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A look at the history of the NATO phonetic alphabet

The NATO phonetic alphabet is an internationally recognised system which has enabled the military, emergency services and aviation industry to avoid miscommunicating similar-sounding letters and save lives during wars. Join us as we trace its origins and uses.

You’re not alone in mangling your favorite songs. There’s an official word for this grammatical phenomenon – oronyms. This happens when we don’t hear words or phrases clearly and our brain jumps in to help us by putting together words or phrases from our vocabulary that sound most like the not-so-clear words or phrases.

The part of your brain that’s to blame is the angular gyrus, which uses all your gathered knowledge to fill in unclear, nonsensical phrases with predictable words. Miss even the last syllable of a word and this part your brain will subconsciously complete the sentence for you. And based on your personal everyday experiences, your brain is more likely to pick “a bathroom on your right” as having practical relevance for you than “a bad moon on the rise”.

A simple case of misheard lyrics can be funny, but what about a pilot mishearing the map grid of a rescue extraction point? Just one wrong letter or number could cost lives. This is why the NATO phonetic alphabet was created, initially for military use but now also utilised in many areas of civilian life.

The war against the angular gyrus begins

Portrait of young nato soldier holding a radio station
Portrait of young nato soldier holding a radio station

Spelling alphabets were created before World War I in response to advances in voice-supportive two-way radio, to improve communication on low-quality and long-distance telephone circuits.

Between 1927 and 1932, the first non-military international spelling alphabet was developed and adopted by several organisations, who then made changes based on their experiences. These organisations included the International Commission for Air Navigation (ICAN), predecessor of the international Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO); the CCIR, predecessor of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU); the International Maritime Organization (IMO); the United States Federal Government; the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA); the International Amateur Radio Union (IARU); the American Radio Relay League (ARRL); the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International (APCO); and many military organizations like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the now-defunct Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO).

Why the NATO phonetic alphabet may be relevant to you

The NATO phonetic alphabet uses 26 code words assigned to the 26 letters of the English alphabet.

NATO Phonetic Alphabet

CharacterTelephonyPhonic (Pronunciation)

The military continued to utilise the phonetic alphabet post-World War II and its use by civilian organizations has also increased exponentially. Even the retail industry employs the NATO alphabet in its operations to confirm customer and site details over the phone; especially when needing to authorise a credit agreement or confirm stock codes, when a wrong letter or digit here or there can cost a retailer many thousands of pounds in losses. It’s widely used for the same reasons in information technology, when staff work with serial numbers and reference codes which can easily involve 18 or more digits.

Of course, the NATO phonetic alphabet is used by airlines to accurately record passenger name records. It’s also vital in the medical field, where the correct pronunciation and recording of transmitted information can save lives, and has become part of everyday life for law enforcement officials, bankers, traders and utility companies.

Thanks to popular culture depicted in movies and television, most of us are familiar with using the spelling alphabet to deliver a “well done” with Bravo Zulu (letter code BZ) or Berlin’s famous Checkpoint Charlie (Checkpoint C) and most people associate Foxtrot with the military alphabet rather than ballroom dance.

How the phonetic alphabet was chosen

Soldiers boarding a military helicopter.
Soldiers boarding a military helicopter.

Officially called the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet and also known as the ICAO spelling alphabet, the NATO phonetic alphabet is technically not a phonetic alphabet (which helps people with the pronunciation of words). It’s actually a spelling alphabet, designed to clear up misunderstandings when people pronounce the same words differently. In other words, code words are assigned to each letter of the English alphabet so that letter and number combinations can be pronounced and understood by people transmitting information via telephone or radio, even if the quality of the communication channel is poor and the sender and receiver have language differences. This is why it’s so important to stick to the prescribed spelling words.

The phonetic alphabet was settled on only after its use was tested many times on a scientific basis. It’s now a universal language that has travelled a long road since World War II, when many nations used their own versions of a spelling alphabet. It was the need to effectively communicate during joint operations between the US, UK and Australia that prompted the Combined Communications Board to change the US military’s Joint Army/Navy alphabet so it could be used by all three nations.

Around this time, the US military began to study spelling alphabets. Major F. D. Handy, director of the communications branch of the army, asked for the help of Harvard University's Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory. He set them the task of figuring out the most successful word for each letter when using "military interphones in the intense noise encountered in modern warfare." They sent a list of their word choices through to Major Handy and this was the start of what we know today as the NATO phonetic alphabet.

Once World War II was over, with so many members of the allied forces entering the aviation industry, the US Able Baker military alphabet was officially adopted by international aviation. Finding that many of the alphabet sounds were unique to the English alphabet, an alternative Ana Brazil alphabet was created for use in Latin America but abandoned after the International Air Transport Association (IATA) decided to return to the use of a single universal alphabet. A draft was submitted to ICAO in 1947.

The following year, ICAO collaborated with Jean-Paul Vinay, a professor of linguistics at the Université de Montréal, to iron out a new spelling alphabet based on these criteria:

  • A world could only be considered if it was a live word in each of the three working languages and had a similar spelling in English, French, and Spanish.
  • It had to be easily pronounced and recognised by airmen of all languages, clearly transmissible by radio and easy to read.
  • A chosen word could not have any negative meaning or association.

The revised alphabet was eventually adopted on 1 November 1951 and came into use for civil aviation on 1 April 1952. The words representing the letters C, M, N, U and X were later replaced with Charlie, Mike, November, Uniform, X-ray, with the final version brought into use on 1 March 1956.

Tips for using the NATO phonetic alphabet

Soldiers climbing on mountain, one of them giving a hand and helping the other.
Soldiers climbing on mountain, one of them giving a hand and helping the other.

Stick to the prescribed spelling words to avoid any confusion and check that the individual you’re communicating with knows you’re spelling out a word using the NATO phonetic alphabet. Some people are still unfamiliar with the concept of a spelling alphabet, so be sure to explain, “I as in India, S as in Sierra, T as in Tango, or Z as in Zulu”, which makes sense to most people.

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