If you’ve ever been on the phone trying to spell out your name or an address, you may be familiar with using another word to help you identify a letter. For example, if you are trying to say “T”, you may say “T for Tony,” or “N” as “N for nighttime.” And while it seems like just a convenient way to make sure your name is spelled correctly while on the phone, original uses for this method of communication were a little more life or death.
We introduce you to the NATO Phonetic Alphabet.
What is the NATO Phonetic Alphabet?
The NATO Phonetic Alphabet is a way of using words to replace letters. The first letter of the word is the letter the word stands for.
First used primarily by military servicemen and women, several different spelling alphabets came in and out of use in the early twentieth century, when poor signal and radio interference of early AM radio technology was known to cause errors in communication. Flight associations started using code words to represent letters that were easily confused or misheard. There was a specific word that corresponded to each letter.
The use of these alphabets continued into WWI. In 1927, the International Telegraph Union (ITU) developed a popular spelling alphabet for telegram communication. By the start of the WWII, ITU code words was the form of communication used by most commercial airlines.
It was not until 1941, however, that the US introduced the formal Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet, also known as Able Baker Charlie Alphabet. NATO later adopted a similar alphabet in 1957, which is what we know today as the NATO Phonetic Alphabet. Not to be taken lightly, the alphabet was developed over several iterations and several years of careful research and testing. Specifically, the International Civil Aviation Organization tested each word in many common dialects and across several replications of use, finding it stood the test of time as an international and understood standard.
Understanding the Use
Despite the alphabet being called a phonetic alphabet, it is technically not a phonetic alphabet at all. Phonetic alphabets help individuals in the pronunciations of words. The NATO Phonetic Alphabet, on the other hand, is used to spell out words in an effort to counteract misunderstanding due to different pronunciations.
In addition, the alphabet is also used as a form of shorthand or slang, whereby certain combinations of the alphabet words have pre-established and inherent meaning. For example, the expression “Oscar-Mike” means “on the move” and is used to denote a military unit, which is moving between positions. These words and expressions however, are also used outside the military, in areas of civilian life where it is also especially critical to ensure accurate and correct expression and understanding of words. This is true in the police force, where they have established their own Police Alphabet, in the financial sector, where banks and traders often use the alphabet for large transactions done over the phone, and in commercial airline communication as well.
What started as a means of compensating for poor radio transmission has now turned into a new universal language, which is understood world over. And given that it is often in the name of public safety, we should all be very Hotel-Alpha-Papa-Papa-Yankee (happy)!
A Chart of the Nato Phonetic Alphabet
So now that you know Whiskey Tango Foxtrot the Nato Phonetic Alphabet is, use the chart below to spell out a “secret” message as a good way to practice.
Once you have the actual alphabet memorized, test yourself in this Sporcle quiz.
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.