Prepared by Elisabeth Lindsay.
As with other surnames, German surnames have been around since the 1100s and derive from four primary sources: patronymics, occupation, description, and geographic region. German surnames do have certain distinguishing features: some contain certain vowel clusters (ue, oe, ei), beginning consonant clusters (Kn, Pf, Sch, etc.), and certain suffixes (mann, stein, berg, rich, lich, etc.) that strongly suggest a German origin.
One unique feature of German surnames is the practice of adopting farm names. It is said that If a person moved onto a farm, he would take the name of the farm's original owner. A man might also change his surname to his wife's maiden name, if she inherited a farm. This presents an obvious quandary for researchers, facing not only the change in an ancestor's name, but the possibility of children born to the same family bearing different surnames. A detailed study of German surnames can help you better understand your German ancestry, and a great many resources to help you are available online.