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IN DEPTH: What are the histories behind German city names?

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IN DEPTH: What are the histories behind German city names?
It's said that Hanover's name comes from its "am hohen Ufer" (on the high shore). Photo: Nele Schröder
17:12 CET+01:00
From Bremen to Berlin, or Köln to Kassel, we look at the often ancient histories of how Germany's cities received their names.

Ever so often, you hear about German towns with weird names, such as Wankum in North-Rhine Westphalia, or the ever-famous village of Fucking in Austria. 

And then there are the big cities with the more “normal” names. Those aren’t explained that often. So we had a look at the origins of some of the most popular German cities.

Hamburg

The northern German city of Hamburg gets its name from the so-called Hammaburg. Hamma is connected to the old Saxon word “hamme”, which means “bent”, “curved” or “crooked.” A “Burg” is a castle. Hence, Hamburg’s name probably goes back to a castle near a curved, or winding, river (like the Alster).

The oldest records of the Hammaburg date back as far as the early 8th century. Back then, Charlemagne used a chapel in the castle to force Christianity onto the pagan people.

A visualization of Hammaburg at Hamburg's archeological museum. Photo: DPA

As the years went by, the name Hammaburg got shorter and shorter. In the 13th century, the city started being called Hamburg or Hamborch.

By the way, the name Hamborch isn’t dead, although the official name of the city is Hamburg – in the regional dialect, Hamburg still sounds like Hamburch or Hamborch.

Berlin

The name of Germany’s capital has been the victim of a misconception for a long time. So let’s start with the false story. You might have heard that Berlin got its name from its reputed founder – Albrecht the Bear. That would also explain the bear on the city’s coat of arms.

The name “Berlin”, like many other cities in eastern Germany, has a Slavic origin however. The word “brl”, “br’lo” or “berlo” was used back in the 8th century to describe a swamp or a wetland – but also a dry place in said wetland.

The Berlin brewery BRLO was named after the city's old Slavic name. Photo: DPA

The suffix “-(i)n” is common for place names. Hence, Berlin lies on a dry spot in the swampy regions around it. The actual name “Berlin” found its way into the documents from the 13th century onwards.

Berlin’s coat of arms, the bear, is used to depicture the city’s name in a German interpretation.

Bremen

Bremen is one of Germany’s Hanseatic Cities, and has had an important role ever since its first mentions that date back to the first century. Back then, there were first settlements that used the location on a big dune next to the river Weser for safety and trading purposes. The name “Bremen” comes from the Old Saxon word “brem” or “bremo”, which means “edge”, “brim” or “edging” and describes the location of the city: It’s on the shore – the brim – of the river Weser.

The scenic Weser river. Photo: DPA

Hannover (Hanover)

Another city name that finds its origins in its location near a river is the capital of Lower Saxony, Hanover. Even though it isn’t entirely clear, the most common origin story for Hanover’s name is “am hohen Ufer” (“at the high shore”). The first settlements that lead to the later city were away from a ford of the river Leine, so that the houses would be protected from the numerous high waters of the river Leine. The houses were therefore “at the high shore” of the Leine.

The "am hohen Ufer" going through Hanover. Photo: Nele Schröder

Köln (Cologne)

The origins of the name of the western German city with the famous dome, is actually quite easy to understand in English. The name Cologne is derived from the Latin name of the city – Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (Claudian Colony and Sacrificial Side of the Agrippinensians).

The Aggripinensians were a Roman noble family, named after the wife of emperor Claudius, Agrippina. Colonia, as it was usually called, was the Roman colony in the Rhineland and the headquarters of the military in the region. First records of the city date back as far as about 60 BC. The name Colonia found its way into history at around 50 AC.  Over the years, the name Colonia went through some changes – during that time, it was called Coellen, Cöllen, Cölln, Cöln and eventually Köln in 1919. In the regional dialect – Kölsch – Cologne is called “Kölle.”

München (Munich)

It isn’t really clear how long ago people started to settle in Munich. However, it is clear how long the name Munich has existed for: In 1158, the name had its first appearance in an official document, where it was called “apud Munichen”.

That means as much as “with the monks” (“Bei den Mönchen”). “Munich” is an Old High German word and means monk. Hence, it is assumed that there has been a group of monks living in the area back in the 12th century.

A former monestary in Munich, which is now the campus of a nature cosmetic company. Photo: DPA

This theory is controversial, though, as there are sources that state something different. A book by two linguists about the Vasconian language (an old language, which is related to today’s Basque language) states that the name Munich comes from the Vasconian word “munica”, which means “place on the shore terrace.” This place is assumed to be the Petersbergl in Munich, which was probably inhabited before the city’s official founding. If the Vasconian language was actually a thing, though, is unknown as for today.

Leipzig

Just like many other cities in eastern Germany, the origin of Leipzig’s name is Slavic. It goes back to the Sorbian word lipa, which means linden tree. Leipzig was first called urbs Libzi – town of the linden trees in 1015. Up to this day, there is a district in Leipzig called Lindenau – which means something like “river meadow with linden trees.

In the years following its first name, it changed over Libz (1170s) to Johannes miles de Lipzc (1216) and eventually to Lipzcik (1350).

Even today the Polish and Sorbian names for Leizig are Lipsk (“place of the linden trees.”)

Chemnitz

This eastern German city’s name has been through a lot – it almost lost its name in the German Democratic Republic. The name Chemnitz comes from the city’s river, which carries the same name. As well as Leipzig, Chemnitz comes from the Slavic, to be precise: From the Upper Sorbian word Kamenica, which means Rocky River.

The 40 tons head of Chemnitz' former namesake has been monumentalized in the centre of the city since 2011. Photo: DPA

When eastern Germany became the German Democratic Republic (GDR) after World War II, Chemnitz’s name changed. On May 10th, 1953 (which was the so-called Karl-Marx-Year), it was renamed into Karl-Marx-Stadt (Karl-Marx-Town). The given reasons for that were the strong labour movement and the important role the city had during the reconstruction after the war. Chemnitz remained Karl-Marx-Stadt until June 1st, 1990, when it was renamed to Chemnitz.

Frankfurt am Main

The history of Frankfurt am Main’s name is dating back to the 8th century. Back then, a group of Allemanni lived near a ford at the river and benefitted from the possibility to cross it quite easily. These Allemanni were then besieged by the Francs (“Franken”), who built a royal farmyard. The name Frankfurt was first used officially by Karl the Great, who wrote in a document “issued at a place called Franconofurd near the river Main.” Franconofurt is the Latin name of the city and means Frankfurt.

Frankfurt's iconic Main river at night. Photo: DPA

Kassel

It isn’t quite clear where the name Kassel has its origins, but there are theories. The first documented mentions of the royal court Chassalla date back to the 10th century. Chassalla became Cassel and in 1926 Kassel.

The content of these documents, however, stands in no context with the city. For about 400 years now, there are different explanations of how the city Kassel got its name. The most popular one is the connection to the Latin word castellum/castella, which is a word for a Roman fortification.

However, there is another, more modern theory: The name could also be a composition of the Germanic words kas-, which means hollow and –sella, which is a derivation of sali/seli, which means building. If you translate that and put it into context, Kassel could mean “Building near a hollow.” This theory could mean that the name of the city has a far longer history than suspected up until now.

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