What is the NATO Phonetic Alphabet and how is it used?

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We sometimes see it in movies. A person trying to communicate by phone or radio says some meaningless words like ALPHA, BRAVO, CHARLIE… to the other person. These words are not random. They were chosen after much research and today they are the first three letters of the NATO Phonetic alphabet.

A phonetic alphabet is an alphabet in which each letter is represented by a code word starting with that letter. Phonetic alphabets are used to facilitate communication in situations where it is difficult or impossible to communicate. It also reduces the likelihood of miscommunication problems. This is critically important during an emergency.

Among phonetic alphabets, the NATO phonetic alphabet is the most widely used. The NATO phonetic alphabet is mostly used by pilots, police, military and other authorities when communicating by radio or telephone. It is easy to learn this alphabet as the concept behind it is simple and intuitive.

What is the NATO Phonetic Alphabet and how is it used? 1
Imagine you are a radio telegraph operator during war, trying to warn frontline soldiers of an incoming mustard gas attack. Messages can be corrupted by battle noise, weak broadcast signal or even language barriers. However, if a code word for each letter of the alphabet is used for transmission, then critical messages are more likely to be understood correctly.

Development of the Phonetic Alphabet

In the 1920s, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) produced the first internationally recognized phonetic alphabet. This alphabet included the names of cities around the world. In the following years, the United States began using the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet in 1941, called the Able Baker alphabet. Two years later, the British Royal Air Force also adopted the alphabet. The Able Baker alphabet had the following form. Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy, Fox, George, How, Item, Jig, King, Love, Mike, Nan, Oboe, Peter, Queen, Roger, Sugar, Tare, Uncle, Victor, William, X-ray, Yoke, Zebra.

The criticism for this alphabet was mostly related to the fact that it contained English words. A new version would later be proposed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) with common sounds for English, French and Spanish. In November 1951, this version came into force for civil aviation only. However, it was clear that the need for a universal phonetic alphabet remained.

What is the NATO Phonetic Alphabet and how is it used? 2
There are 26 words in the alphabet, each representing a different letter of the English alphabet. The NATO phonetic alphabet came into force in 1956. It became the established universal phonetic alphabet only a few years later. However, several adaptations were made before the version used today came into force.

After much work, the alphabet was finalized in 1956. This was the effort of various groups, notably the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Today, the NATO phonetic alphabet is used by many countries, organizations and individuals around the world. The NATO Phonetic Alphabet is more common in North America and Europe.

Apart from encoding the alphabet, it is also important to encode the digits, especially when you have to give critical information such as coordinates. If you want to say a number in this alphabet, you do so with a differentiated English pronunciation of the number. Punctuation marks are referred to by their names, with a few exceptions.

Ali Esen

Istanbul University, Department of Mathematics. Interested in science and technology.