Friday, March 25, 2016

Pionke – The mystery of a name

By Michael Pionke

I am Michael Pionke from Germany. First of all, I would like to thank Mary very much for her kind offer to write this article in her blog. We have been working closely together during the last few years and complement each other very well with our research results.

I started my genealogical research about four years ago and became fascinated from the first minute on. Throughout my life I have wondered about the meaning and origin of my surname. In German, the ending “ke” makes the name sound German. Yet on the other hand, the first part “Pion” makes the name sound Eastern European. Pionke is a rare name in Germany and hence not a typical German surname.

We can neither find a German word Pionke in the dictionary nor a Polish word. In this article, I would like to introduce my personal theory regarding the name, which is based on several studies I have carried out during my genealogical research.

According to my research, all Pionkes come from a region in today’s northern Poland along the Baltic Sea coast that is called Pomerania. The region covers the area from Szczecin at the Odra River in the west up to Gdańsk (German: Danzig) at the Wisła River in the east. Moreover, if we go back in time to the 17th and 18th centuries, it seems that there are only three locations of origin, namely the small village Będargowo (Bendargau) in Strzepcz parish, 30 miles west of Gdańsk in the countryside; the area around town Puck (Putzig), 35 miles north of Gdańsk on the Baltic Sea; and the villages Słupsk (Stolp) and Łupawa (Lupow), about 75 miles west of Gdańsk.

The overall region is well-known as Kashubia and the people living there are called Kashubs or Kashubians. The Kashubs are of Slavic origin and have been settled in the area since the Migration Period in the early Middle Ages (6th century). They speak Kashubian, which forms its own language, similar to Polish with some incorporated German words, but more than a local Polish dialect.

In the late 19th century, several Pionke families migrated to the United States and to Western Germany for economic reasons. However, these countries have been targets for migration and not areas of origin. Therefore I have concentrated in my studies on Poland.

In order to find out more about the meaning and origin of our name, I have analyzed different name distributions in Poland. For my studies, I took different variants of our surname into consideration, i.e. Pionk, Pionke, Pionka, Piontk, Piontke, Piontek, Piątk and Piątek.

One can obtain graphical information about the name distributions in different countries from the following public websites:


In addition, I have carried out extensive genealogical research using another very helpful website, which was created by the Pomeranian Genealogical Association in Poland (Pomorskie Towarzystwo Genealogiczne, abbr. PTG):

This powerful website is a must for every genealogist with ancestors from Pomerania. It provides comprehensive search functionalities for baptisms, marriages and deaths.

Coming back to the results for present name distributions in Poland, it is remarkable that the names Pionke, Pionk and Piontke have a strong focal point in the aforementioned Kashubian area (see Fig. 1-3):

Fig. 1: Name distribution Pionke – Poland (number of households)

Fig. 2: Name distribution Pionk – Poland (number of households)

Fig. 3: Name distribution Piontke – Poland (number of households)

If we go back in time, the area of distribution would be extended further to the west, namely (at least) to the region around Słupsk and Łupawa as mentioned before. This area is also part of Kashubia. In contrast to the people from the surroundings of Gdańsk in former German West Prussia, these Pomeranian Pionkes were Protestants and were completely Germanized over the centuries. This was the reason why they had to leave the area after World War II, whereas their Catholic and Kashubian namesakes at Gdańsk could remain in their home country.

With regard to the name distributions, it is obvious that our surname must have a Kashubian origin. Otherwise I would have expected a different regional name distribution.

As you might know, all surnames have acquired their meaning from ordinary things, e.g. the occupation of people, the place of origin or personal characteristics. I do expect the same for our surname.

Yet it is obvious that Pionke is not a Kashubian word. Therefore the name must have undergone changes over time. For me these changes are due to German influence. The Kashubian area has had a turbulent past with changing authorities. In particular, the area alternately belonged to Germany (Prussia) and Poland.

Personally, I see two steps of Germanization of the name:

1) Germanization regarding writing the name in regular Latin letters instead of using Polish special characters.

2) Germanization by adding an "e" at the end. Pionke sounds much more German than Pionk.

Regarding the second step, the “e” was added by the Prussians in civil records, whereas the Catholic priests continued to use the older variants of the name Pionk or Piontk in church records.

Due to Germanization, the original meaning of the surname got lost. After this longer introduction, I will now provide evidence for my theory by looking at typical Polish surnames first:

According to name distributions, the surname Piątek is very common in Poland (see Fig. 4). Piątek means Friday and is of religious origin (Jesus Christ was executed on a Friday). About 22,000 households in Poland carry the surname in exactly that spelling using Polish special characters. If you listen to an audio recording of the surname provided by an online dictionary, the pronunciation will be "Piontek". That means the special character “ą“ is pronounced “on” (nasalized vowel).

Fig. 4: Name distribution Piątek – Poland (number of households)

Surprisingly, at the present moment there are another 2,200 households in Poland which carry the surname Piontek in Latin spelling without special characters (see Fig. 5). Yet a closer look at the distribution of this variant of name reveals that it is mainly located in the Silesian part of southwest Poland. The former provinces Upper Silesia and Lower Silesia belonged to Germany until the end of World War II. Therefore this kind of spelling is clearly due to German influence (see step 1 of Germanization). This observation of Germanization is also supported by present name distributions in Germany where we can find about 1,400 households with name Piontek in Latin spelling but none with Polish special characters.

Fig. 5: Name distribution Piontek – Poland (number of households)

Since Piątek and Piontek are common surnames in Poland, I would expect the same for the Kashubian area. Kashubian dictionaries show that the Kashubian word for Friday is written slightly different, namely Piątk (without "e"):

However, present name distributions do not show a surname Piątk with exactly that spelling, which is curious at first glance. In order to explain this result we have to make a journey to the past.

Indeed old Pomeranian church books of the 19th century show several dozens of records with name Piątk across different parishes and years. The following marriage record of Johann Piątk and Victoria Pastelenz from Strzepcz parish in 1853 is the best example for the Piątk/Friday theory. The record is written in ancient German. The additional information in the column of the groom's name is: Johann Piątk alias Friday, workman in Zemblewo.

Fig. 6: Marriage record of Johann Piątk and Victoria Pastelenz
(Strzepcz parish, 1853)

This is a direct connection of the Kashubian name Piątk with the day of the week Friday, made by a priest in a contemporary church record. But why is this surname such rare in old church books and extinct today?

In order to solve the mystery, let us now apply the two steps of Germanization to the original form of the name:

Step 1
In Latin letters (first step of Germanization) the surname Piątk is written Piontk. When looking at old church records the name Piontk can also be found across the parishes and centuries, mainly in the area of Puck. But in order to be scientifically correct, the spelling Pionk without "t" is dominant.

Step 2
The second step of Germanization (adding an "e" at the end) changes the name finally to Piontke and Pionke. Both variants of the name have today a significant distribution in Kashubia (Fig. 1, 3).

We have to note that old church books were either written in Latin (using Latin letters and Latin first names as default) or later on in German under German authority. This was the reason for the extinction of the original form over time.

Furthermore, my research results show that the oldest Pionke families in Puck (north of Gdańsk on the Baltic Sea) started with Piontk and then changed to Piontke, whereas the Pionkes from Strzepcz and Kielno parishes started with Pionk (and sometimes with Piontk) and today divide fifty-fifty into Pionke and Pionk.

Another example of the parallel and synonymous usage of the different variants of name is given by Adam Pionk, the brother of my great-great-grandfather Johann Pionk.

Adam was born as Adam Pionk in 1820 in Łebieńska Huta in Strzepcz parish. In 1846 he married his wife Augustina Grzenia in Będargowo. In the marriage record, he was named Adam Piontk (with "t"). Adam's first son Franz was born in 1847. In this church record, Adam is called Adam Piątk using Polish special characters.

In all subsequent church records until his death in 1871, Adam is named Pionk again (in Latin spelling and without "t"). Though in later civil records of his children, he is referred to as Adam Pionke (now with ending "e").

Therefore Adam is the best example of one and the same person who has undergone almost all known variants of our name: Piątk, Piontk, Pionk and Pionke.

In addition, my research results show that we are talking about only a few early Pionke families, which will be explained in more detail in a separate article:

The Pionk/Pionke families from Strzepcz and Kielno parishes descend from one primal couple named Adam and Eve Pionk who lived in the early 1700s in the small village Będargowo, whereas the Piontkes descend from 1-2 families in Puck and maybe the same accounts for the Pionkes from the villages Słupsk and Łupawa.

According to a research fellow of mine, Witold Pionke, who was born in Poland and now lives in Germany, the Kashubs near the sea (Puck area) have been different from the Kashubs living in the countryside. The dialect is/was different and there was no close contact between both fractions. In my introduction I have already explained the differences of the Pionkes from the Słupsk area in comparison to the Pionkes from the Gdańsk area.

Regarding all considerations, we have to bear in mind that Kashubia was not a country. The Kashubs were (and are) an ethnic group speaking their own language which was/is different from Polish. Throughout the centuries, Kashubian was a spoken language only. It was not written down in any dictionary. It was not taught in school. It was not an official language. And we know about different local Kashubian dialects.

That means there was no authority to define the correct spelling and pronunciation of Piątk. The pronunciation depended on the local dialect and the individual. It depended on what the priest understood. Think of the "gibberish" which is sometimes spoken by people from the deepest countryside. And imagine what the Prussian clerks may have understood.

Having this in mind, it is remarkable that we only have a few variants of spelling like Piątk (Piontk) and Piąk (Pionk).

At the end of my deliberations, I would like to comment about the variant name Pionka. Indeed Pionka with ending "a" is a typical Polish name. The name distribution shows two focus areas, namely one close to mid-Poland and one in Kashubia (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7: Name distribution Pionka – Poland (number of households)

At first this result is surprising because the variant name Pionka is not present in the Kashubian area in older church books and civil records. But my research fellow Witold Pionke was able to help explain this. After both world wars the Kashubian area was subject to Polonization.

Witold's family had to change the surname from Pionke to Pionka after World War II. It took many years before they could change back to their original name. I guess that not all Pionka families have undertaken this step because it meant expensive consulting of authorities and rewriting of documents.

In a nutshell, according to my research the name Pionke is simply deriving from the day of the week Friday but has been influenced by the local Kashubian language and has undergone further changes due to Germanization.

There are still other theories regarding the meaning of our surname, e.g. the name derivation from French/Polish “Pion” or “Pionek” which means pawn in chess game. But currently for me the Piątk/Friday theory is the most reasonable one.


I would like to thank Michael Pionke for his thorough and well-researched analysis of the Pionke surname. It is an privilege to include this work on my blog and I very much look forward to future collaborations. Thank you, Michael.

—MaryWS of TreeQuest

Pionke Friday: We will post more about the Pionkes next Friday. Coming up next: Family of Johann Pionk and Friderike Byzewska.

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