WITTENBURG as a descriptive term

WITTENBURG is the composite of two words, ‘Witten’ and ‘Burg’. ‘Witt’ stands for ‘White’ in Low-German, a dialect spoken in the north of Germany, where the name originated. ‘Wit’ and ‘Wyt’ are also the translations for ‘White’ into Dutch and Frisian respectively, ‘Hvid’, ‘Hvit’ and ‘Vit’ into Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, the other threesome of North Germanic languages, and ‘Hwit’ into Old English. The ‘i’ is pronounced in English either as a sharp, short ‘e’ for Low German and Danish or a soft, long ‘e’ for Norwegian and Swedish, the ‘u’ in ‘Burg’ as in ‘do’ or ‘two’. ‘Witten’ is the Low German adjective to describe a white object. While this is the likeliest and most widely accepted explanation, it has been hypothesized by at least one 19th century scholar on the etymology of geographical place names that the origin of ‘Witten’ might perhaps also be found in the Teutonic ‘widr’ or old Scandinavian ‘vitu’ for ‘woods’ as in forest.

The German word ‘Burg’, or ‘Borg’ in Scandinavian languages, and ‘Burh’, Burgh’ in Old English, (deviations borough, bury) is the term used for a ‘stronghold’, a ‘fortification’ or a ‘fortified settlement’. These slightly different terms are said to have descended from the Proto Germanic ‘burgz’, which in turn traces its origin to the Proto Indo-European *bʰerǵʰ-, a term for ‘high, lofty’, ‘hill, mountain’. Closely related are *bʰergʰ-, a verb translating to ‘safeguard, to protect, to preserve’ and its descendants, the Proto Germanic verb berganą with the same meaning, and the Proto Germanic noun *bergaz, the meaning of which is also ‘hill, mountain’, but also ‘refuge, shelter’. The association of the two definitions makes sense when considering that in the past higher elevations often meant refuge not only from enemies, but also from natural calamities such as floods and winter storms on open plains. *Bergaz’s descendant, the German word ‘Berg’, originally retained this double meaning, particularly when used as an ending in naming a fortified settlement, but through the centuries the connection with ‘refuge’ and shelter’ became gradually lost to eventually leave only the association with ‘Berg’ as in mountain. Modern derivatives of ‘Berg’ with the meaning of shelter still exist, however, as for example in the noun ‘Herberge’ – hostel, inn, refuge in English – , which incidentally also had originally a martial connection in the word’s beginning of ‘Her-‘ from ‘Heer’ – Army, and also happens to be the origin of the English word ‘harbour’. As a verb, we find the Proto-Germanic berganą in the modern German word ‘bergen’, – in English to recover, to shelter, to rescue, and in ‘verbergen’ – to hide, conceal. The meaning of *bergaz’s cousin ‘burgz’, and later ‘Burg’, as a stronghold, a place of refuge, remained essentially unchanged.

Why this etymological excursion into the origins of not only ‘Burg’ but also ‘Berg’? It is primarily to show how interchangeably they were once used as endings when naming fortifications or fortified settlements. Examples are ‘Hamburg’ and ‘Königsberg’ (now Kaliningrad), both of them situated on flat terrain and therefore no possible association with a hill or mountain for the latter either. The same is true for ‘Wittenburg’, ‘Wittenberg’ and ‘Wittenberge’, but not for the village of ‘Wittenbergen’, located on the Lower Elbe River west of Hamburg and now a part of that city. Its name refers to the white sands of the large dune-‘mountains’ (Berge) there. More about the first three later, but meanwhile back to ‘Burg’ again:

The German word ‘Burg’ has, over time, undergone changes in its understanding too: While it meant originally, just like in Anglo-Saxon England, primarily a fortified settlement, it gradually came to describe only the typical medieval castle, the purpose of which was mainly to serve as a military stronghold and place of refuge in times of trouble as well as the protector of nearby trade routes and/or a settlement, often at the foot of a hill from which the castle towered. Interestingly, the Romans borrowed this Germanic word in the later period of the Roman Empire and made it into the Latin ‘Burgus’ to describe small tower-like fortifications, particularly in the Germanic provinces.

The translation of WITTENBURG into modern standard German is ‘Weisse Burg’, which leads to the composite ‘Weissenburg’. The most obvious translation of WITTENBURG into modern English would appear to be ‘White Castle’, the term ‘castle’ as derived from Latin ‘Castellum’, which is used in contemporary English for both medieval castles and all others built later for more representative rather than defensive purposes. The German language uses mostly the term ‘Schloss’ for those, (Scandinavian slot, slott), ‘Burg’ being reserved for the medieval stronghold.

The literal translation of ‘Weisse Burg’ to ‘White Castle’ into English is correct when the two words stand alone, but what when ‘-burg’ is the ending of the name of a settlement? Would ‘-burg’ in these circumstances not rather be a reference to the original fortified settlement itself? Should a translation into English then not more likely have to begin with ‘Whit(e)-‘ and end in ‘-borough’, even ‘-bury’ or better yet ‘-burgh’ as for example Edinburgh? It should also be of interest in the context of ‘-burg’ as settlement, that its inhabitants were considered ‘Bürger’ in German, (‘Burger’ in some dialects), which translates to ‘Burghers’ in English. The description was eventually also applied to citizens of towns named otherwise and is still in every day use today. It is also where the term ‘bourgoisie’ comes from, the root of which is the French ‘-bourg’.

Returning now to the three geographical place names mentioned earlier, ‘Wittenberg’, ‘Wittenberge’ and ‘Wittenburg’: These are all different places in Germany, even though sharing a common etymology of name. WITTENBERG is the town made famous through Martin Luther as the cradle of the Protestant Reformation and is located in Saxony-Anhalt, WITTENBERGE is another, smaller town, also located along the River Elbe, but in Brandenburg. It once had an industrious Jewish minority and was an important link between Hamburg and Berlin, both for steamship travel and later rail. WITTENBURG is a small town, the smallest of the three mentioned here, situated in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and is the seat of the ‘Amt’ or Municipal District of Wittenburg. Its location along the Autobahn Hamburg-Berlin helped it benefit from significant new commercial ventures established there following the Reunification of Germany.

Hopefully the above paragraph should help correct a persistent error, particularly in North America, that ‘WITTENBURG’ and ‘WITTENBERG’ are the same. There is a lot of confusion and misinformation about them likely because of the similarity of the names and for the fact that the two also sound the same when pronounced in English. Perhaps it is partly for these reasons plus the greater international recognition of ‘Wittenberg’, that even the major English language internet search engines are notorious for wanting to dish up ‘Wittenberg’ for any searches of ‘Wittenburg’ – apparently assuming that a search for the latter must be a spelling error.

It is obviously important to distinguish between the three when searching for surnames derived from them, because during the time of the adoption or the giving of surnames, in the 12th and 13th century, those who referred to a place of origin were normally associated with the geographical place where the bearer of the surname came from. Nevertheless, a word of caution here: It is equally important to ascertain whether a habitational surname related to the places mentioned had undergone changes over time, a subject that will be explored more in depth on a page on the variations in spelling, as such could change the focus of direction of any search. A further cautionary note is that not all surnames go back to the Middle Ages, nor were they necessarily derived from such places. More on that under the heading ‘Surname Development.

As the first paragraph indicates, this website is dedicated to the descriptive term and name WITTENBURG only, but to clear up some widely held misconceptions, it was also necessary to touch on ‘Wittenberg and ‘Wittenberge’ here. Links to Wikipedia articles about each are provided below for more clarification.

Time now to go to the page ‘Geographical Places’ named WITTENBURG.

*bʰerǵʰ- Proto Indo-European noun
*bʰergʰ- Proto Indo-European verb
bergan, Proto Germanic verb
bergaz, Proto Germanic noun
burgz, Proto Germanic noun
burh – Old English
Burgh, English – Scottish
Burg, Wiktionary
Burg, German language Wikipedia
Borg – Nordic names, ancient Germanic
Burgus, latinized borrowed Germanic word
C. Blackie, Geographical Etymology, A Dictionary of Place Names giving their Derivations, 1887,