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In the German spelling alphabet, some letter combinations (specifically ch and sch) have their own words (namely Charlotte and Schule). Are these really used in everyday situations in practice? And must they always be used if possible?

For example, say I'm on the phone with some company's customer service and am asked for my address, which is, say, in Bachstraße, and the line isn't so good so I want to use the spelling alphabet to avoid misunderstandings. Should I say "Berta Anton Cäsar Heinrich ...", or "Berta Anton Charlotte...", or are both OK?

Note: it will be interesting to hear if this is the same or different in various German speaking countries, so information about other countries will also be appreciated, but I'm asking specifically about usage in Germany.

Meta: I don't think this is a spelling question, but I had to choose at least one tag, and I couldn't think of a more appropriate one that currently exists (there is currently no spelling-alphabet tag – or even alphabet for that matter).

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    Maybe a context needs to be specified for this question. As a "lay user" (who would, if at all, rarely use the spelling alphabet eg. when spelling a name over the phone), I was not aware of those abbreviations for letter combinations. Consequently, I would (mis)understand "Charlotte" and "Schule" as representing the letters "c" and "s", respectively. However, this may be completely different in contexts where people use the standardized spelling alphabet professionally, where misunderstandings absolutely must not happen. Mar 1 at 20:30
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    @O. R. Mapper: I'm wondering just how many German speakers would actually use a standardized spelling alphabet professionally. I'm sure there must be some, but communications technology has advanced to the point where noisy phone lines are rare and you can usually use text as an alternative. If I ever needed to clarify spelling, I'd probably just make it up as I go: "B as in boy", not "B as in bravo".
    – RDBury
    Mar 1 at 20:53
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    @RDBury, you're raising an interesting point. I can only say from my own personal experience living in Germany that I've often encountered both the need to use spelling aids (e.g. giving my name over the phone) and people using the spelling alphabet for it quite naturally. I'm always amazed at the ease and fluency with which (some) people do it; but I've also met native German speakers who don't know the spelling alphabet at all (usually because they did some of their schooling abroad, at least those I personally know).
    – Tom
    Mar 1 at 21:09
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    @RDBury, and this is already off-topic, but I must say that depending on where one is and which mobile carrier one uses, limited audibility is definitely still an issue with phone calls in Germany. And, perhaps more importantly, for many service providers texting is not an option. And, depending on one's (possibly foreign) name and the name of the street one lives in (including some very German names), some people might need to resort to the spelling alphabet more often than others, even when there are no acoustic issues involved.
    – Tom
    Mar 1 at 21:11
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    Repeat, try Äpfel or A-Umlaut, give up. If I go with just Ä or without spelling it out altogether, I usually get E, but sometimes also I or even IE instead (because then it becomes a better known name).
    – Crissov
    Mar 6 at 1:35

4 Answers 4

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The other currently existing answers call it "a dying skill" and "relatively rarely used", I wanted to add a more distinct opinion.

I am a German in my 30s and I regularly spell names on the phone and I have never heard or used Schule or Charlotte and if you'd spell "Friedrich Ida Schule Emil Richard" I would write down "Fiser".

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  • Thanks for adding your perspective, @AndreKR; I've accepted this answer because it matches what I've been observing around me.
    – Tom
    Mar 8 at 5:07
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It's a dying skill, and it depends on who you're talking to on the phone. The average call center agent in customer service does not get a training that is the most professional in that aspect unfortunately. It's a job just above minimum wage, training isn't the best. They will in many cases not be trained at all to use a spelling alphabet, they will often have learned it on the job when they first encountered that they needed it. McDonaldisation has hit customer service hard. (I have worked for that industry and seen it first-hand.)

I would not count on them to understand "Schule" or "Charlotte", and I would always go the safe way with "Samuel/Siegfried Cäsar Heinrich".

On the other hand, phone lines have become much better with VoiP digitalization, and you can in most cases count on them having good headsets and seeing most of your data right in front of them on the screen, so spelling might not be needed as often any more. Anything that needs communication of more than the minimum amount of text should use better suited technologies nowadays.

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  • Thanks, @HalvarF. If after some time no better answer appears, I'll accept this one. I just want to point out that just the other day I got a letter from some business where I had registered over a phone call, and in the letter I saw they actually got my name wrong... So maybe phone lines have become better, and maybe there are better suited technologies, but the fact is this is still very much an issue.
    – Tom
    Mar 2 at 8:31
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    @Tom I completely agree. Because spellling over the phone is not as common any more, when you still have to spell something over a phone line, you are more likely to get a bad experience.
    – HalvarF
    Mar 2 at 9:49
  • Thanks again, @HalvarF. I ended up accepting another answer; all answers given lead to the same conclusion, and sometimes it's a pity one can't accept more than one.
    – Tom
    Mar 8 at 5:04
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The German spelling alphabet does indeed have specific entries for "Sch-" (Schule) and "Ch-" (Charlotte). These are relatively rarely used (and the letters spelled out separately)

It also has a bit of a wierdness connected to specific German history - the original alphabet introduced with the Telephone system had entries with Jewish (or, rather, biblical) first names ("David", "Jakob", "Nathan", "Samuel" and "Zacharias") that were replaced by the Nazi government with in 1934 and only partially reinstated 1948.

Due to this historic ballast, the newer, DIN-pre-standardized (DIN5009) spelling alphabet of 2021 (which will most probably be issued in 2022) replaces almost all entries with German city names, but retains separate entries for "Ch-" (Chemnitz) and "Sch-" (Schwerin).

This leads to the problem that people not familiar with the table, be it the new or the old one (or even people familiar with the international table that uses a word starting with "Ch-" (Charlie) to denote the "C" (bummer)) wouldn't really know whether "Chemnitz" means "C" or "Ch".

In the interest of clarity, I tend to spell out both "Sch-" and "Ch-" as single letters ("Stuttgart, Cottbus, Hannover") instead of using "Schwerin", especially if I presume the other end isn't really familiar with the spelling alphabet.

Note the Swiss Army uses (or used to use?) a similar table consisting of Swiss city names with a separate entry for "Ch-" (Chiasso) but none for "Sch-".

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  • Interesting! I grew up in the 70s/80s, and to be honest I can't remember to ever hear anyone use Samuel and Zacharias, but always Siegfried and Zeppelin. OTOH, I only know Theodor, never heard Toni. Strange.
    – HalvarF
    Mar 2 at 11:46
  • I ended up accepting another answer, but thanks for the added information, @tofro!
    – Tom
    Mar 8 at 5:05
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I would not use Charlotte and Schule although they occur in the offical spelling alphabet (see here and here) which is even normed by DIN 5009. The problem is that the spelling alphabet is not widely known. Probably most people will understand which letter is meant by words like Anton, Berta etc. even if they do not know the spelling alphabet. But I guess that Charlotte and Schule could cause a lot of confusion. I admit that I have never heard them before (though this is no evidence for a possible misintepretion). I can imagine that even the classic "Cäsar" can be understood as "Z"; we must not believe that everybody knows Julius Caesar.

My impression is that especially young people do not know the German spelling alphabet. Perhaps agents in professional call centers get a training, but do not expect too much.

In the German army the NATO alphabet (Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, ...) was and is used as a standard. Hence this might be better known in Germany than the German spelling alphabet. However, in the army of the former GDR (NVA) the German spelling alphabet was used (search for "Buchstabieralphabet" in this document). So perhaps it is better known by former NVA-soldiers. But these are no longer young men ...

I therefore recommend to spell "CH" and "SCH" by spelling separately all letters.

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  • Thanks, @Paul Frost! A very good answer – sorry I've already accepted another and can't accept more than one...
    – Tom
    Mar 8 at 5:08

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