If you know a little German, you will be able to recognize names more easily; however, if you do not know German there are a number of clues to look for.
Look for names which begin with sch, the consonant cluster and sound represented in English by sh, like in shoe: Schaefer (Schafer, Schaeffer, Schaffer, Shaffer), Schlitz, Schluter, Schmid (Schmidt, Schmitt, Schmitz), Schneider, Schrader, Schroeder, Schul(t)z (Schulz, Shulz), Schumacher, Schu(h)mann, and Schwar(t)z.
Look for names with ue (ü), oe (ö), indicating umlauts; beginning with Kn: Knopf, Knecht, Knefler, Kno(e)del; beginning with Pf: Pflaume, Pfrommer, Pfister, Pfizer; beginning with Str: Stroh.
Names with ei are mostly German (but not all): Reichmann, Reimann, Reimers, Eisenhower, Heilemann, Klein, Weimer, Weiss.
Neu is German for new: Neuman(n), Neuberger, Nieman(n), Nauman(n).
If a name ends in -mann, -burg, -berg, -lich, -stein, or -t(h)al, it is a likely indication that the name is German. But in certain settlement areas, these endings could also refer to Swedish and Russian Jewish backgrounds. There are German place names ending in -burg (castle), -bruck (bridge), -furt (ford), -berg (mountain), -reuth, -rode (clearing in woods).
Many German names have their roots in the Germanic middle ages. The process of forming family names began around the year 1100 and extended through 1600. All social classes and demographic strata aided in the development of names. First Names (Rufnamen) identified specific persons. Over time the first name began to be applied to the bearer's whole family. At first through verbal usage, family names (Familiennamen) were later fixed through writing. Until the 17th century, first names played a more important role. In East Friesland, family names originated the latest.
The earliest family names derived from the first name of the first bearer (Patronym). Later names derived from the place of dwelling and location of the homestead. If a person of family migrated from one place to another they were identified by the place they came from. Of more recent origin are names derived from the vocation of profession of the first bearer. These names comprise the largest group and the most easily recognizable, for they tell what the first bearer did for a living. Another group are names derived from a physical or other characteristic of the first bearer. Finally, there are names which tell you the state or region a first bearer and his family came from; the age old division in tribes and regions (low German, middle German and upper German) is often reflected in names. For non-German speakers they are at first hard to "localize." Names from along the Dutch border, and some of the names from Northern Germany, sound much like Dutch or English names, respectively.
Family names derived from first name of first bearer: Albrecht (Albright), Eberhard(t), Georg(e), Lorenz, Ott(o), Paul(us), Reinhard, Thomas, Werner.
Dating back to the old Germanic world: Albrecht (Albright), Die(d)trich, Gu(ü)nther, Hagen, Hildebrandt, Hillenbrand, Oswald, Siegfried (Seyfried). Short forms: Dietrich-Dietz, Friedrich-Fritz, Konrad-Kunz (Koons), Heinrich-Hinz, Ludwig-Lutz.
Names derived from the place of dwelling and location of the homestead: Zumwald - at the forest; Kaltenbach - cold creek; Waldschmidt - smith at/in the woods. Meer - from the sea, ocean; Borg (northern German) or Burg - from or near a fortified castle; Bullwinkel - corner where bulls are kept; Adler (zum Adler) - eagle, may have derived from a house name; Rabe - crow.
The place a person came from: Battenberg (Mountbatten), Battenfeld; Cullen from Koeln/Cologne; Dannenberg, town of Dannenberg - pine-tree covered mountain, name of three places in Germany; Dresdner from Dresden; Halpern or Halperin - one who came from Heilbronn in Württemberg; Mel(t)zer - can be a brewer or a person who came from Meltz; Berlin, Klutz and Lowenthal - place names in Germany; Silberg - two place names in Germany; Stein - numerous villages in German-speaking countries; stone, rock, marker; Sternberg - ten places in Germany; Shapiro, Shapira, Shapero, Shapera - one from Spyer, in the middle ages spelled Spira, and by Jews spelled Shapira; Pollack - one who came from Poland; Frank - from Franconia; Rockower, Rockow - ow is frequent and only in the low lands of Germany; Schlesinger - one who came from Silesia or Schleusingen in Thuringia; Schwei(t)zer - person from Switzerland, but also a dairyman.
Names derived from the vocation of profession of first bearer: Arzt - doctor; Bader - barber; Bauer - farmer; Bauman(n) - builder; Becker - baker; Brenner - distiller; Brauer, Breuer - brewer, brower, brewster; Eisenhauer, Eisenhower - iron cutter, miner; Fa(e)rber - dyemaker, painter; Fischer - fisher; Fleischer - butcher; Gebauer - peasant or tiller of the field; Gerber - tanner; Kaiser - Emperor; Kellerman - worker or dweller in a wine cellar or tavern; Kessler - coppersmith, one who sold or made cettles; Kramer - merchant; Kreisler, Kreusler - from curly, also spinning top; Krieg, Krieger - war, warrior, in Yiddish could mean tavern keeper; Ku(e)ster - sexton, Ku(e)nstler - artist or skilled artisan; Lederer, Lederman(n) - leather maker, tanner; Lehrer - teacher; Lesser - custodian of a forest, game keeper; Lichtermann - one who lit lamps, lamplighter; Lichtman - candle maker; Maurer - stone mason; Mehler (Mahler) - painter; Mehlinger, Mehlman(n), Melman - one who works with flour; Metzger - butcher; Mu(e)ller - miller; Nachtman(n) - night watchman; Pfannenschmidt - maker of pots and pans; Postman(n) - postal worker, (also a person from Postau); Puttkam(m)er - person who cleans rooms; Rader - wheelwright, one who makes wheels; or a person from Raden (moor, reedy place), one who thatched with reed; Reifsneider, Reifsnyder - one who made barrel hops; Reiter - horseman, also one who cleared land for tilling; Richter - judge or magistrate; Saltz, Saltzman(n) - one who processed and sold salt; Sandler - one who carts sand, repairs shoes, a cobbler; Scha(e)fer, Schaf, Schaap - shepherd; Schaffer, Shaffer - administrator; Schenker - one who kept a public house; Scherer - one who shaved others, a barber; Schlosser - locksmith; Schlu(e)ter - the keeper of supplies; Schmidt - smith; Schmuker, Schmu(c)kler - one who decorates, ornaments; Schneider and Schroeder - tailor; Schultz, Schultheis - village mayor; Schreiber - secretary or scribe; Schreiner - cabinet maker; Schubert - one who made or sold shoes; Schulman(n) - school or synagogue man; Schumacher, Schu(h)man(n), Schuster - shoe maker, cobbler; Steinhauer - one who cuts and breaks stone; Studebaker - one who prepared or sold pastries; Wagner - wagoner, wagon maker; Weber - weaver; Wechsler - money changer.
Names derived from a physical or ther characteristic of first bearer: Altmann - old man; Hellmann - light man; Dick - fat person; Klein - short; Lange - the long one; Kurz - the short one; Lustig - happy person; Grossmann - the big one; Rot(h)bart - red beard; Weiss - white appearance; Schwar(t)z - black appearance; Schwarzkopf - black haired; Sus(s)man - affectionate person; Unruh - agitator or trouble maker; Schatz - treasure; Stamm, Stump - trunk (as of a tree); Stammler - stutterer; Stock - stick, tree trunk.
After days of the week: Montag, Freitag, Sonntag; or Month: May.