I recently realized that two different variants for the german word Alptraum (nightmare) exist, one with /p/ and one with /b/. Both seem to be commonly used.

I think I recognize the word Alp as a medieval word for some kind of demon or ghoul. That may be the origin of the word Alptraum, but it's possible the spelling has changed in the meantime.

My question is: Does it matter which of these variants you use?

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    No, it doesn't matter. Albtraum is recommended. – Janka Jun 27 '18 at 19:23
  • @Janka: actually both variants are allowed - the b is just a Duden recommendation (or should we say invention?). – Takkat Jun 28 '18 at 8:24
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    If you’re interested in more information, you may watch this video: belleslettres.eu/content/wortkunde/… – Philipp Jun 28 '18 at 12:20
  • Ich habe mal in den hohen Alpen übernachtet und habe (wegen Sauerstoffmangel) "Alptraume" gehabt. Richtige Alpträueme. – Ignatz Jan 12 at 18:11

The Alb part is related to "Elf" or "Elbe", which are mythical creatures (like kobolds or goblins) believed to have been sitting on your chest while you were sleeping (and having a nightmare). A synonym for Albtraum is Albdruck ("elf-pressure") (See Wiktionary). There is a wide variety of different ways of spelling those creatures' names, and they will have regionally different names too.

The word alp is a Middle High German form, and in the past spelling was not standardised.

I have come across both forms, and being from North Germany I seem to remember that Alptraum was more commonly used (Albtraum being more frequent in Southern Germany), but that both were equivalent variations.

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    I'm from the South, and until today, I didn't know that Alptraum with p is not a spelling mistake. – Iris Jun 28 '18 at 9:03
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    I am from the South, and in my environment we tend to write "Alptraum", just because the aforementioned mountain range of Schwäbische Alb (or short: die Alb) is close to us, and we want to differentiate between Alp (as an evil creature) and Alb (the lovely mountains). Now, okay, if we lived closer to the Alpen mountains (which are visible from where we are, but still 100 kms away) we might be writing "Albtraum" in order to dissociate from that. So it depends on where you are, who you are and what you want to achieve. – Christian Geiselmann Jun 28 '18 at 9:15
  • @ChristianGeiselmann Ah, maybe I got it confused then -- I grew up in the South and then moved up North aged five, so those judgements I don't always get right! – Oliver Mason Jun 28 '18 at 9:29
  • @ChristianGeiselmann There’s a 22 minute video on belleslettres about this: belleslettres.eu/content/wortkunde/… – Philipp Jun 28 '18 at 12:22
  • @Philipp In der Tat ein sehr guter Beitrag bei Belleslettres! Man müsste ihn einfach nur aptippen und (mit Dankesworten an den Autor) hier abdrucken für eine wirklich tiefgründige Antwort zum Alp(b)traum. – Christian Geiselmann Jun 29 '18 at 9:13

I think I recognize the word "Alp" as a medieval word for some kind of demon or ghoul. That may be the origin of the word "Alptraum"

Correct, but according to the German Wikipedia page, which refers to "Duden Herkunftswörterbuch", both variants exist since medieval and both are equal.

It's actually not possible to recommend the one or the other.
"Alp" does also mean "mountain pasture" and, of course, words referring to that mountains begin with "Alp...".
So maybe "Albtraum" is the better choice?
However, there are geographic regions like "Fränkische Alb" or "Schwäbische Alb", which have nothing to do with the meaning of "Alb" in "Albtraum".
For these names, Wikipedia says: "Alb" was formerly supposed to come from Latin "montes albi" (white mountains), but more likely it was a celtic word for "mountain pasture".

After all, it's really up to you which variant to use.
Coming from Frankonia, where "p" is anyway spoken as "b", I would prefer "Albtraum".
But I would never argue with someone stronger who insists on "Alptraum" being the one any only correct word - this could end up in a nightmare... ;-)

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    You might want to add that Alptraum was considered the correct spelling till the spelling reform, but Albtraum since then. – Arsak Jun 28 '18 at 7:16
  • @Marzipanherz: well, not quite - the recommeded spelling is not with b but in addition to previous spelling rules today both are accepted because both versions have a valid etymologic root. – Takkat Jun 28 '18 at 8:21
  • @Takkat As far as I remember, the original 1996 reform only had Albtraum as the correct version which was then (2004 or '06) changed to accepting both versions - but I might misremember ... at some point I got tired of the back and forth :) – Arsak Jun 28 '18 at 12:32
  • @Marzipanherz yeah it is highly confusing... even for us (how bad must it be for learners!). That is interesting too: books.google.com/ngrams/… – Takkat Jun 28 '18 at 12:35

Both versions are correct according to Duden and Wahrig dictionaries. The written media uses more often "Alptraum", so this should be the prefered word. If it's spoken there isn't much difference between p and b (especially depending on the dialect used).

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