Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Do You Know Your Alfa-Bravo-Charlies?

Mike Pope, a technical editor at Microsoft, writes:

My name — Pope — is surprisingly easy to mishear. "Polk?" people ask. "Hope?" This is particularly true over the telephone. Even spelling it out doesn't help — P-O-P-E — and I find myself exaggerating the aspiration on those plosives.

This might be one reason that I've developed an interest in the idea of so-called spelling alphabets (frequently referred to, incorrectly, as phonetic alphabets). A spelling alphabet consists of words (Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, etc.) that represent alphabetic characters. Even if you've never been in the military or gotten a radio license or studied flying, you've probably heard people use a spelling alphabet on TV or in a movie.

As you can imagine, spelling alphabets were developed for precisely the reason I noted — spelling out loud is fraught, what with all the letters that sound similar (e.g., B, E, P, T, D) and the many vagaries of auditory communication. Since the military is very interested in communication, and because they often work under auditorially challenging conditions (such as, say, during battle), spelling alphabets have mostly come from the military.

Initial attempts in the British Army in the 19th century simply assigned alternative names to letters that were frequently misheard. This was an early version:

Ack Beer C D E F G H I J K L Emma N O Pip Q R Esses Toc U Vic W X Y Z

The idea was further developed with the spread of radio technology. (As those of us of a certain age can remember, pre-digital radio was notoriously subject to static and interference.) Signaling individual letters had of course long been established in the navy, and so spelling alphabets evolved to have a distinct word for each letter.

Imagine for a moment that you've been assigned to come up with a phonetic alphabet for English. Your alphabet must use simple, short words. It must also use words that are phonetically distinct from one another. For example, you wouldn't want to use A=Able and T=Table or B=Bear and F=Fare (or Fair).

One of the early English phonetic alphabets (from 1913) used these words:

Able Have Oboe Vice
Boy Item Pup Watch
Cast Jig Quack X-ray
Easy Love Sail Zed
Fox Mike Tare
George Nan Unit

Spelling alphabets evolved independently in different branches of the military and in different countries. During WWII, for example, the US military used a spelling alphabet that began with Able-Baker-Charlie, which might be familiar still to people who went through that conflict (or who love movies set in that time period). Over time it became obvious that it would be useful to standardize on a single such alphabet. After WWII, American and Western European countries settled on what's known as the NATO phonetic alphabet (as I say, not a correct term). This was adopted in the 1950s and is still standard today; here are the letters:

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

The challenge in developing the alphabet was to meet the criteria I listed earlier and to use words that non-English speakers would be able to speak and understand and that that did not have wildly different pronunciations in different languages. An additional challenge was to accommodate letters that were not in English. To that purpose, there are language-specific versions of this alphabet (like German) that have extra words for letters like ä, ö, and ü.

As I've been learning this, it struck me that the current alphabet consists almost entirely of multi-syllabic words; contrast this alphabet with the earlier one above. Another notable feature is that most of the words are disyllable trochees (AL-pha, BRA-vo, CHAR-lie, etc.). This was particularly noticeable to me as I was learning the alphabet, because exceptions — Golf, Hotel, November — were harder to learn and had an odd effect on the rhythm of the spelling. But the current selection of words is understandable as the result of the internationalization effort. For example, Golf is, I assume,  a more recognizable term internationally than George.

There has been some small influence of spelling alphabets in everyday English. The famous "Checkpoint Charlie" in the days of the Berlin Wall was actually Checkpoint C. The derogatory military slang term Charlie to refer to the Viet Cong is said to come from Victor Charlie. The term Roger to mean gotcha comes from a spelling alphabet in use in the 20s and 30s, in which it stood for the letter R, which in turn was shorthand for "received." Along similar lines, Wilco is spelling-alphabet shorthand for the W in will comply. Zulu time (from the Z in zone) is jargon for GMT. Some people might remember the TV series Adam-12, where the "Adam" in the name derives from a spelling alphabet used by police forces.

For ordinary civilians (like me), learning a spelling alphabet has limited applicability in everyday life. I would like to imagine myself telling someone over the phone that my name is "Papa-Oscar-Papa-Echo", but I'm pretty sure that most people on the other end of the phone would just find this bewildering, unless I happen to be talking to someone with radio military or piloting experience. It does provide an interesting distraction during traffic jams, where I wile away the time reading the license plates of my fellow drivers. But should I ever decide to get a radio license or become a pilot, I'm ready to spell away.


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Mike Pope has been a technical writer and editor for nearly 30 years. He has worked at several software companies, including Microsoft, and currently works in Amazon's cloud computing division. You can read more at Mike's Web Log and Evolving English II. Click here to read more articles by Mike Pope.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday August 23rd 2011, 6:50 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
When I use an online banking service and "speak to a representative" I have to verify my identity by naming letters of my password that he or she requests -- e.g., "From your password, Mr. Hargraves, may I have letter number four?" I say the letter and they repeat it back to me in the NATO alphabet above, e.g., "E for echo." This has been going on for so long that I now tell THEM the letter using the spelling alphabet -- to avoid their having to repeat it back to me. I expect that many customers of this bank, like me, have learned a fraction of this alphabet this way. Thanks for an interesting article!
Tuesday August 23rd 2011, 8:52 AM
Comment by: Kathryn M.
The soi-disant NATO Alphabet is invaluable when talking to airlines reservations staff about itineraries using your confirmation number, an alphanumeric string, especially when using a cellphone for communication.

The military has a way of coming up with spare, elegant descriptions of situations have gone awry: those of WWII will recognize FUBAR (fouled up beyond all recognition); the term of art in the armed services these days is a cluster f***, the spoken version rendered "a charlie foxtrot".

There are local variants of the alphabet which have much charm: in Italy the mundane "delta" is often rendered as "Domodossola" which allows for a dramatic rendering (verbally)and leaves one in no doubt the the letter D is what is being indicated.
Tuesday August 23rd 2011, 10:16 AM
Comment by: Tony K. (Saint Paul, MN)
Computer programmers frequently use hexadecimal numbers when referring to memory addresses, network addresses and the like. The 16 hexadecimal numerals are {0,1,2, ... ,9,A,B,C,D,E,F}.

In my career saying 'able', 'baker', 'charlie' (or 'chuck' for short), 'dog', 'easy', 'fox' is as natural as one two three.

But if I need to sound out a word rather than sounding out a number its tango oscar uniform golf hotel to remember all the other letters.
Tuesday August 23rd 2011, 10:44 AM
Comment by: E. V. Vance (Petaluma, CA)
Thanks for a wonderful article, as well as the handy NATO alphabet.

I live on D Street in Petaluma, and when asked for my address, I say, "D as in David." I can't tell you the number of people who confirm it as "David Street."
Tuesday August 23rd 2011, 11:50 AM
Comment by: Cédric P. (Argenton Sur Creuse France)
In Italy most people will spell using the country's bigger city names, for example :
NATO would spell : Napoli, Arezzo, Torino, Olbia

It is then more difficult to spell cities with W or Z which hardly exist in Italy, but those letters are scarce as well in the italian language.
Tuesday August 23rd 2011, 12:18 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
I'm surprised you don't just say, "As in the Vatican.." :)
Tuesday August 23rd 2011, 12:20 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
@Susan -- I have indeed done that. :-)
Tuesday August 23rd 2011, 1:52 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
Indeed it is an informative article.
Use of alphabet such as B for Boy, E for Echo, G for Girl, U for Umbrella, M for Monkey. The person at the other end of line doesn't make any mistake figuring out what I'm pronouncing. On the other hand if I spell my name clearly and high tone even hundred times no luck.
Roger, Alpha, Alpha, Charlie!
Wednesday August 24th 2011, 1:56 PM
Comment by: Aj.Scribe (Dallas, TX)
Timely for sure in this half deaf multiculturally accented and regionally dialected country of ours struggling to pronounce French, German, British Engish and American English, English languaged words of ours….whew.. How is that for a bad American English? In addition to the NATO phonetics I use exaggerated number pronunciations justly as PFHOWAH for 4, THAREEE for 3, NIGHYAN for 9, FihYhav for 5, TeeUU for 2, FAHEV for 5 and ZEEEROH for you guest it. So far I have not been asked to repeat a number. They get it. The best is when they want to repeat it back to me to make sure they got it right and you hear their strained attention to sound out the phonetics as I did to them. It somehow makes it all worthwhile when listening to them repeat it back correctly, one time. By the way if as "begum F" say's to have no luck with it, think about resting on your vowels more. Superb timing, I enjoyed the article and the attention to it.
Wednesday August 24th 2011, 4:04 PM
Comment by: Christine B.
I remember in the early 1950's my mother spelling out our last name when making a telephone order to Spiegel's, Sears or Wiebolt's catalogue: M as in Mary, A - L - I - N as in Norman S-K-I. Certainly this was not official but it got the job done in a booming industry in Chicago at that time. Thank you for the interesting article.
Friday August 26th 2011, 8:26 AM
Comment by: Maureen Y.
I live in Italy, and if you try to communicate spelling by just saying the letters (as is customary in the US), people's brains go on the blink and their fingers freeze over the keyboard. Thank goodness they are used to hearing the spelling alphabet, which is based, as someone mentioned above, on Italian cities. It makes it so much easier to tell people how to spell my Irish-origin name, and also confirm that I do indeed know how to pronounce my husband's simple but rare last name, thank you very much.

As for the extra letters (the ones without a city or other word like 'hotel'), they are simply pronounced: Y=ypsilon, W=doppio vu, X=ix, J=i lunga (long I), k=kappa.

When I was in high school in the US, my dad had access to a small Cessna with 2WR in its name. I loved hearing him call it down to the tower, and "Two-whiskey Romeo" became a term my friends and I used for a kind of guy to watch out for, a romantic when under the influence. :-)
Friday August 26th 2011, 6:44 PM
Comment by: Licia C. (Milano Italy)
I'm Italian and maybe an interesting detail to expand on what Anonymous said is that there is no Italian verb equivalent to English "spell", so we say "fare lo spelling", using and English loanword, mainly to talk about foreign words. Italian is a so-called "phonetic language", so in most cases there is no need to spell words, as there are no alternative spellings. For similar sounds, e.g. in surnames, we might just point out the consonant that might be confused by saying, for example, "Marbo, con la B come Bologna" or "Marpo, con la P come Pisa".
This is also the reason why young children are not taught the name of letters like American kids, as it would make it harder for them to learn how to read – they are taught that P is /p/ rather than /pi:/, N is /n/ rather than /enne/ so when they see the word PANE they know they should read it /'pane/, P-A-N-E.

We might use the spelling alphabet over the phone, e.g. when making reservations, or in any other "official" situations.
Saturday August 27th 2011, 2:45 AM
Comment by: Maureen Y.
Thanks for the comment on my comment, "Italian Anonymous". In fact my two children went to Italian schools, and I can vouch for the fact that, thanks to Italian being a phonetic language, and the poor kids not given any slack, the vast majority, if not all, are not only reading, but also writing in print AND cursive by Christmas of first grade. (Most are doing some letter formation in the last year of the 3-year nursery/kindergarten, but they are generally not encouraged to learn to read yet so as not to be too bored at the beginning of first grade. Obviously, some kids learn on their own anyway.)

I agree it could be useful to not learn the names of the letters right away, to avoid confusion with the sounds, but in my opinion they ought to learn them fairly soon afterwards at least. It sounds rather pitiful to hear a child of 9 or 10 or even later unsure what the names of the letters are, and calling them by sound instead. In any case my bilingual kids seemed to have no trouble distinguishing between the names of letters (in Italian and English) and their sounds (in Italian and English). Children’s intelligence should not be underestimated, their brains are more capable than ours of learning things like language and natural math concepts.

I used to teach English to groups of children after school, and the first thing we always did was the alphabet song. They were always suprised they could learn the alphabet in the space of an hour (singing in another language!), and they were the only kids in elementary school who managed to use a dictionary efficiently, because they knew by heart the order of the letters. They’ve told me they still used to sing the alphabet song to themselves in high school…

Italian being phonetic can make dyslexia more difficult to see—at least if you are not looking for it. There was a girl in my after-school English group who had a reputation for being very slow in school. I realized she could take dictation perfectly (write down the sounds, one after another) and had a wonderful ear, but could not copy the words in front of her. I was lucky the newspaper had just printed a very good article on the condition, making it easy to explain to her parents, because in the early 90s most teachers still seemed completely ignorant about it (and far too willing to attribute learning troubles to “laziness”).

Having seen kids go through school in a culture different from mine has let me see how much expectations count. In Italy all kids are expected to learn to read and to write in cursive by Christmas of first grade, and so most them really do, with lots of extra help from parents if they are having difficulties. But on the other hand, for some mysterious reason math is treated as a “difficult” subject by far too many teachers, and so the parents are told that their kids are “bad at math”, when actually it is the teacher who hasn’t learned to teach it.

Later, if your child is good in school and goes to Liceo Classico for high school, it is taken for granted that they will become competent in both Greek and Latin, reading aloud, translating and commenting original texts (yes, they learn the Greek alphabet in their very first week!). If a student is not doing well in both Greek and Latin, they may have to repeat the year. English, on the other hand, is also studied for 5 years, but no one seems concerned if the kids are not learning to speak it nor read it (not at my daughter’s illustrious school, anyway),not because it is not considered important, it is, but because, as everyone knows, foreign languages are very very difficult to learn!
Monday October 3rd 2011, 9:29 AM
Comment by: Pamela L.
I actually had occasion to do this recently as the person on the other end of my phone simply could not understand my (I think) simple two syllable last name even when very carefully pronounced. I chuckled to myself as I did exactly what Mr. Pope described in his last paragraph. Confusion ensued only for a moment and my caller seemed to catch on. Lima, Alpha, Mike, Papa, Sierra, Oscar, November. Then I chuckled all the rest of the day.

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