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When it is used as a part of a German family name, it indicates almost always a noble patriarchal lineage. "von" is usually a nobiliary particle, like de in French. The von particle is also often part of commoners' surnames; thus, "Hans von Duisburg" meant Hans from [the city of] Duisburg. The Dutch van, which is a cognate of von but does not indicate nobility, has preserved this meaning.
In Germany, this means that legally von simply became an ordinary part of the surnames of the people who used it. There are no longer any legal privileges or constraints associated with this naming convention. According to German alphabetical sorting, people with von in their surnames – of noble or non-noble descent alike – are listed in telephone books and other files under the rest of their name (e.g., Ludwig von Mises would be under M in the phone book rather than V).
In Austria, in contrast, not only were the privileges of the nobility abolished, their titles and prepositions were abolished as well. Thus, for example, Friedrich von Hayek became Friedrich Hayek in 1919, when Austria abolished all indicators of nobility in surnames. On this issue, also see Austrian nobility.
In contrast to the peerage of the United Kingdom, the aristocracies of the German-speaking countries were held to include untitled nobility, although the names of nearly all the families falling into this category did include von, "zu", or both.
Generally, the growth of the Tsardom of Russia into the Russian Empire was accompanied to a greater or lesser extent by the inflow of German surnames. Two main channels of such migration were a) the absorption of territories where Germans constituted a part of local nobility, such as Finland, Poland, and the Baltic region, and b) the state-supported immigration of Germans into Russia.
As a rule, the members of the local nobility who have found themselves in Russia as a result of geopolitical shifts have preserved their privileges in the Empire. Their surnames were enlisted in the State Register of Noble Families as soon as the required documents were provided. Particle von was preserved as well; once hyphens came into common use in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was used to connect the von with the following part of the surname (e.g. Russian: Фон-Визин, von-Wiesen). However, since the twentieth century the particle has been written separately, as in the German origin. In the Baltic region, the German language continued to be used alongside Russian, so the "language environment" was friendly enough there to keep these surnames from "localisation".
Meanwhile some of those whose ancestors individually entered the Russian service from abroad and who settled themselves in Moscow or the core Russian provinces, sooner or later found it easier to adjust their surnames to the local speaking mode. However, unlike immigrants to the United States during the 18th to 20th centuries, who usually lost their nobility particles and often simplified the remaining parts of their surnames, immigrants to the Tsarist and Imperial Russia did not "lose" their noble particles, although some of their core surnames may have experienced some minor changes.
At the end of 16th century, after the Livonian War, Ivan IV of Russia invited Baron Berndt von Wiesen (German pronunciation: [fɔn viːzən]) from the Livonian Brothers of the Sword into the Russian service and granted him some landed property. In the 17th century his descendants wrote their surnames as Russian: Фон Висин (Russian pronunciation: [fɐn visɪn]). Circa 1660 one of them added-ov (Russian: Фон Висинов, Russian pronunciation: [fɐn visɪnəf]), yet in the 18th century this suffix was lost, and the middle consonant changed again s→z (Russian: Фон-Визин, Russian pronunciation: [fɐn vizɪn]). Finally, in the 18th century Ivan Fonvizin decided to merge the particle von with the core, thus giving a start to a new Russian family of a German origin. His son, Denis Fonvizin (Russian: Фонви́зин, Russian pronunciation: [fɐnˈvizɪn]) became a playwright whose plays are staged today.
In the Nordic countries, von is common but not universal in the surnames of noble families of German origin and has occasionally been used as a part of names of ennobled families of native or foreign, but non-German, extraction, as with the family of the philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright, which is of Scottish origin.
The preposition originated among German speakers during the Middle Ages and was commonly used to signify a person's origins simply from the name of the place they originated from or the name of their parents, as the concept of surname did not start to come into common usage until later on. Indeed in many Germanic-speaking lands, universal adoption of surnames did not occur until mandated by the French Emperor Napoleon and the legal reforms he introduced in Europe around 1800.
Nevertheless, it was mostly aristocrats and other land owners who acquired a surname consisting of von, zu or zur and a toponym. When families were raised to nobility later on, the prefix was added in front of their existing name whatever its source, e.g. von Goethe. In some cases even, an existing non-noble von became noble or vice versa, therefore the same surname sometimes would be shared by noble and humble individuals.
Especially in the Northwest (Bremen, Hamburg, Holstein, Lower Saxony, Schleswig, Westphalia) and in German-speaking Switzerland, von is a frequent element in non-noble surnames. About 200 to 300 known non-noble surnames contain the element von. Whereas, especially in Lower Saxony, several prominent noble surnames do not contain the particle von, e.g. Grote, Knigge or Vincke.
In order to distinguish the noble von from the non-noble one, the Prussian military abbreviated it to v. in noble names, often without a space following it, whereas the non-noble von was always spelt in full. In the 19th century in Austria and Bavaria non-noble surnames containing von were widely altered by compounding it to the main surname element, such as von Werden → Vonwerden.
"Untitled" and "non-noble" are not synonyms in the German-speaking world. However, most German nobles used von and most users of von were noble. Nonetheless, many individuals of no titled descent chose to add the particle to their name.
Some very old families, usually members of the Uradel, bear surnames without the rather young nobiliary particle von but are nevertheless still noble.
Also, a very few German families were elevated to the nobility without use of the preposition von. This was the case of the Riedesel Freiherren zu Eisenbach who received baronial dignity in 1680.
Ancient families distinguish themselves from newly ennobled ones by abbreviating von to v. Following the spelling practice in the royal Prussian military, abbreviating the noble von to v. but spelling the non-noble von in full, nobles in Northern Germany continue that practice in order to distinguish themselves from bearers of regionally frequent non-noble surnames containing "von".
The prefix von is not capitalised in German-speaking countries. The Duden dictionary recommends capitalizing the prefix von at the beginning of the sentence, but not in its abbreviated form, in order to avoid confusion with an abbreviated first name: "Von Humboldt kam später." and "v. Humboldt kam später." (Von Humboldt came later.) The Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung, however, recommends omitting the von completely at the beginning of the sentence: "Humboldt kam später."
For capitalisation in Dutch and Flemish usage, see Van (Dutch).