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The Phonetic Alphabet

Chris Riley by Chris Riley Updated on October 29, 2020. In

Nato Phonetic Alphabet Wall Painting

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The phonetic alphabet is an essential skill for all radio operators. Whether you’re on sea, in the air, or on land, knowing how to communicate effectively could save your life.

What Is The Phonetic Alphabet?

It’s very important for sailors to properly understand and know how to use the phonetic alphabet. A phonetic alphabet is an alphabet that uses words to represent letters. It’s used for communication in difficult circumstances, when regular pronunciation isn’t possible, or for giving precise, simple, and intuitive instructions.

Since it’s such an effective way of communicating information, phonetic alphabets have been adopted by police, military, emergency services, pilots, and professional radio operators all over the world. Generally speaking, most phonetic alphabets are comprised of words that start with the letter that they’re representing. For example, “A” could be represented by “Alpha” and “B” by “Bravo.”

Curiously, the term phonetic alphabet isn’t actually the correct term to describe this language. If you want to be pedantic, these languages are officially known as spelling alphabets. However, the colloquial phonetic alphabet name is more commonly known.

There are a number of different spelling alphabets in use. The most famous and most widely-used system is the NATO phonetic alphabet. It’s a standardized system that can be used all over the world to help communicate words, numbers, initials, and meanings.

The official name for the NATO phonetic alphabet is the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet, but most people simply refer to it as the NATO phonetic alphabet. It’s the NATO phonetic alphabet that we’re here to talk about today. And it has a very interesting history.

The NATO Phonetic Alphabet

The NATO spelling alphabet was officially established in 1956, but its roots go back all the way to the pre-World War I era. These first military spelling alphabets were established to aid communication over low-quality transmissions.

During the 1920s, the CCIR (the predecessor of the modern International Telecommunication Union) adopted the first civilian spelling alphabet, which evolved somewhat until 1932, when it was adopted by the International Commission for Air Navigation.

During World War II, different nations began deploying their own spelling alphabets. The USA opted for the Joint Army/Navy radiotelephony alphabet in 1941. This was to give all armed forces agencies a uniform standard to work with. It was often referred to as the Able Baker after the codewords “Able” and “Baker” that stood for “A” and “B” respectively. Variants of this system were adopted by other anglophone countries.

To help coordinate a uniform system, the US military and its allies conducted significant research to find a list of codewords that could effectively transmit their meaning without confusion under any circumstances, that could be spoken with any accent or dialect. While Able Baker was an effective system in Anglo spheres, it wasn’t useful in Latin America, for example, where certain words or tones don’t exist in Spanish or Portuguese languages.

To overcome this, the newly formed International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) worked with linguistic professionals such as Jean-Paul Vinay of the Université de Montréal to create a universal phonetic alphabet with words that followed the following rules:

  1. Be a live word in each of the three working languages.
  2. Be easily pronounced and recognized by airmen of all languages.
  3. Have good radio transmission and readability characteristics.
  4. Have a similar spelling in at least English, French, and Spanish, and the initial letter must be the letter the word identifies.
  5. Be free from any association with objectionable meanings.

By 1951, the first version o the NATO phonetic alphabet was formulated but it wasn’t without its issues. Confusions over some word choices became apparent, and it took many more years of tweaking until the alphabet became what we know it today. In 1956, the NATO phonetic alphabet was officially launched and adopted by many organizations across the globe.

Today, it consists of the following 26 words: 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. It’s worth noting that two of those words can be spelled differently (Alpha/Juliet) though the above spellings are the official and correct way of spelling them.

Why Should You Learn The NATO Phonetic Alphabet?

There are many reasons to learn the NATO phonetic alphabet. While other spelling alphabets exist, this is one is the universal choice. It’s used by countless nations, organizations, agencies, and individuals. It casts the widest net, and in an emergency situation knowing the most common method of communication could save time or lives. If you own a boat, use a GPS device, and have a radio, learning this stuff is important.

So, if you want to learn this phonetic alphabet: here’s how!

The NATO Phonetic Alphabet

The phonetic alphabet should be used for radio transmissions in plain language or in code.

 

A – Alpha H – Hotel O – Oscar V – Victor
B – Bravo I – India P – Papa W – Whiskey
C – Charlie J – Juliet Q – Quebec X – X-ray
D – Delta K – Kilo R – Romeo Y – Yankee
E – Echo L – Lima S – Sierra Z – Zulu
F – Fox-trot M – Mike T – Tango
G – Golf N – November U – Uniform

 

If you need to spell out a word you should say, “I spell” after pronouncing the word and then spell it using the phonetic alphabet.

Now that you know the words, here’s how to properly pronounce them:

Letter Pronunciation
   
A lfa AL FAH
B ravo BRAH VOH
C harlie CHAR LEE
D elta DELL TAH
E cho ECK OH
F ox-trot FOKS TROT
G olf GOLF
H otel HO TELL
I ndia IN DEE AH
J uliett JEW LEE ETT
K ilo KEY LOH
L ima LEE MAH
M ike MIKE
N ovember NO VEM BER
O scar OSS CAH
P apa PAH PAH
Q uebec KEH BECK
R omeo ROH ME OH
S ierra SEE AIR RAH
T ango TANG GO
U niform YOU NEE FORM
V ictor VIK TAH
W hiskey WISS KEY
X -ray ECKS RAY
Y ankee YANG KEE
Z ulu ZOO LOO

 

What About Numbers?

Being able to spell out words is one thing, but what about when you need to communicate numerical values? Don’t worry! There’s a phonetic system in place for numbers too. For the most part, these numbers are pronounced as you would normally say them—but that’s not the case for every number. Here’s a table with an overview of how to properly pronounce these numerical values.

Number Word Pronunciation
0 ZERO ZEE RO
1 ONE WUN
2 TWO TOO
3 THREE TREE
4 FOUR FOW ER
5 FIVE FIFE
6 SIX SIX
7 SEVEN SEV EN
8 EIGHT AIT
9 NINE NIN ER
100 HUNDRED HUN DRED
1000 THOUSAND TOU SAND
. (full stop) FULL STOP STOP
. (decimal point) DECIMAL POINT DAY SEE MUL

Transmit numbers above 9, digit by digit.

What Other Spelling Alphabets Are There?

There are regional spelling alphabets that have different contents due to linguistic, historical, or cultural reasons. They’re all fairly similar to the NATO model listed above, but with some differences. For example, the country of Pakistan uses “Indigo” or “Italy” instead of India due to tensions between the two countries. Similarly, some Muslim nations prefer to use “Washington” or “White” instead of Whiskey.

In fact, during the Vietnam War radio operators chose to use the term “Cain” instead of “Charlie” as Charlie was a code word for enemy Viet Cong (Victor Charlie) combatants.

Despite the differences, we always suggest learning the NATO spelling alphabet. If you’re interested in learning others, that’s fine—just as long as you don’t erase your NATO knowledge in the learning process. It’s the NATO model that’s most recognized and used the most. In an emergency, you won’t want anything less than the best!

How Do You Spell “Phonetically”?

P-H-O-N-E-T-I-C-A-L-L-Y with the letters in that exact order. Or, if you want to show off your new knowledge, you could say:

Papa, Hotel, Oscar, November, Echo, Tango, India, Charlie, Alfa, Lima, Lima, Yankee!”

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