also were first "christened" by the Celts and later by the Romans: der Main (Mogonos, the Celtic river god), die Mosel (from the Celtic for "swamp"), die Tauber (Dubra, dub, "water").

But rivers aren't the only geographic features that derive their names from the Celts. Towns (Remagen, "water field," and Worms, from the Celtic for "field") and mountains (Taunus, dunum, "hill") also owe their names to them as well.

Other German place names, particularly in eastern Germany, were originally Slavic. Leipzig was once called Lipsk, from the Slavic word lipa, "lime tree." Berlin was founded by Albert the Bear in the 12th century (hence the city's bear symbol) but the name comes from a Slavic word for "fishing village" (or "swamp," depending on the source). Lübeck in the north of Germany gets its name from a Slavic king, Luiby. Dresden on the Elbe river was once a Slav village known as Drezdzany, meaning "forest dwellers on the plain."

NEXT > More Places + Links, Books - Part 1 | Part 2

MORE > German Geographic Glossary - Place names around the world

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