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July 21, 2017

To learn more about Germany, it helps to understand the country's nomenclature. 

German, unlike the neighboring Romance languages, is famously able to create compound words with ease. It’s the origin of adopted words in English like zeitgeist, which means spirit of the age, and kindergarten, which translates to garden for the children.

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Germany’s place names also draw from this compound-friendly habit, with prefixes that generally describe the age, size, or location of a place, and suffixes that describe its geography. Common place-name prefixes include: Alt- (old), Neu- (new), Klein- (little), Groß- (greater), Ober- (upper), and Nieder- (lower).

Common place-name suffixes include: -ach (river), -bach (stream), -berg (mountain), -brücken (bridge), -bühl (hill), -burg (castle), -dorf (village), -feld (field), -furt (ford), -kirch (church), -roth (clearing), -tal (valley), -wang (meadow), and -werth (island).

Unique German Names

Germany, similar to countries like Sweden, Denmark, and Hungary, dictates naming conventions for children by law. A local registration office, called Standesamt, must approve all given names using an authorized list of first names as well as consultation with foreign embassies.

All German given names must indicate gender, must not be a surname or a product, and must not negatively affect the child. If a name is denied, it may be appealed or a new name may be selected. A fee is charged for each name submission.

Like elsewhere in Europe, many German given names come from the Bible, saints, Rome, or a combination of the three.

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There are some German boy names and German girl names, however, with roots unique to the language. Ekkehard, a gendered male name, comes from “ag,” for edge, and “hard” for brave. 

Bertha, gendered female, comes from “beraht,” for bright or famous.

Popular German Names

Since 1977, the Association for the German Languages has released an annual list of the year's most popular baby names. In 2016, the most popular German girls names were Marie (sometimes Mari), Sophie, and variations of Sophia (Sofia is another common spelling). Maria, Emma, Emilia, and Mia took the next four spots. Ann, variations of Hannah (sometimes Hanna) and Johanna rounded out the top 10. 

Maria and Marie are related to Mary, which references the Virgin Mary, while Sophie and its variants mean wisdom. Emma, meanwhile, can be traced to the German ermenmeaning whole or universal. 

German boy names were somewhat more varied, with Elias, Alexander, Maximilian, and Paul landing the top four spots in 2016. Variations of Leon (sometimes Léon) and Louis (sometimes Luis) followed, with Ben and Jonah close behind. Noah and Luca (sometimes spelled Luka) took the No. 9 and No. 10 spots, respectively. 

Elias has biblical roots related to Elijah, while Alexander has Greek roots and Maximilian is derived from the Roman Maximus.

While this list is very similar to those published in recent years, records show that German name preferences have changed quite a bit since the late 1970s. 

In 1977, the most popular German girls names were Stefanie, Christina (sometimes Christine) and Sandra. Similarly, Christian, Michael, and Stefan were the three most popular German boys names that year. 

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