National and cultural groups of surnames - Surnames, Naming Traditions, Meaning and Origin -



Surnames, Naming Traditions, Meaning and Origin

National and cultural groups of surnames

The Danish population is a mixture of a number of different national and cultural groups due to a rather significant immigration to Denmark over the centuries. Some came from neighbouring countries—Sweden, Norway, Germany etc.—on their own, with their family, or in groups, wishing to build a future in Denmark. Some were invited to settle by the Danish King and Government while others came as refugees; Jews, Huguenot''s, Herrnhut''s etc. Most immigrants where particularly appreciated for the craft skills that they brought with them, and the contribution was considerable, helping to introduce new knowledge and ideas.

The immigration has resulted in a variety of different surnames—Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, French, and German surnames etc.— and even if you are of Danish decent it may also be possible that you in some way are connected to one or more of these immigrant groups, of which the group of German origin is the most predominant. Your connection might be revealed as you dig further into your family history and often the distinctive surnames of many of these immigrants may even allow you to trace the family''s movements more easily.

Dutch surnames

In the early 1500s Dutch farmers were invited to settle on the island of Amager just south of the capital of Copenhagen. The Dutch had a good reputation for growing vegetables and fruits, and the intention was that they should provide these greens to the court of the Danish King and to the citizens of Copenhagen. The Dutch community thrived and kept their traditions and own way of local government up into the 1900s. There are still many descendants of these Dutchmen living on the Island of Amager, many Dutch first names are still rather common there; names such as Grith, Marchen, Leise, Leisbeth, Neel, Aght, Tejs, Theis, Cornelius, Dirch, Crilles, Claes, Jan and Geert. Examples of Dutch surnames in Denmark are: Wybrandt, Zibrandtsen, Isbrandtsen, Villumsen, Raagard, Tønnesen, Jansen, Bacher and Schmidt.

Jewish surnames

The first jews settled in Copenhagen about 1600, and in the following centuries Jewish congregations were formed in the major provincial cities of Fredericia, Naksov, Aarhus and Aalborg. Although resticted in many ways, the Jews were generally treated better in Denmark than in other countries during the 1800s and 1900s. The Danish Jews where granted letters of naturalization and full citizenship from 1814. Although this also meant religious freedom, the Jews didn't get political freedom before the introduction of the Danish constitution of 1849.

Jewish surnames are often classified as either Sefardic (from Spain/Portugal and their descendants) or Ashkenazic (from central/eastern Europe and their descendants) however this surname categorization is not always absolute. Examples of Jewish surnames in Denmark are: Bendix, Berend, Cohen, Goldschmidt, Hertz, Levin, Melchior, Meyer, Salomon, Trier, Wolff etc. Some families soon abopted the Danish patronymic naming tradion (with the suffix ''-sen'') resulting in surnames such as Davidsen, Jacobsen, Simonsen etc., however, these surnames were also widely used in Denmark and does not by themselves indicate Jewish descent.

Swedish surnames

The neighbouring country of Sweden has by nature provided a lot of immigrants to Denmark. There has been a natural internal movement over the centuries, but also after the ceeding of the ancient Danish areas of Skåne (Scania), Halland, and Blekinge (what now is the southern part of Sweden) to Sweden in 1559, Denmark continiued to attract Swedes seeking to build a better future. The Swedish immigration saw and all time high in the mid-1800s where large numbers of mainly unskilled labourers left Sweden to settle on the island of Sealand, in the capital of Copenhagen, and especially on the Island of Bornholm. Many Swedish surnames are, like Danish and Norwegian surnames, of patronymic origin often identified by a personal name with the suffix ''-sson'', for example, Andersson (son of Anders) or Persson (son of Per). Note the double s. Other indications of a Swedish surname are the significant number of surnames with nature/locality endings. The suffixes (root words) commonly found in Swedish surnames are, for example, -blad, -blom, -dahl, -ek, -gren, -holm, -lind, -löf, -lund, -kvist, -sjö, -strand, and -ström.

Norwegian surnames

For many centuries, until 1814, Denmark and Norway were united in a Dual Monachy under the Danish Kings. These long and close relations as well as the common Norse origin, means that naming traditions, derivations, origin of surnames, and name etymology in general are quite similar in both countries. Taking into account the considerable amount of movement between Denmark and Norway through the centuries makes it difficult to determine whether a particular surname has a Danish or a Norwegian origin. Surnames deriving from specific place names in Norway, however, are often the best way to identify the Norwegian origin by the surname alone. A couple of these surnames are Heiberg and Haugland.

French Huguenot surnames

In the sixteenth century many protestant refugees from France and the Nederlands sought refuge in Denmark and other northern european countries like England and Germany. Among these refugees were French Protestants, the Huguenots, who came to Denmark after 1680. These refugees were of all kind of ranks and professions—officers, merchants and craftsmen etc.—but many arrived destitute. Towards the end of the 17th century Denmark granted letters of naturalization and full citizenship to the Huguenots and colonies were established in both Copenhagen and Fredericia.

Examples of French Hugenot surnames in Denmark are: Deleuran, Honoré, Le Fevre, Devantier, Dupont, Hermann (originally Armand), Stein, Fournaise, Le Blond, Vilain, Collier, Louison, Desmarets, Labove (originally La Bove), Dufresne, and Killemond.

German surnames

The movement of foreigners into Denmark, especially the large number of German immigrants, has had some impact on Danish surnames. When Holstein became a Duchy of the Danish King in the 13th century, it also meant the beginning of German immigration to Denmark, and during the following centuries many Germans settled Denmark, particularly in Copenhagen, the larger provincial cities and throughout Sønderjylland (the Duchy of Schleswig). The largest influx came from Holstein/German Nobility, merchants, craftsmen and civil servants.

The German emigration reached an all time high in the 17th and 18th century, which saw an immigration to Denmark mainly from the northern German states. These German immigrants settled principally in Copenhagen and the provincial cities (Market Towns), and only few settled in the rural areas.

The following are a few examples on German surnames and their Danish and English translations. Since the surnames in this example are occupational surnames, they can also be found as surnames in both Denmark and English speaking countries.

farm bailiff


Other German surnames are those with German nature/locality endings (root words). Some examples are ''-au'', ''-bach'', ''-baum'', ''-berg'', ''-bruck'', ''-dorf'', ''-heim'', ''-hof'', ''-horst'', ''-reut'', ''-stadt'', ''-stein'', ''-thal'', and ''-wald''. Checking the variation in surnames in Denmark the abundance of German surnames is clear, however each of them usually don''t cover as many individuals as the Danish surnames.

Most German immigrants came on their own or family by family, but some groups also immigrated, for example the Hernnhuts and the so-called ''Potato Germans'', who where invited to settle in Denmark. The Hernnhuts, a group of protestant refugees originally from Sachsen (Saxony) settled near the village of Tyrstrup in Sønderjylland (the Duchy of Schleswig) and founded the town Christiansfeld named in honor of the Danish King Christian who invited them to Denmark. The ''Potato Germans'' were invited by the mid-1700 to help colonize the heath of Jutland. This group came mainly from Rheinland-Pfalz in the soutwestern part of Germany. After a rather problematic start they soon introduced the growing of potatos, thereby giving them the nick name ''Potato germans'', which, by the way, the present day descendants are rather proud of. Examples of German surnames carried by families of ''Potato Germans'' are: Bitsch, Betzer, Kramer, Kriegbaum og Würtz.

As mentioned, the Danish population is a mixture of a number of different national and cultural groups due to a rather significant immigration to Denmark over the centuries. Every immigrant-individual, family or groups-has their own story and reasons to immigrate. Some of the larger national and cultural groups are mentioned above, but you''ll in fact be able to find immigrants of many nationalities which also might need mentioning. All brought with them a large variety of surnames to Denmark, and although some surnames died out over time, many where passed down through the generations and now a natural part of the Danish surname base.

A few numbers and facts...

  • 500,000

    ...Danes emigrated up to 1968, and of these about 70% departed for the USA. In the 1800's alone a vast majority of 90% went to the USA. Read more...

  • 261,065

    This many individuals, comprising of 4.6 percent of all Danes, carries the surname JENSEN followed by NIELSEN, HANSEN, PEDERSEN and ANDERSEN. Read more...

  • 1,000

    Of the 5,000 basic words in modern English, as many as 20 percent are so-called loan words from the Old Norse language (ON). Read more...

  • 1769

    This year the first Danish census was taken. The next censuses were taken in 1787 and 1801 and from 1834 onwards every 5-10 years. Read more...

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