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Naming Laws in Germany

In April 2017, the Association for the German Language (Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (GfdS)) published its annual list of the most popular baby names of the last year. The GfdS has been publishing this list since 1977. Since 2004, it has been included in the Statistical Yearbook of Germany by the German Statistical Office (Destatis), thereby making it the semi-official German list, as the German government does not publish its own list. In honor of the 70th anniversary of the GfdS, this year’s list included  70 names total instead of the usual ten names per gender. In addition, the GfdS also published a list of the Top-5 all-time favorite first names since the list started 40 years ago.

The All-Time Top-5 for Girls: The All-Time Top-5 for Boys:
1. Marie 1. Christian and Maximilian (tied)
2. Sophie/Sofie 2. Alexander
3. Maria and Stephanie (tied) 3. Daniel and Philipp (tied)
4. Lisa 4. Leon
5. Katharina 5. Lukas/Lucas

A comparison of the all-time favorite lists to the current favorite lists shows that not much has changed over the course of 40 years. Marie and Sophie are still the top-2 girls’ names, whereas Alexander and Maximilian still occupy number 2 and 3 of the boys’ list. It also shows that Germans tend to stick to traditional names. But what about parents who prefer more exotic or unique names for their child?

Baby Ronja Borussia? (Photo by Flickr user mulan. Nov. 3, 2004. Used under Creative Commons License 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/.)

Legal Framework

Despite common belief, German parents are generally unrestricted in their name choice. There are no provisions in the various laws regarding names that regulate the naming of children. The right to name a child is part of the parental right to take care of the child, codified in article 6 of the German Basic Law (constitution). According to the German Federal Constitutional Court, “a name expresses the individuality of a person […] and makes him or her distinguishable from other people. It is the foremost duty of the parents to give their child a name which it cannot yet give itself. […] The right of the parents to choose a first name is only limited if it adversely affects the welfare of the child. The state has a right and a duty to protect the child from an irresponsible name choice. […].” (docket no. 1 BvR 576/07).

Actual Practice at the Registrar’s Office

However, the actual practice at the registrar’s office is different. According to the German Personal Status Act, the registrar has to register the name and the gender of the child in the birth register. The Instructions for Registrars adopted by the Ministry of the Interior state that male children may only have male names and female children only female names, with the exception being “Maria” as a second name for a male child. The instructions also state that a first name may not be offensive or something that is essentially not a name. Family names are also prohibited as first names, except if there is a regional practice to the contrary. Several names may be combined to one name and common short forms of names are acceptable as first names.

So what happens if the registrar refuses a name chosen by the parents based on the Instructions for Registrars? Off to court you go! The parents will have to file a suit in civil court requesting that their name choice be honored.

Court Cases

The Federal Constitutional Court held with regard to non-gender specific names that the fact that the registrar has to register the name and the gender of the baby does not mean that children need gender-specific names. According to the court, the Instructions for Registrars are non-legislative acts without any legal force and can therefore not limit the constitutionally guaranteed parental right to name a child. It stated that gender-neutral names generally do not adversely affect the well-being of the child, because the child can nonetheless identify with its gender.

The constitutional right of the parents to name their child as they please is only limited if the name choice could adversely affect the well-being of the child, for example by exposing the child to ridicule or by being offensive. It is therefore up to the discretion of the individual judge and varies in the different regions in Germany. In addition, attitudes towards what names are acceptable are subject to constant change. Many foreign or unique names that used to be unacceptable are now commonplace.

Names that the courts have allowed include:

  • Emilie-Extra (OLG Hamburg [Higher Regional Court Hamburg], docket no. 2 W 110/03)
  • Christiansdottir (KG Berlin (Higher Regional Court Berlin], docket no. 1 W 71/05)
  • Kiran (Bundesverfassungsgericht [BVerfG] [Federal Constitutional Court], docket no. 1 BvR 576/07)
  • Djehad  (KG Berlin [Higher Regional Court Berlin], docket no. 1 W 93/07)
  • Fanta (LG Köln [Regional Court Cologne], docket no. 1 T 198/98)
  • Galaxina (AG Duisburg [District Court Duisburg], docket no. 12 III 43/92)
  • Pumuckl (OLG Zweibrücken [Higher Regional Court Zweibrücken], docket no. 3 W 79/83)
  • Emma Tiger ( (OLG) Celle, docket no. 18 W 9/04)
  • Cosma-Shiva (LG Duisburg [Regional Court Duisburg], docket no. 2 T 177/92)

Names that have been denied by the courts include:

  • Schmitz (one of the most common last names in Germany) (OLG Köln [Higher Regional Court Cologne], docket no. 16 Wx 239/01)
  • Borussia (Germans associate the name with the soccer club Borussia Dortmund) (AG Kassel [District Court Kassel], docket no. 765 III 56/96)
  • Pfefferminze (peppermint) (name of a healing and spice plant which will submit the child to ridicule) (AG Traunstein [District Court Traunstein], docket no. 3 UR III 2334/95)
  • Verleihnix (Unhygienix) (name of a cartoon character) (Amtsgericht Krefeld, docket no. 32 III B 42/89)
  • Stone (a child cannot identify with it, because it is an object and not a first name) Amtsgericht Ravensburg [District Court Ravensburg], docket no. 1 GR 371/93)
  • Lord (according to the court, in Germany, “Lord” is only known as a title for English nobility or as a name for god, even if it might be an acceptable name in the United States or Sweden) (OLG Zweibrücken [Higher Regional Court Zweibrücken], docket no. 3 W 212/92)
  • Möwe (seagull) (name of a bird which people find a nuisance and is seen as a pest and would therefore degrade the child) (BayObLG [Bavarian Higher Regional Court], docket no. BReg. 3 Z 1/86)

Babies Fanta, Galaxina, and Pumuckl? (Photo by Flickr user mulan. July 14, 2011. Used under Creative Commons License 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/.)

Changing a First Name

Changing a first name in Germany is only allowed under exceptional circumstances, for example according to the Transsexual Act, after an adoption, or in order to Germanize a foreign name. Apart from these exceptions, a person who would like to change his or her first name needs to show that there is a compelling reason for it. In general such a compelling reason is the fact that the person is subject to ridicule because of the name. “Sabsudin” was therefore able to legally change his name to “Sebastian Sabsudin”. The court stated that although it is an Islamic name that shows his membership in the Islamic community, it sounds foreign to a German, is difficult to pronounce, and subjected the child to ridicule from his classmates. The court held that changing the name would help the child better integrate into the school community. (VG Koblenz [Administrative Court Koblenz], docket no. 5 K 957/08.KO).

Further Reading

If you would like to know how other countries regulate names, don’t forget to check out our other blog posts on that topic, among them Elin’s recent FALQs: Name Day Celebrations in Sweden, Kelly’s post on Banning Baby Names in New Zealand, Laney’s on how many times you can change a name in Taiwan, or Elin’s post on Icelandic name laws.

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