Here’s a familiar scenario: You’re on the phone and just want to reserve a table, but you can’t manage to get your name across. The person at the other end of the line asks you to spell your name. It would be nice if everyone could come up with their own words for each letter. But in some languages such as German, there is an established protocol: the spelling alphabet. The spelling alphabet is designed to prevent misunderstandings and mistakes. But for many, it leads to utter confusion.
Let’s go into detail on who decides which words go with which letter, and what the spelling alphabet looks like in different languages.
The German Spelling Alphabet
Spelling tables have origins that date back to the beginning of telecommunication, when connectivity was poor and it was difficult to understand the person on the other line. In 1890, the Berlin phone book included a spelling table for the first time that — surprise — replaced each letter with a number. A was 1, B was 2, C was 3, and so on. The name “Maier” would be spelled like this: 13, 1, 9, 5, 18. But that didn’t really catch on.
Instead, words were introduced in 1903: Albert for A, Berta for B, Citrone for C. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the spelling alphabet was updated again and “cleansed” of Jewish names. Albert became Anton, David became Dora, Nathan became Nordpol, and the Jewish population became invisible. In 1948, after the fall of the Third Reich, many of the names were changed back, but some remained. Since the spelling tables in many phone books weren’t updated until the fall of the Berlin Wall, many Germans from older generations still (unknowingly) use words from the previously revised version.
You also have to pay attention to which German-speaking country the person at the other end of the line is from. While the history above is valid for Germany and regulated by DIN (German Institute for Standardization), the Austrian spelling alphabet is regulated by ÖNORM, and Switzerland also has its own words. However, most of the words are the same as in the German spelling alphabet. In Austria, for example, they use Konrad instead of Kaufmann for K; in Switzerland, Daniel instead of Dora for D. The table below provides an overview of this.
By the way: A spelling table is always designed so that no two words rhyme, to help prevent misunderstandings.
The New German Spelling Alphabet
This spelling alphabet hasn’t been updated in a long time, and according to DIN, it doesn’t reflect today’s reality. You’ll notice, for example, that there are 16 male names but only 6 female names. DIN also says it’s impossible to represent the cultural diversity of the German-speaking world, and instead suggests using place names. They’re currently working on a new spelling alphabet, which should be published in 2022.
What do the spelling alphabets look like in other countries? Keep reading to find out which country inspired the idea of using place names.
International Spelling Alphabets
International Spelling Alphabet (Standard)
In 1927, the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) introduced the first spelling table to be recognized worldwide. An improved version of this spelling alphabet from 1932 was used in aviation until the end of World War II. The IMO (International Maritime Organization) used this international alphabet until 1965.
Today, ships use a flag alphabet to communicate visually. Each flag represents a specific letter, and some have additional functions. With the A flag, for example, you can signal the presence of divers, and with the B flag, dangerous cargo.
NATO spelling alphabet
The police, military, air force and fire fighters use the international NATO spelling alphabet. It includes words that are pronounced the same in most languages. Maybe you’ve already heard it in movies: A as in Alpha, B as in Beta, C as in Charlie, or the well-known song by the Bloodhound Gang. And maybe now you know what Foxtrot Uniform Charlie Kilo means!
Spelling Alphabets In Other Countries
Since the 1920s, France has had a spelling alphabet for postal workers. It was never printed in phone books or distributed widely and was only used in official documents of the French postal service. That’s why it’s not very well-known. This spelling alphabet also consists mainly of names — for example, Gaston for G, Henri for H, Isidore for I. In 1939, a few of these names were changed, supposedly for “better clarity.” Some Jewish names or names associated with people of opposing ideologies were removed.
In Italian, the spelling alphabet uses names of Italian cities: Ancona, Bari, Como… Sounds a bit like a list of travel destinations — perfect for daydreaming. But if you actually have to spell out loud in Italian, we suggest keeping a printed version of the spelling alphabet handy.
Here’s an overview of the international spelling alphabet, as well as the Spanish, French, Italian and Turkish versions. This way, you’ll be prepared to spell things over the phone in almost any country!
This article was originally published on the German edition of Babbel Magazine.