Spelling out words

Phonetic alphabets

When speaking on the phone, I often have to spell out my name, email address or some unpronounceable word.  But sometimes there’s a problem. Some letters sound alike, for instance M & N, or F & S.  I may be familiar with the words.  But, the person on the other end may have no idea which particular letter I am talking about. It’s all too easy to confuse or misinterpret words. A phonetic alphabet meets the need to spell out words clearly.  

Phonetic alphabets can assist quick and effective communication. A good word-spelling alphabet will help your listener to identify the spelling of difficult or little-known words and names.

This is achieved by assigning a word to each character so that the letter’s name begins with the letter itself. For instance, “A Alpha”. 

Phonetic alphabets also contain the numerals from 0 to 9.  They enable the easy transmission of precise alpha-numeric information, such as map grids or car registration numbers. A phonetic alphabet is a useful verbal tool and makes oral radio and telecommunication easier.

Alpha Bravo Charlie

Phonetic alphabets are at least as old as radio communications. The first ones came into use shortly after the beginning of the 20th century.

The NATO phonetic alphabet, “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie … X-Ray, Yankee, Zulu”. became effective in 1956. Some years later, the NATO alphabet became the established universal phonetic alphabet for all military, civilian and amateur radio communication.

Names and wei­rd words

All organisations and professions develop their own obscure buzzwords ­and baffling terminology. Business jargon can be convenient for use in the workplace.  However, it can confuse the wider public.  It runs the risk of causing misunderstanding.  So, always try to use plain language. It helps to clarify your message.

Even so, there are times you cannot avoid words that are difficult to understand. ­­ The matter becomes worse when people from different countries with different accents and pronunciations work together.

You may have no alternative but to use unfamiliar professional jargon. At times like this, a phonetic alphabet can come to your rescue. Most journalists use it.  So too do the police.

Explain clearly what a difficult word means and make sure your listener knows how to spell it. When speaking to a journalist over the telephone, there is none better than the internationally accepted NATO Phonetic Alphabet. 

The NATO phonetic alphabet­­­

Nato chart
Based on chart by Emcrit

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has formally adopted the NATO phonetic alphabet.

This word spelling alphabet was developed in the 1950s to be intelligible over poor-quality radios to all NATO allies, especially in the heat of battle. It replaced other earlier phonetic radio alphabets. While the alphabet is described as phonetic, it actually serves to identify spelling rather than pronunciation. ­

Words are assigned to each letter of the English alphabet.   To limit the risk of confusion, each word is as distinctive as possible. Alpha, Bravo and Charlie, for instance, don’t look the same, don’t sound the same and don’t mean the same.  Thus, aircrew and traffic controllers regardless of their native language can understand critical combinations of letters.

Without these carefully chosen words some characters can be difficult to distinguish.  D & T and B & P are other typical examples. But, avoid making up your own words. “B-bobby” and “P-poppy” confuse rather than clarify. So, why not use the word alphabet and learn it by heart?

Some numbers can also be easily confused, for instance 5 and 9.  The NATO alphabet replaces each of these digits with a distinct alternative.  “Five” is pronounced as “fife” to distinguish it better from “nine”.  “Nine” becomes “niner” which is distinct from “five” and cannot be confused with the German word “nein”.

Today the business and telecommunications across Europe and North America widely adopt the word spelling alphabet. Reporters make use of it in their spoken news dispatches.  The police use it to spell out names and car numbers. It could enable you to help a journalist write a clearer and more accurate story about your business.