Discover the history of the NATO phonetic alphabet

NATO phonetic alphabet: A Short HIstory


There can be no-one on earth who hasn’t misheard what a loved one or colleague has said at some point. But while hearing something different from what was actually said can often be funny at home or at work, there are times when it can be deadly serious.

It’s not just a question of your hearing either. There is actually a term for what happens when you end up hearing something totally different from the message being conveyed. Oronyms are a phrase or series of words which sound very similar. For instance, ice rink and I stick. If you don’t hear what someone says then your brain tries to help you out by filling in the gaps and coming up with words that you already have in your own vocabulary which sound almost like the words you didn’t quite catch.

The angular gyrus; an area of the brain in the parietal lobe takes the knowledge that you already have stored away there and comes up with words that it thinks are the unclear phrases. If you just don’t quite catch a word’s final syllable your brain can try to be helpful and finish it for you. Many times, this can be useful, but on other occasions, your brain fills in the blanks with something totally different.

This phenomenon of hearing the message wrong can be incredibly dangerous when it comes to air travel. If a pilot doesn’t hear properly when trying to listen to where they need to pick up evacuees being rescued, for example, and lives could be put at risk. It is for this very reason that NATO developed its phonetic alphabet in order to remove any possibility of confusion during military exercises. While the NATO alphabet was initially created just for the military, it is now in much wider use as part of everyday life. Who hasn’t heard a word being spelled out using code names such as Alpha, Bravo, Charlie?

How phonetic alphabets were used in the military


Before the First World War, military personnel could face problems as a result of low-quality calls and trying to communicate via long-distance despite advances in radio communication.

As a result of these problems, an alphabet using spelling was created in the 20s and 30s, which was used by a number of different organisations, who made their own alterations to make the system work for them. The alphabet was used by government, aviation, radio, telecoms and public safety authorities as well as military bodies including NATO.

How the phonetic alphabet from NATO works

To make spelling out a message easier, the special alphabet has developed 26 easy-to-say and easy-to-hear code words; one for each letter in the English alphabet.

Military personnel used this kind of code from the First World War through WWII and beyond. The phonetic code eventually became better known among civilians too and started to be used by a number of different civilian and business organisations. For example, retail staff use the NATO phonetic alphabet to make sure that phone calls are clear, particularly when trying to order new stock via a code, or when reading out customer details in order to give the go ahead to an agreement for customer credit. If the person on the other end were to mishear, it could lead to losses for the retail business. For this reason, the phonetic alphabet can often be also widely used by those in the IT industry to communicate what could otherwise be easily-misheard information.

Unsurprisingly, this alphabet has also been utilised by the aviation industry to ensure that records such as passenger names are accurately recorded. Another use is in hospitals and the medical industry also uses a phonetic alphabet to ensure information which could mean the difference between life and death is conveyed correctly. Use of the phonetic alphabet has also become a regular part of work for those who work in the emergency services as well as in the financial industry and utilities.

Most people will be very familiar with the phonetic alphabet as a result of watching movies featuring military scenes.

Why the code names for each letter were chosen


The NATO alphabet has a number of different names. Its official title is the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet, and this way of communicating is also called the ICAO. However, also it is often described as an alphabet which uses phonetics, it is actually an alphabet which uses spelling. The purpose is to prevent any miscommunication when the speaker and the listener pronounce words in a different way. For instance, this can be particularly useful where there are regional accents or non-native speakers. A code word is given to every English alphabet letter to ensure that different combinations of numbers and letters can be easily conveyed and understood. That is why it is vital that everyone uses the same spelling system.

So, how was the alphabet developed? Well, it came into being following an extensive testing period to make sure that it could be universally used and understood. At the time of the Second World War, many countries had come up with their own spelling alphabet. However, the need by allies to be able to communicate together using the same system meant that the military alphabet in use by the US was changed so that the UK and Australia could also use it.

At about the same time, the military in the US began to take a further look at how alphabets using the spelling system worked. The Army’s head of communications requested high-profile help from the University of Harvard. He asked psycho-acoustic experts to come up with the best word to use for each alphabet letter. The testing had to take place in a noisy atmosphere like that encountered on the battlefield. Harvard sent back a set of code words they had come up with, and this proved to be the early beginning of the phonetic alphabet in use by NATO and organizations across the world today.

After the Second World War, many military personnel went on to become pilots or to become involved in aviation in some way. At the time, an alphabet in use by the US military called Able Baker was used internationally by the aviation industry. There was also another alphabet called Ana Brazil which was for Latin American use. However, this was short-lived when international air authorities decided that it would be best to use one universal alphabet in order to cut down the possibility of confusion.

A draft of the suggested alphabet was put forward in 1947 and the next year the International Civil Aviation Organisation, started to work with a linguistics expert from the University of Montreal to come up with a definitive, universal alphabet.

There were strict criteria governing whether a word could be used as one of the code words.

Each word had to be a word in use in Spanish, English and French. It also had to have a spelling which was similar in all three languages. The code word needed to be something that pilots and crew in each of the languages could all manage to pronounce and to recognise and had to be a word which was not only clear when it was transmitted via radio channels but also something which could be easily read too. The word was also ruled out if it had a negative association or definition in any of the languages.

Eventually, an alphabet that everyone was happy with was devised before being officially adopted and coming into use in the early 50s for the civil aviation industry. However, some of the letters were replaced later with a final version introduced in 1956.

To use the phonetic alphabet


If you need to use the spelling alphabet at work or in any form of communication where it is necessary to cut down the possibility of confusion, you will need to use only the words in the official spelling list. Before you start, it’s also worth double checking that the person you are communicating with is familiar with the spelling alphabet. You could always mention some of the terms – for example S for Sierra and T for Tango to check if they understand what you are talking about.

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You don’t necessarily need to use the NATO spelling alphabet, but you can if you want to. Our global office network certainly does when coming together to make sure that clients’ budgets and needs are met with a either for business or leisure.