RAF member in Tornado aircraft

What is the phonetic alphabet and why do we have it?

RAF member in Tornado aircraft


What Is The Phonetic Alphabet?

Anyone who has used a two-way radio will know of the barriers to clear communication over the airways.

Distortion, background noise, poor signal and even the accent or dialect of the speakers can all hamper the effectiveness of a message getting through.

It is not hard to understand how the phonetic alphabet came into existence as a way of fine-tuning language to iron out any ambiguities, especially in regard to military tactics.

The initial drive to create standardised formats of clear communication developed with the advancement of flight.

Aircrews needed an effective method of making sure they were understood over the airwaves, especially as planes and flights were all denoted by identifying callsign letters - but some standard letters in the alphabet sounded too similar, such as M and N, D and B or F or S.


Lancaster bomber pilot. Generic public domain

Where Did The Phonetic Alphabet Come From?

Words denoting letters of the alphabet for official radio conversations date back to at least the 1920s.

As radio transmissions developed into a vital strategic form of communication, it became clear that miscommunications could arise when one letter could be mistaken for another, while some letters could be difficult to distinguish.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) was perhaps the first official body to create a formal phonetic list, principally for aviation, that could be recognised internationally and that would ensure consistency in line with advancements in radio usage.

That phonetic set included longer words such as Amsterdam, Baltimore, Casablanca and so on. A standardised alphabet using this format was in operation by 1932.  

How Was The Phonetic Alphabet Used?

A separate system evolved in military operations over the years. There are records of Royal Navy sailors using an alphabet starting with the words Apples, Butter and Charlie, dating back to the First World War, while soldiers in the trenches are reported to have used a version with the words Ack, Beer and Charlie.

Early versions did not focus on international communication, with the United States developing its own military format by about 1913.

Wartime intensified the problems of broadcasting with low-quality signal and loud background noise so militaries began to work on more effective forms and ensure vital messages were easier to decipher.

The Royal Air Force, which had a version called the Telephony Spelling Alphabet by 1921, used its own format for many years until the Second World War when the service adopted a new phonetic alphabet.

Developed by the Americans in 1941 for both the US Navy and the Army, it was known as the 'Able Baker' system, after the first codewords in the set.

RAF pilot taking off from a carrier

When Did It Become The Nato Phonetic Alphabet?

As nations worked more and more closely together, it became clear that many words used in the varying alphabets did not sit comfortably with other nations' languages.

Therefore, a new version was developed that incorporated sounds common to English, French, Spanish and other international vocabularies.

Alfa, Bravo, Coca, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Gold, Hotel, India, Juliett, Kilo, Lima, Metro, Nectar, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Union, Victor, Whiskey, eXtra, Yankee, Zulu

This format was adopted in 1951 after a proposal by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

The RAF and other militaries around the world continued to use the Able Baker format but as allies under NATO formed more joint operations, some words remained problematic.

Authorities in the UK and the US pushed for a review of the most effective words across international borders, which led to calls for some words to change.

Nato flag

Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliett, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-Ray, Yankee, Zulu

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) formally adopted the new alphabet on January 1, 1956.

Agreement on the words used was not entirely straightforward, with some words sparking strong debate.

Many who know the current phonetic alphabet will know the letter for N, for instance, as November but there were arguments for 'Nectar', with some suggesting this as a universally understood linguistic sound.

Other words changed over the years include: Beer-Baker-Bravo, Don-Dog-Delta, Edward-Easy-Echo, Freddie-Fox-Foxtrot among many others.

The changes made under the agreed NATO format have been adopted across the globe and now form the standardised phonetic alphabet internationally.

A - Alfa

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

How Much Of The Nato Phonetic Alphabet Do Civilians Know?

We asked.

This is what happened when we approached members of the public to tell us the phonetic alphabet ...

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