Just as the 24-hour clock has been adopted to avoid ambiguity, the military alphabet and phonetic code have been developed as more advanced communication techniques that serve a similar purpose. The development and widespread use of the military alphabet has played an important role in verbal non-face to face communication.
What is the Military Alphabet?
The military alphabet officially called the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet (IRSA), is the most expansively used radio-telephone alphabet. Internationally referred to as the NATO phonetic alphabet, the system matches a single acrophonic word (a word beginning with the same letter) to a specific letter in the English alphabet. Each assigned word has been carefully chosen after a plethora of scientific tests. The overarching goal was to develop a twenty-six-word code where each word sounds phonetically different than the others. For example in the NATO phonetic alphabet, F is replaced by Foxtrot and Z is replaced by Zulu. The overall purpose of this system is to avoid confusion or erroneous actions caused by a misunderstanding during a high-stakes situation.
If you’ve ever experienced a telephone call with poor reception or tried to communicate via radio with a bad signal, you are likely familiar with the type of confusion that similar sounding words create in these circumstances. The NATO phonetic alphabet is an attempt to standardize non-face to face verbal communication, especially between people from different language backgrounds, in order to avoid ambiguity in verbal communication.
It should be noted that the military alphabet is also commonly called the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO.
History of the Military Alphabet and the Phonetic Code
Since 1927, countries have been interested in developing a standardized single word spelling alphabet for the use of maritime trade and ariel activities. However, the creation of a word containing alphabets did not start until 1941, during World War II. It wasn’t until Major F. D. Handy of the U.S. Air Force (AAF), reached out to the psychoacoustic lab of Harvard University with the AAF’s own lists of words and alphabet equivalents. He requested that the lab decides on the best word to use for each letter, words that were easily comprehensible and unambiguous when spoken over military radio on a noisy battlefield. The Harvard psychoacoustic lab successfully completed this task, creating phonetic codes for the United States military, the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy, and British Army .
After World War II ended, there was rising international interest in expanding the alphabetic code to a broader audience. As the use of air transportation expanded post-war, the United States established an International Convention to address aspects of civil aviation. In 1944, the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, was created. As a result, the military alphabet used by the United States and the United Kingdom in WWII became the first ICAO alphabet. However, as the English phonetic alphabet gained international popularity, non-English speaking countries developed alphabets in their own language. These alternate alphabets, in French and Spanish, held the same amount of status in the ICAO community .
Since the creation of the original phonetic alphabet, there have been multiple revisions made to the code, a result of specific words sounding too similar to one another. These tables give insight to the revisions made to the code over time for the United States military, international aviation, maritime services.
Importance of the NATO Phonetic Alphabet
The phonetic code is a military based form of spoken communication that has been continuously revised and scientifically tested. The main purpose was to find the least ambiguous acrophonic words for spoken communication for military use. In terms of the military, having the ability to communicate effectively is predominantly important in high-stakes and emergency situations. For example, the phonetic code may be used by military personnel to call in backup support or medical evacuation. In other situations, it may be important to identify yourself as an individual, give geographic coordinate locations, communicate with other troops in the field, and report specific situations to officers. This information is primarily relayed via radio in instances where face-to-face communication is not possible.
In addition to the phonetic alphabet, the numbers 0-9 also have their own modifications. Certain numbers maintain their original phonetic sounds, but the sounds of three, five, and nine are modified so that they cannot be easily mixed up with other similar soundings letters or numbers. The entire phonetic code includes the English alphabet, numbers, and punctuation marks.
How to Read the Military Alphabet and Phonetic Code
Now that we have a better understanding of the history and purpose of the military alphabet and phonetic code, we can learn the alphabet. Reading the code is relatively simple, but just as it takes practice to learn military time, it will require routine practice to memorize the phonetic alphabet.
The table below contains four columns. The first column shows the letters of the English alphabet, in order from A to Z, as well as the numbers 0 through 9. The second column displays the morse code dash and dot combinations that represent each character from column one. The third column, labeled telephony, indicates the acrophonic word associated with each letter. The term telephony means the transmission of voice via telecommunication. The fourth column displays the phonetic pronunciation of each acrophonic word associated with a character. Note that punctuation is referred to by character name. However, the hyphen (-) and the period (.) are referred to as dash and dot respectively.
Using the Chart
The NATO phonetic alphabet chart is simple to use. For example, if you wanted to know the word associated with the letter “L”, scroll down the first column to the letter “L” and then scroll across the row to the third column. In the phonetic alphabet, “L” is associated with the word “Lima.” To find the pronunciation, go one more column to the right. Lima is pronounced “LEE-MAH”.
It should be noted that using the NATO phonetic alphabet was not designed for everyday speech. Rather, it is most commonly used in times of poor radio transmission during potentially high-stake situations. Here are a few tips to make your transmissions as clear as possible.
- Before spelling a word out, it is beneficial to say the word first. This gives the listener a better framework for decoding the word you are spelling. In addition, repeating the word after you spell it can ensure that the listener understands the message.
For example: “HELP. Hotel-Echo-Lima-Papa. HELP.”
- Rather than spelling out entire sentences, choose only a few words to convey your message. Spelling drawn out sentences will be confusing for the listener, and you may have to repeat yourself.
For example: Rather than spelling out the phrase ‘I need help’ (India-space-November-Echo-Echo-Delta-space-Hotel-Echo-Lima-Papa), only spell out the word ‘HELP.’
- Be sure that the listener knows the NATO Phonetic Alphabet. If they are unfamiliar, spell the word like this: “H as in Hotel, E as in Echo, L as in Lima, etc.” This method will be intuitive for most people.
Test your Skills: Phonetic Alphabet Quiz
Now that you have a basic understanding of the NATO phonetic alphabet, try this quick quiz to test your knowledge. Below are a handful of tips and tricks to remembering the phonetic code.
- Spell your name using the NATO phonetic alphabet. (Answer: My name is Elizabeth, so I have spelled my own name. Echo-Lima-India-Zulu-Alpha-Bravo-Echo-Tango-Hotel.)
- State your age using the NATO phonetic alphabet. (Answer: I will spell my age. 23. Two-Three. Pronounced: “Too-Tree.”)
- What word does Rodeo-Alpha-Delta-India-Alpha spell? (Answer: It spells the word “RADIO”.)
- How would you pronounce the geographic coordinates of Pike’s Place Market in Seattle, Washington (47.6° N, 122.3° W)? (Answer: “FOW-ER, SEV-EN, DOT, SIX, NOVEMBER, COMMA, WUN, TOO, TOO, DOT, TREE, WHISKEY”; In this case, remember to include the cardinal direction and punctuation marks!)
Great job! Your one step closer to being a phonetic alphabet pro.
The NATO phonetic alphabet, or military alphabet, is an acrophonic system based on the English alphabet that is used for verbal communication in non-face-to-face situations. Initially developed during World War II, the alphabet has undergone scientific testing and continuous revision in order to be as unambiguous as possible. Also called the phonetic code, the system is used primarily in military operations via radio or phone transmission. It is an important tool in telepathy, as it tries to eliminate confusion caused by poor transmission. Within the military, these situations can be emergency or have high stakes, making coherent radio transmission undoubtedly important.
The NATO phonetic alphabet chart is easily comprehensible and a handy tool for memorizing the code. While using this system to communicate, make sure to say the word you want to spell before and after you spell it. Rather than choosing phrases and sentences, use as few words as possible to convey your message, and be sure that the listener knows phonetic code before you use it. Understanding and mastering the military alphabet and phonetic code is a powerful tool in verbal communication: Golf-Oscar-Oscar-Delta-space-Lima-Uniform-Charlie-Kilo.
 Henry M. Moser. The Evolution and Rationale of the ICAO Word-Spelling Alphabet, July 1959. Retrieved January, 2019.