How much do you know about the history of your languages? Where do the words come from, and why do we use them? Today’s episode will look at the recent news Germany is removing some words of Nazi origins from its phonetic alphabet. Although most German’s were unaware of the history of these terms, the regular use has been considered problematic. Are there any words in your languages that have offensive origins?

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Vocabulary List

Take… for granted (Phrasal V) – to believe something to be the truth without even thinking about it

I didn’t realise you hadn’t been to college -I suppose I just took it for granted

Quirk (n) – an unusual habit or part of someone’s personality, or something that is strange or unexpected

There is a quirk in the rules that allows you to invest money without paying tax

Mutually (adv) – felt or done by two or more people or groups in the same way 

It will be a mutually beneficial project

Unintelligible (adj) – not able to be understood

He muttered something unintelligible

Despicable (adj) – very unpleasant or bad, causing strong feelings of dislike

He’s a despicable human being

Phonetic (adj) – using special signs to represent the different sounds made by the voice in speech

Pronunciations are shown in this dictionary using the International Phonetic Alphabet

Bureaucratic (adj) – relating to a system of controlling or managing a country, company, or organization that is operated by a large number of officials

The company was inefficient because it was highly bureaucratic

Notorious (adj) – famous for something bad

The company is notorious for paying its bills late

How often do you think about your own language? For example, how old is the language you speak? How much has it changed over the years? Where does it come from? How did its vocabulary and grammar develop? For most people, the answers to these questions are normally the same; we rarely, if ever, think about such rules so most of us can’t provide an answer. In fact, I would guess most people take their languages for granted; we use our languages without ever thinking about why and how we use them. Despite this, if you think about language a little deeper, you quickly begin to realise quirks, intricacies, and even similarities between completely mutually unintelligible vocabularies! Languages are also not static things; they change, evolve, and develop throughout time. The English that I speak now is not like the English of the past, and likely will not resemble the English of the future. 

Some of these changes are natural. Changes in society are obviously reflected in language. As we invent new things, we also invent new words. As new ideas develop, new words to describe those ideas also develop. As cultures mix, their languages also mix! On the other hand, some changes in languages are done by people on purpose. Did you know that Shakespeare is credited with the invention or introduction of over 1,700 words that are still used in English today. Noah Webster, the American who wrote the first great dictionary published in North America in 1828, is responsible for many of the spelling differences between British and American English (he removed the ‘u’ from colour, honour, etc).

Importantly, some language changes can occur for controversial, or even outright despicable, reasons. This has recently been highlighted in Germany. Germany has announced its decision to revamp its phonetic alphabet in order to remove words added by the Nazis over 80 years ago. What is a phonetic alphabet? It is the series of codewords that are assigned to each letter of the alphabet to aid communication and avoid confusion, particularly in radio transmissions and telephone calls. The international standard phonetic alphabet is the NATO phonetic alphabet; which uses the words Alpha, Bravo, Charlie etc to help make spelling out words easier (A for alpha, B for Bravo etc). Germany has its own equivalent which is used for the same reasons, but instead of Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie they use Anton, Berta, Cäsar.! 

So what is the controversy with the German phonetic alphabet? Well, before the Nazi dictatorship some Jewish names were used in the phonetic alphabet – such as “D for David”, “N for Nathan” and “Z for Zacharias”. But the Nazis replaced these with Dora, North Pole and Zeppelin, and their use has since continued with most Germans unaware of their anti-Semitic origin. Other Jewish names removed by the Nazis in 1934 were “Jacob” for the letter “J” and “Samuel” for “S”, which became “Julius” and “Siegfried”. Removing Jewish names from the phoneitc alphabet was part of the Nazi’s desire to remove and reject Jews from all aspects of German society. Although seemingly a minimal bureaucratic change, the removal of Jewish names was an indication of what the Nazi’s planned to do to the rest of society! Actually, a few Nazi references were already replaced after World War Two, such as “Ypres” for “Y”, which became “Ypsilon”. Ypres was a notorious battle in World War One where many died and the Germans first used poison gas.

What will replace the current system? This question does not have a simple answer. For now, the pre-1934 version will likely be used until 2022, when a new version should be approved and introduced. The future system might not actually use first names, as the current and past systems used, because the choice of personal names might not reflect the nation’s ethnic diversity today. Instead, perhaps German towns and cities might be preferred. The list introduced by the Nazi’s won’t be completely forgotton; it will be presented as an annex to the new list. As news of the change spread, many Germans have stated that they had not been aware of the phonetic alphabet’s Nazi history, despite that fact those terms  are known and commonly used in daily life by most people in Germany, and seen as a practical method for spelling out names over the telephone.

Final thought

At the start of this podcast, I talked about how we don’t think about our languages in much detail, and how our languages can change both naturally and by people’s actions. In Germany, part of their language was altered to remove Jewish traces for political reasons. Yet, most people had no clue about this history! This is not just the case in German. Whatever language you speak, the harder you look, the more problematic vocabulary you will find. It can be a shocking experience to realise that language you commonly use has racist, sexist or homophobic origins, but English normally has other more acceptable synonyms! I won’t go into detail on the specific origins in this episode, but the phrases ‘long time no see’, ‘uppity’, and ‘grandfathered in’ all have controversial origins that most people don’t know about!

What is your opinion about this topic? Do you support removing offensive words, or words with offensive origins from our vocabularies? How much do you know about the history of your language?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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