Spelling – how to spell Street Names, Streetnames, Street-names in German

If you enjoyed the difficulties I had with deciding whether to write Westberlin or West Berlin, you might spare a moment to feel sorry for all those who have to deal with German street names.

Find out more about the GDR: articles, tours around East Berlin and GDR music.
While editing the first draft of Stealing the Future I noticed that I’d put a space in some street names, like Rigaer Strasse, whereas others, such as Ruschestrasse were run together. I’d typed without considering the spelling, and now I had doubts: why were there spaces in some street names, none in others, while yet others had hyphens: Otto-Grotowohl-Strasse. The more I looked, the more I was convinced that I’d got it wrong. I pulled out my well-worn 1986 map of Berlin, Capital of the GDR, and checked each and every street and place name. To my surprise, I’d got most of them right, but now I needed to know why there was such a mish-mash of spaces and hyphens.

So, for the geeky linguists among you, here are the logical but faintly ridiculous rules for street naming in Germany:

  • Streets and squares named after objects, or people (with only one name) have no space:
    • Pfarrstrasse
    • Kollwitzstrasse
    • Alexanderplatz
  • Streets and squares named after places have a space:
    • Mainzer Strasse
    • Frankfurter Allee
  • Streets and squares named after multi-named people or things are hyphenated
    • Otto-Grotewohl-Strasse
    • But: Strasse der Pariser Kommune. Why? No idea… I lost my sense of curiosity at this point.

There are a few more rules, but that’s the gist of it. If you want, you can check out the Duden dictionary’s take on this matter too, which is based on the law. Yes, there are official rules about these things, but despite this, you’ll still find lots of exceptions to the rules, so it always pays to check your street names on a map if you’re writing about German speaking parts of the world…