Did Germans whose names ending in “berg,” drop the front syllables to change their surnames to Berg.

If so, how prevalent was it?

Wendy Williams



Dear Ms. Williams,

The name “Berg” is a relative rarity in German for a simple reason: it is too generic. “Berg” is German or Swedish for “hill” or “mountain.” Germans who originally created surnames usually wanted something more specifically descriptive than that, such as “gold mountain” or “silver mountain” (if they were fairly well-to-do) or “mountain of roses” (Rosenberg) or “high hill” (Hochberg). This is distinct from variations ending in “Burg” (castle), more predominant among the nobility.

In 1782 Emperor Joseph II of Austria issued the Edict of Tolerance, ending (on paper, at least) persecution of the Jewish population. In 1787, however, he issued another edict demanding that any of his Ashkenazic Jewish subjects adopt German surnames, a requirement soon similarly made in Prussia. For want of anything else to go by, Ashkenazim throughout these Germanic regions adopted names based on local topographic features or based on their professions (e.g, Schneider, meaning “tailor,” or, say, Schulz, which in all its variations derives from the term for “constable”), hence the predominance of such names among them to this day, sometimes anglicized among those who emigrated overseas (e.g., “Goldsmith” or “Merchant.”)



Jon Guttman

Research Director

World History


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