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Germany’s phonetic alphabet and its Nazi past

Some words that can still be found in Germany’s phonetic alphabet were introduced by Nazis and are anti-Semitic, this is why Berlin wants to change it.

Germany is considering modifying its phonetic alphabet after a proposal by Michael Blume, responsible for the commission against anti-Semitism in the German state of Baden-Württemberg, because some terms still have a racist and anti-Semitic meaning.

Phonetic alphabets were created to identify the letters of a word more clearly to facilitate radio communications: in Italy, for instance – albeit without a formal convention – cities’ names are generally used to indicate the beginning of a word.

In the first version of the German phonetic alphabet, each letter was associated with a number. Afterwards, proper nouns were introduced to demarcate initials more clearly, thus making them intelligible also for those who could not read: for example, when referring to letter “A” people said “A as in Albert”, and so on.

One should stop «using automatically the version of the phonetic alphabet introduced by the Nazis, who deleted Jewish names»

Michael Blume, responsible for the commission against anti-Semitism in the German state of Baden-Württemberg

The alphabet changed again with Nazism: at least 14 conventional words were indeed abolished, among them several proper nouns of Jewish origin, which were very common in Germany. In addition, words like “Nordpol”, which indicated (and still indicates) the supremacy of the Arian race, were introduced, or “Ypres”, from the name of a battle fought against the French army in which Germany used chemical weapons.

After the Second World War, words like “Samuel” and “Ypsilon”, which had been substituted by names considered “more German”, were reintroduced, but some problematic terms have been retained. Yet, many Germans do not want to change this alphabet, which is often used to learn new words at school through spelling.

In autumn 2021 a new version of Germany’s phonetic alphabet should be proposed, which should become official by the end of 2022: «It is high time that Germany frees itself from Nazism’s language and its legacy» Josef Schuster said, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

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