You’ve probably heard it a lot of times, particularly in films and TV shows depicting war, military, law enforcement, and aviation. The characters begin talking in all-too-familiar words: Alpha, Charlie, Echo, and Juliett, to name a few. When you first heard them, you might have even wondered who Charlie and Juliett were.
Now, while cinematic and dramatic media has helped familiarize people with the NATO phonetic alphabet, it holds significant value and importance among militaries and authorities all over the world.
It is the universal spelling alphabet that has made communication between sectors, officials, and authorities as accurate and easy as possible.
To ensure clear communication between involved authorities and parties, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been utilizing various phonetic spelling alphabet formats that were well-known to militaries across the world.
However, standardizing said formats allowed for communication methods that are understood by all, regardless of their position in the armed forces and anywhere in the world they may be.
NATO formally adopted and used the final version of the phonetic alphabet spelling format on January 1, 1956. It was officially termed as the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet. It is also called the NATO phonetic alphabet. Some refer to it simply as the Alpha, Bravo, Charlie alphabet.
If you’ve ever said “Charlie” to clarify to someone you’re talking to on the phone that you meant the letter “C”, not “Z”, it means you’re familiar with the standard NATO phonetic alphabet, also known as “the military alphabet”.
However, it is good to note that even though the phonetic alphabet is widely used and accepted, some sectors also use other codes and communication standards. For instance, those in the naval field still use flag signals to communicate. Meanwhile, some standards, such as the Morse code, were used less and less.
The International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet, The Full List Of Military Letters
If you’re not yet familiar with the entire military phonetic alphabet, here is the complete list of military letters:
A – Alfa (Alpha – the “ph” sound is not recognised internationally)
B – Bravo
C – Charlie
D – Delta
E – Echo
F – Foxtrot
G – Golf
H – Hotel
I – India
J – Juliett
K – Kilo
L – Lima
M – Mike
N – November
O – Oscar
P – Papa
Q – Quebec
R – Romeo
S – Sierra
T – Tango
U – Uniform
V – Victor
W – Whiskey
X – X-Ray
Y – Yankee
Z – Zulu
The NATO Phonetic Alphabet As a Spelling Standard
The NATO phonetic alphabet is widely used to prevent spelling and miscommunication errors, especially when people or groups from different countries with different languages communicate. The NATO alphabet seeks to transcend beyond regional differences, including accents and pronunciations.
When the military alphabet was standardized in 1956 and turned into a universal military alphabet a few years later, it has been used not only for military communication, but civilian and amateur radio communications as well.
What made it unique and at the same time, easy to adopt, is it assigned unique words for every letter of the alphabet, allowing everyone who knows it deliver their messages more clearly.
Why Was the NATO Phonetic Alphabet/Military Alphabet Created?
Originally, it was developed to provide a standardized way for aviation crews around the world to easily make themselves understood and recognized. All planes and flights were given names that had identifying letters.
However, letters such as D and B, M and N, C and Z, sounded so similar to each other that crews and operators oftentimes had difficulty correctly identifying them.
Technically, the NATO military alphabet is not exactly a phonetic alphabet, since phonetic alphabets are those that help people learn the pronunciation of words depending on the language. The NATO phonetic alphabet is a spelling alphabet that eliminates the issues that arise from differences in languages, accents, and pronunciations.
While the radio communications industry has moved on in terms of technical sophistication, the military phonetic alphabet is still used from time to time to clarify confusing and unclear messages, especially in the case of bad reception.
The NATO alphabet has always been the go-to communication format for various sectors when parties need to ensure that their messages and words are sent across and received accurately.
How the NATO Alphabet Was Formed and Selected
The International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet, also called the ICAO spelling alphabet or simply NATO phonetic alphabet, was developed with the primary purpose of clearing up misunderstandings caused by how people pronounce words differently.
For this to be possible, code words were assigned to each of the letters in the English alphabet. These word assignments allowed for the expression of letter and number combinations to be said in such a way that will be understood by anyone, especially when the message was sent over the phone or radio.
The final version of the military alphabet was only decided on after testing it many times under scientific observation and study. Ever since its establishment, it has become almost like a universal language that’s being used until today. It has come a long way since the World War II, when different nations still used their own spelling alphabets.
Because of the need for a standard spelling alphabet that can be interpreted accurately across nations, the Combined Communications Board was compelled to modify the US military’s Joint Army/Navy alphabet, allowing it to be used not just by the US, but the UK and Australia as well.
Around that time, the US military started studying spelling alphabets. The director of the communications branch of the US Army, Major F. D. Handy, asked for the assistance and guidance of Harvard University’s Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory.
He gave them the task of figuring out the best word to represent every letter of the alphabet, particularly when using military interphones in situations where there is intense noise, such as in the middle of a warfare. The laboratory sent a list of their word choices to Major Handy.
When the Second World War was concluded, many of the members of the Allied Forces joined the aviation industry. Because they were used to the military alphabet, they also adopted and used it in the aviation industry.
Ultimately, the US Able Baker military alphabet was officially adopted and utilized by the international aviation industry. However, because most of the words assigned to the letters were English, another version, the Ana Brazil alphabet, was created for use in South America.
However, it fell out of favor when the International Air Transport Association (IATA) mandated that they use a universal spelling alphabet. The draft for the proposed universal alphabet was submitted to the ICAO in 1947.
A year later, the ICAO worked with linguistics professor, Jean-Laul Vinay of the Université de Montréal, in the hopes of formulating a new spelling alphabet based on three basic criteria:
- The word should be used and accepted in three languages — English, French, and Spanish — and should have similar spelling and pronunciation in each of the said languages.
- The word must be easy to pronounce. It should also be recognized by airmen of different native languages and accents. The words should also be easy to read and transmit.
- The word must not have any negative connotation.
The revised alphabet that featured the words following the specified criteria was adopted on November 1, 1951. It was used in the civil aviation industry on April 1, 1952. The words that represented the letters C, M, N, U, and X were replaced later on with Charlie, Mike, November, Uniform, and X-ray, respectively.
The final version of the military spelling alphabet was adopted on March 1, 1956.
Why Did The Military Alphabet Have to Be Standardized?
During World War I, the Royal Navy already used a spelling alphabet that went on like Apples, Butter, and Charlie. Meanwhile, the British military designated in the trenches used their own, which spelled Ack, Beer, Charlie, and so on.
Because of these differences, the Royal Air Force (RAF) established an alphabet based on the two alphabets mentioned above. However, when the US Air Force joined the war, the entire Allied Forces adopted the Able, Baker alphabet.
Later on, it was also used in civil aviation. Unfortunately, the confusion continued, as other groups and parties across the globe still used different spelling alphabets. Because of this, it became apparent that a standard spelling alphabet that can be used globally had to be established.
Who Created the NATO Phonetic Alphabet?
As one of the agencies operating under the United Nations, it made sense for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to be tasked with creating a standardized spelling alphabet that even though uses English words, had similarities to other languages and can be spoken and pronounced globally regardless of the nationality of the person speaking it.
When Professor Jean Paul Vinay provided his list, the new alphabet was not instantly well-received by those who were supposed to use it. Many pilots did not like it and still opted to use the phonetic alphabet they were used to. Ultimately, after further study and testing, the standardized military alphabet was officially introduced on March 1, 1956.
Has the NATO Phonetic Alphabet Evolved Since Its Inception?
Since being adopted worldwide, the NATO alphabet has remained in place since then. Over time, however, it has seen several changes and modifications. Since language is arbitrary, changing its form and the development of slang words are inevitable. Some combinations have also been developed based on the original spelling words.
For instance, the phrase “Oscar-Mike” generally means “on the move”, which means that a military unit is switching positions or moving.
These shorthand, slang, and combinations, are also as widely used in the military and aviation as the original phonetic alphabet is. Furthermore, the expressions are also used outside the military while some sectors created their own alphabet based on the NATO phonetic alphabet. The Police, for instance, has the police alphabet.
The phonetic spelling alphabet is not used only for military activities. As an example, bankers and traders who perform huge transactions over the phone try to clarify messages and at the same time, mask them from prying ears.
Why the NATO Alphabet May Be Relevant to You Today
The military alphabet uses code words for the 26 letters of the English alphabet, which you of course know and use. Even though it was designed for the use of military, aviation, and armed forces authorities, it has been adopted by many civilian groups.
Even in the retail industry, there are situations where the NATO alphabet comes in handy. For instance, when a sales assistant confirms your order number, but is having a hard time distinguishing between C and Z, then the codes Charlie and Zu.u can be utilized.
Furthermore, the NATO phonetic alphabet is widely used in the aviation and airline industry. So, if you’re flying, don’t be surprised to hear the codes spoken by authorities and the flight crew from time to time. You should also familiarize yourself with the NATO alphabet, to help you spell out words and codes that might be required from you.
Tips for Using the NATO Phonetic Alphabet
Now, should you ever have a need to use the NATO spelling alphabet, make sure you stick to the words listed above. This will prevent confusion and allow you to practice your phonetic spelling skills further.
As a civilian, before using the spelling alphabet, make sure that the person you’re communicating with has an idea of what you could be saying. You don’t want to be the weird one who suddenly bursts out, “Charlie-Alpha-Romeo” in the middle of a conversation.
Learning the NATO phonetic alphabet is actually easy. Despite not requiring too much effort, it is something that has tremendous value to people, civilian and military alike.
It may not be useful to you now, but sooner or later, you will appreciate the importance of knowing these phonetic spelling code words. It is a skill that won’t take a lot of your time to practice, but when you do build the skill, you will realize that you learned something of value that will prove to be of use to you at one point or another.
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