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 Microsoft and Amazon, and currently works at Tableau Software. 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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