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In French there are exist many family names that are indistinguishable from last names, such as, e.g., Édouard Philippe vs. Philippe Édouard. The phenomenon is so widespread that occasionally serves as a basis for humor pieces. There are also cases in English, although perhaps less widespread - the first thing that comes to my mind is Olivia Newton-John (although the double last name is unlikely to cause confusion, this is probably a composite of what was initially two separate family names.)

On the other hand, many languages have markers for distinguishing last names from first names, such as -ov/-ić/-skii in Slavic languages, -oglu in Turkish, ben/bin/ibn in Semitic languages and -sohn in some Germanic ones - the family names originating from first names do not pose any problem in these languages.

Are there any family names in modern German that are confusable for first names? If yes, how widespread is this phenomenon? If not, what are the typical features permitting to distinguish first names from family names originating from first names?

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    Not an answer, because I cannot give any hard facts on how common it is, but it is not rare. Example: de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carsten (I have chosen this example for the obvious reason, but it is actually ideal, because I think that as a last name Carstens is more common.) Also, I suppose that this will always be male first names, because patriarchy.
    – Carsten S
    Sep 5, 2022 at 11:18
  • @CarstenS indeed, e.g., in some Slavic languages one often also has a patronymic, which is manifestly the father's name, and which is likely historically at the origin of the family names - like Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov in Russian - would be someone with name "Ivan", whose father is also called "Ivan", and whose last name is based on "Ivan". Also, in the Icelandic tradition there are no family names at all - only the father's name suffixed with -son/-dottir.
    – Roger V.
    Sep 5, 2022 at 11:27
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    I personally have friends with possible first names as their last names (e.g. Peter or Lukas). From one of them I still confuse which is which. So no, I don't know of any special feature to distinguish them
    – king_nak
    Sep 5, 2022 at 11:53
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    Last names can be distinguashable by having a "-(s)en" suffix. Examples: Söhnke Söhnksen, Lauritz Lauritzen. But these are just handpicked examples, and this is not demanded by any law or anything else. Sep 5, 2022 at 12:56
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    @ChristelleAugustin: But you aren't free to extend a last name by a syllable, nor drop it; it has to been done centuries before. Last names have to be consistent in a modern, bureaucratic and technisized society. Sep 6, 2022 at 16:36

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Many German first names also exist as a last name.

See for example the Wikipedia pages of the names Ulrich, Christian and Peter that list lots of persons with the first names and the last names. There are a lot more of these examples. Try a few male first names in Wikipedia and you'll see it.

Some more first names that also exist as last names:

Martin, Caspar, Johann, Andreas, Jens, Moritz, Wilhelm, Hermann, Michael, ...

Given how names were passed on historically, it's not surprising that this seems to be much more prevalent for male first names than for female first names. (In fact, I can't think of a female first name that is also a family name, but I'm sure someone else can think of some exceptions.)

In northern Germany, a typical way from first name to last name was by appending -son or -sson or -sen. Some German or Skandinavian last names that originated that way are:

Petersen, Paulsen, Christensen, Jansen, Jansson, Persson, Jensen, Jorgensen ...

You probably won't find these as first names.

Many other last names originate in professions; you normally won't find these as first names either:

Bauer, Huber, Mayer, Müller, Schmidt, Becker, Stellmacher, Gärtner ...

Place names are quite common as last names, too -- especially, but not only, with descendents of nobility:

Bülow, Adelshofen, Reisinger, Hambach ...

All in all, I guess it's hard or impossible for a foreigner (or computer) to tell whether a name is a first name or a last name just from looking at it. You would need lists, and even then it's not possible in many cases.

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  • What I am curious about is why sometimes no marker for the last name emerges that would distinguish it from a first name - like you say it happened in North Germany (I also have no idea why it hadn't happened in French - e.g., Eduard de Philippe would be clear, although confusable with a nobility title.)
    – Roger V.
    Sep 5, 2022 at 14:21
  • I think -sen/-son just is Danish/Swedish for son.
    – Carsten S
    Sep 5, 2022 at 16:58
  • More examples: Hans, Karl, Thomas, Günther. But it seems that female first names do not occur as family names; at least I do not know any. The German tennis player Tatjana Maria is not a valid example, the family name "Maria" is not of German origin.
    – Paul Frost
    Sep 5, 2022 at 17:40
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    The female first name "Lotte" does occur as a family name. German Wikipedia de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lotte lists two notable carriers. (Both men, as it happens.) Wikipedia also knows of two persons with family name Grete, although I never encountered that myself. There are probably more, but I grant you it is much less common than with male first names. Sep 5, 2022 at 18:34
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Off the top of my head there is the german chess player Thomas Luther and the alto-sax player Luther Thomas.

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