Because there seem to be countless examples of how the German government regulates (and supports) families raising their kids, it’s fitting that there is also a lot of regulation surrounding their names. I chose to come to Germany after reading about their naming law, which is supposedly one of the strictest in the world. When children are born they must be registered at local office of civil affairs (called a “standesamt”) where their new names are recorded into a “family book.” (Each family living in the town has a book that then goes with them wherever they move throughout the country). At the standesamt, the parents write down the name they have chosen for their new baby and then receive a birth certificate. Interestingly, Emma and her husband Stefan told me that for their first two kids (who are now ages 2 and 4) they had to go in person and bring the babies to prove that they really existed. With Lily, their newest addition, it was possible to do this process by mail.
The catch is that the standesamt has the power to reject a name. Like in Morocco, names are either rejected or accepted by the government according to if they fit a law that leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Below is a rough English translation of parts of the naming law:
Instructions for Registrars and Their Supervisory Authorities:
First: The acquisition of the first name depends basically on the right of the state*, which a child belongs.
Second: As a German child, the custodial parents have the right and the duty of the issuing of the first name and definition of the family name. With only one custodial parent, this is only authorized to issue the first name. In exceptional cases it is decided by the competent administrative authorities.
Third: The birth of a child is sent to the registrar within one week. Those who viewed the birth are:
- The marital father,
- The midwife,
- The doctor,
- Any other person who was present or is informed of the birth of his own knowledge,
- The mother, when she is able to view the birth.
4th: If you can not display the first name at birth are given, they must be displayed within one month after birth orally or in writing.
5th: A first name is of foreign origin with the peculiar character of the foreign language (accent, hooks, etc.) can be provided. If it is in a foreign language other than Latin characters, then the first name must be written using German spelling rules based on sound, if a literal transmission is not possible.
6th: Prohibits the legislature to give the child a ridiculous or insulting name, such as Schnuckel or Fatty.
*The state refers to the local state that the child is born into.
Regulations for the Registration of first names (no regulations on the admissibility or inadmissibility of a first name):
First: Names that are essentially no first name, may not be selected (eg, geographic names). The same applies to the family name, unless there are exceptions to local tradition.
Second: Several names can be connected to a first name (for example, Eva-Maria and Heinz-Günter). But two names with a hyphen, which were recorded in the birth record must also be hyphenated in official documents (eg a signature).
Third: The use of a commonly used shortened form of a given name is allowed as an independent first name.
4th: For boys only male names, for girls only female names are permitted. Only the first name Maria may be used for boys when it is enclosed in addition to one or more male names.
5th: If there is a first name given that causes doubt about the sex of the child, request that an additional first name is given to resolve this.
6th: The spelling of names is governed by the general rules of spelling.
I cannot help but laugh at the loss of the potential babes Schnuckel and Fatty. The concerns about gender in the law are also quite interesting to me. A friend recently explained to me that the exception for boys being named "Maria" (only when coupled with more masculine names, of course) is because historically in Germany, this has also been a boys' name.
I’m still teasing out the implications that this law actually has, and how open to interpretation it is. One parent recently philosophized that because of this rule, German parents tend to take fewer risks with names, deciding instead to choose names they know will be safely accepted. There are also a lot of questions that arise about the grey areas that are inherent to these regulations; what qualifies as a "ridiculous" name, for example? (I would like to know what the German government has to say about Blue Ivy, for example. Ridiculous or colorful?) Also what does "names that are essentially no first names" mean? This might be a problem of sloppy translation but I did recently hear that some German parents (if they're choosing a more unusual name) have begun printing out baby name websites online in case they need to prove to the standesamt that it is a "real first name." (As if the internet is the pinnacle of what is real, after all....) Also, "general rules of spelling?" I want to know what a Kaitlyn in the U.S. would have to say about that...
If a name is rejected in the local standesamat, the family may appeal the decision and go to a higher court. From some initial research it seems to me that families appealing particular cases is often a way for new names to get accepted. For example, in 1995 it was ruled in a high court appeal that a couple in Tübingen could not name their baby "November" but in 2006, the name "November" was deemed acceptable to a couple in Bonn if it was for a boy and in addition to another first name.
In Germany, you don't have to look far to hear stories about experiences with the standesamt. Emma explained to me that they were worried that the name of her middle daughter, Kemba, would be rejected. (Kemba is named after Emma’s best friend whose family is from Chad). She said the particular officer working at the standesamt didn’t have a problem with Kemba, but they gave her the (very common and very German) middle name of “Maria” just to make sure.