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Nazi-era phonetic alphabet to be revised

Torsten Landsberg
December 4, 2020

D as in "Dora" — or "David"? The Nazis had eliminated Jewish names from the German spelling alphabet. The names are to return, at least symbolically.

Scrabble letters
Could you spell that please? The phonetic alphabet makes it easierImage: Frank Sorge/imago images

It is a common situation during a phone call: the person on the other end misunderstands a word, or spelling out a name becomes necessary. To clarify or prevent such misunderstandings, mankind invented the phonetic alphabet.

The international version, in fact, is understood all over the world no matter the language spoken, and is known as the aviation or NATO alphabet. Every letter is assigned a name or term to clarify which letter is meant.

The first German version goes back to the 1890 Berlin telephone book — every letter was assigned a number. In 1905, the numbers were replaced by names. Only five changes were made in the years of the Weimar Republic: Paul became Paula in 1926, and Isidor became Ida.

The Nazis got rid of Hebrew names

Then the Nazis seized power, and they made radical changes, not to simplify the alphabet but to satisfy their anti-Semitic ideology: They abolished 14 terms, including popular German-Hebrew first names like David, Jacob, Nathan, Samuel and Zacharias.

old-fashioned black phone
Germans use 'Wilhelm' for the letter W; that's 'Whiskey' is the International Radiotelephony Spelling AlphabetImage: BilderBox

Names were swapped out: Anton for Albert and Dora for David. Two new terms were introduced that were particularly cynical: the Nazis replaced Nathan with Nordpol (North Pole) and Ypsilon (the German word for the letter "y") with the word Ypres.  

In Nazi ideology, North Pole stands for the Aryan master race, while Ypres is the name of the Belgian city where German troops introduced lethal mustard gas during the First World War. After World War II, the use of Ypres was replaced by the German name of the letter Y, Ypsilon, but the term Nordpol is still in use in the German alphabet today.

During research for his 2019 book Why anti-Semitism threatens us all, Michael Blume came across the Nazi background of some of the terms in the current German phonetic alphabet. The anti-Semitism commissioner of the German state of Baden-Württemberg contacted the German Institute for Standardization (DIN) and suggested a return to the Weimar Republic phonetic alphabet.

Michael Blume
Michael Blume's research alerted him to Nazi terms in the German spelling alphabetImage: Bernd Weissbrod/dpa/picture-alliance

Weimar Republic phonetic alphabet to be reinstated — symbolically

The move would not involve too many changes as the names Zacharias and Samuel rejoined the alphabet in 1948, followed by Theodor, Heinrich and Friedrich in 1950 — they were all used during the Weimar Republic but deleted by the Nazis. Other changes made after World War II did not involve terms instituted by the Nazis at all, for instance Marie was replaced by Martha in 1950.

As Blume told DW, some people reluctant to the changes argue that they have been using the terms in the German spelling alphabet since childhood. Whether old-fashioned names like Albert and Nathan make spelling easier these days is debatable. No matter the arguments, the German Institute for Standardization is already tackling a reform.

A draft spelling alphabet made up of city names is expected by fall 2021. Simultaneously, the Weimar Republic phonetic alphabet will temporarily become valid — not officially, but symbolically and alongside the alphabet used in Germany since 1983. The final reform is scheduled to take effect in the third quarter of 2022.

This article was translated from German by Dagmar Breitenbach.