The International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet, commonly known as the NATO phonetic alphabet, is the most widely used set of clear code words for communicating the letters of the English alphabet, technically a radiotelephonic spelling alphabet. It goes by various names, including NATO spelling alphabet, ICAO phonetic alphabet and ICAO spelling alphabet. The ITU phonetic alphabet and figure code is a rarely used variant that differs in the code words for digits.
To create the code, a series of international agencies assigned 26 code words acrophonically to the letters of the English alphabet, so that the names for letters and numbers would be as distinct as possible so as to be easily understood by those who exchanged voice messages by radio or telephone, regardless of language differences or the quality of the connection. The specific code words varied, as some seemingly distinct words were found to be ineffective in real-life conditions. In 1956, NATO modified the then-current set of code words used by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO); this modification then became the international standard when it was accepted by the ICAO that year and by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) a few years later. The words were chosen to be accessible to speakers of French and Spanish in addition to English; the spellings of a couple of code words were changed to facilitate their use.
Although spelling alphabets are commonly called “phonetic alphabets”, they should not be confused with phonetic transcription systems such as the International Phonetic Alphabet.
The 26 code words are as follows: 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 code words “Alfa” and “Juliett” are spelled that way intentionally to avoid mispronunciations by learners of the alphabet. Numbers are read off as English digits, but the pronunciations of three, four, five, nine and thousand are modified.
The Military Phonetic Alphabet
How do you use the military phonetic alphabet?
Agencies use the military phonetic alphabet when sending messages to other agencies or within their own organizations. When sending a message using the alphabet, certain parts of the message will be spelled out to ensure proper understanding. For example, when transmitting a particular location the recipient should go to, the sender of the message may want to say “go to grid point AG17,” which would be transmitted as “go to grid point Alpha-Golf-One-Seven.”
Outside of the military, some civilian industries also utilize this alphabet. For example, a company that regularly transmits messages by the telephone may teach its employees the military phonetic alphabet so they can use it in instances when the message must be received accurately. One instance of this is when a sales representative is getting the credit card information from a customer. The sales representative will repeat the credit card number and corresponding address back to the customer using the phonetic alphabet to ensure accuracy.
What is the military phonetic alphabet?
The military phonetic alphabet is a set of words used to depict certain letters of the traditional alphabet in messages sent over telephone or radio and encrypted messages. The military also uses this alphabet when signaling with Morse Code, flags and lights.
There are several different terms used to describe this alphabet, including the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet, the NATO phonetic alphabet and the ICAO phonetic alphabet. Another variation of the military phonetic alphabet is the ITU phonetic alphabet and figure code.
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) originally created the phonetic alphabet by assigning codewords acrophonically to each letter of the traditional English alphabet. For example, for the letter A, the ICAO assigned the word Alfa or alpha to be used in its place in transmissions. This allowed letters and numbers to have distinct sounds that were easily heard and understood across various messages and languages.
Several other national and international organizations like the International Maritime Organization and the International Telecommunication Union adopted this alphabet after its development. All organizations use the same words, but some agencies used different numeric code words when transmitting numbers.
Military phonetic alphabet
The following is the complete list of the military phonetic alphabet:
The International Civil Aviation Organization established the choice of code words after performing hundreds of thousands of tests across 31 different nationalities. Based on these tests, the organization chose words that were most likely to be understood by all nationalities in various contexts.
For example, the following was the phonetic alphabet in 1913:
Further adjustments were made to the alphabet in 1927, which resulted in the following phonetic alphabet:
The alphabet saw further changes during World War II. During this time, the military phonetic alphabet was as follows:
As you can see, some of the phonetic alphabet remained the same across years, while others changed drastically. For example, the phonetic word X-Ray remained the same for X up until today, while the phonetic words for H (Have, Hypo and How) have changed during each edit of the alphabet.
Additionally, numbers also have phonetic words associated with them. However, many organizations simply state the number rather than use the word. Here are the numbers in the phonetic alphabet:
Tips for using the military phonetic alphabet
There are a few tips to keep in mind when learning and using the military phonetic alphabet. These tips include:
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