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WHAT IS THE MILITARY ALPHABET?

When you imagine the alphabet, you probably think of the letters that make up words and sentences. Perhaps you think of the Latin alphabet, or maybe the Cyrillic alphabet.

It is a natural association, but it is also worth mentioning other types of alphabets that are not related to a foreign language, but still help to communicate effectively. Get to know the military alphabet, also known as the NATO phonetic alphabet, the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet or the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) alphabet.

WHY WAS THE PHONETIC ALPHABET CREATED?

The history of the military alphabet dates back to the First World War when armies needed an unambiguous system for radio communication. Imagine how easy it was to get confused when transmitting information, especially when some letters (e.g., ‘b’ and ‘p’ or ‘m’ and ‘n’) sound similar in jammed radio transmissions.

To avoid errors, a system was introduced in which each letter was given a specific name. For example, the letter ‘b’ is replaced by ‘Bravo’ and the letter ‘d’ is replaced by ‘Delta’. The military alphabet eliminates confusion. It is incredibly useful for effective communication.

The military alphabet, especially its most common version, the NATO phonetic alphabet, has become an essential tool for military personnel, pilots, sailors and many other professions. Clearly defined words stand for every letter and number of the English alphabet. They help to avoid mistakes and misunderstandings. In some extreme situations, they can even save lives.

Interested in how it works? For example, the word ‘help’. In the phonetic alphabet, it would read ‘Hotel Echo Lima Papa’. This method of communication may seem simple, but it takes training to get used to it.

Fonētiskais alfabēts
Militārais fonētiskais alfabēts
NATO fonētiskais alfabēts

PHONETIC ALPHABET: SHORT HISTORY

Before the First World War, with the advent of two-way radio and voice communication, phonetic alphabets improved clarity on long-distance and low-quality telephone circuits. The first internationally recognised non-military phonetic alphabet was adopted in 1927 by the Consultative Committee on International Radio (CCIR), the predecessor of the ITU (International Telecommunication Union).

The International Commission for Air Navigation, the predecessor of the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation), adopted the alphabet in 1932, which was used until the Second World War.

During the Second World War, various countries developed their own phonetic alphabets. The United States standardised its system in 1941 with the Joint Army/Navy radiotelephony alphabet known as ‘Able Baker’.

The Royal Air Force and other British forces adopted similar alphabets, with some terms such as ‘Freddie’ for ‘F’ and ‘Sugar’ for ‘S’. Both code names are still sometimes used in the UK.

The US military carried out significant research into phonetic alphabets during the Second World War. The alphabet ‘Able Baker’ was adopted in international aviation. However, English-orientated sounds led to the development of alternatives in Latin America, such as the ‘Ana Brazil’ alphabet. In 1947, IATA proposed to ICAO the development of an alphabet incorporating sounds common to English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.

From 1948 to 1949, linguistics professor Jean-Paul Vinay worked with the ICAO to develop a new phonetic alphabet. Words had to be easy to pronounce and recognisable to pilots in all languages, with good radio transmission and readability characteristics, and similar in English, French and Spanish. The revised alphabet was adopted by the ICAO in 1951.

However, this list encountered problems, particularly with regard to comprehensibility in poor conditions. After extensive testing and research by various countries, a new official phonetic alphabet was published by ICAO in 1956 and adopted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) soon afterwards.

WHO USES THE PHONETIC ALPHABET?

The phonetic alphabet was quickly adopted by various international organisations, including:

  • the International Telecommunication Union (ITU),
  • the International Maritime Organization (IMO),
  • the U.S. Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA),
  • the International Amateur Radio Union (IARU),
  • the American Radio Relay League (ARRL),
  • and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International (APCO).

Although these different agencies generally adopted the same alphabetic code words, there were slight differences in the case of numeric code words. NATO chose to use the usual English numeric words (zero, one, two, etc.).

In contrast, the ITU and IMO defined compound numeric words (e.g., ‘nadazero’ for zero, ‘unaone’ for one, ‘bissotwo’ for two, etc.). However, these terms are rarely used in practice, mainly because they are not common to all agencies.

THE BASICS OF THE PHONETIC ALPHABET

The NATO phonetic alphabet is more than just a set of specific, easy-to-remember words assigned to letters.

Let’s take a closer look at each of them:

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

All the words have been carefully selected. They are unique and differ significantly from one another in sound. This greatly reduces the risk of dangerous mistakes when communication problems occur or when the message is difficult to hear.

HOW DO YOU USE THE INTERNATIONAL RADIOTELEPHONY SPELLING ALPHABET?

Imagine a pilot in flight. He has to convey important information about the flight. Instead of simply saying the flight number, for example, FL380 (which could be misunderstood by air traffic control), the pilot uses the NATO alphabet. He says, ‘Foxtrot Lima three eight zero’ and is immediately understood.

MILITARY ALPHABET: CHEAT SHEET

The military alphabet has both letters and numbers. Here is a handy cheat sheet you can use whenever you need to use the phonetic alphabet.

LETTERS

Alpha (A)

Bravo (B)

Charlie (C)

Delta (D)

Echo (E)

Foxtrot (F)

Golf (G)

Hotel (H)

India (I)

Juliett (J)

Kilo (K)

Lima (L)

Mike (M)

November (N)

Oscar (O)

Papa (P)

Quebec (Q)

Romeo (R)

Sierra (S)

Tango (T)

Uniform (U)

Victor (V)

Whiskey (W)

X-ray (X)

Yankee (Y)

Zulu (Z)

But, for example, due to the Latvian alphabet having long vowels and consonants with palatalisation marks, these have additional phonetic alphabet letters

Ādaži (Ā)

Čiekuri (Č)

Ēdole (Ē)

Ģermāņi (Ģ)

Īleni (Ī)

Ķemeri (Ķ)

Ļaudona (Ļ)

Ņujorka (Ņ)

Šanhaja (Š)

Ūdele (Ū)

Žīguri (Ž)

NUMBERS

Zero (0)

One (1)

Two (2)

Three (3)

Four (4)

Five (5)

Six (6)

Seven (7)

Eight (8)

Nine (9)

This cheat sheet is a useful reference. It will help when you need clear and precise communication, for example in radio communications, military operations or even in certain civilian situations (including aviation or customer service). Keep it handy when every word counts!

Latviesu-militarais-alfabets
Militārā tulkošana
Militārais alfabēts

HOW TO LEARN THE PHONETIC ALPHABET?

Learning the NATO phonetic alphabet may seem daunting at first, but with these effective methods it will become easier.

1. DIVIDE THE ALPHABET INTO SMALLER GROUPS

Start by dividing the alphabet into small, easy-to-read groups of letters. Learn them one by one. Start with the A-E group (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo) and then work your way down. This approach makes learning less difficult. And if you feel like you want to challenge yourself, try adding the Latvian phonetic alphabet letters seen above.

2. REGULAR REPETITION AND PRACTICE

Get into the habit of using the phonetic alphabet in your daily life. Use it to pronounce surnames or addresses. Sitting in traffic? Practise using the number plates of nearby cars or the names of friends.

3. CREATE FLASHCARDS

Create flashcards with letters and matching names. Add pictures to associate with each letter. Visual cues really help when memorising things.

4. INVOLVE FRIENDS OR FAMILY

Involve friends or family in the learning process. Ask them to name the letter and answer with the correct code word.

Eventually, the NATO and the Latvian additional phonetic alphabet will become as natural to you as the regular alphabet.

MILITARY TRANSLATIONS

Military translation is a very responsible task. At the translation agency Skrivanek, we specialise in translations for clients in the defence sector. We understand the nuances of military language. Our team includes experienced translators, ex-military personnel and security experts.

Each translation is accurate and preserves the context of the original. Whether you operate internationally or need specialised document translations, we’ll make sure your communication is correct and understandable. Working with Skrivanek means that every word will be accurately translated. Fill in the contact form on our website to get a free quote for your project, or book an online consultation to find out how we can help you.