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The Evolution of The NATO Phonetic Alphabet


This military alphabet, also known as the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet, is composed of 26 words which represent every letter of the alphabet.

The alphabet is used to provide clarity of communication, and it’s not only used in the military, but also in financial institutions and aviation where effective communication is just as vital. More than that, the alphabet is popular with the police and emergency services where letters and words need to be precise – this can be when talking about spelling of words, initials, or abbreviations.

Why is the NATO phonetic alphabet so important?

There are many times where miscommunication has dire consequences – but few less so than in war. Differences in language, accents, and peculiar voice patterns can have significant impacts on the clarity of a message. Add this to battle noises and terrible broadcast signals in war times and disaster seems inevitable.

As such, the use of a spelling alphabet can aid in having messages conveyed clearly and without incident. This spelling alphabet entails having every letter substituted by a code word. In these situations, the letters are generally not stated, but rather only the words: the call sign for GTW is only given as Golf-Tango-Whiskey.

Where it started

In 1956, the NATO phonetic alphabet came into effect. However, it went through a couple of changes before the final was decided upon. This process was started in the 1920s when the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) created the first ever phonetic alphabet that was accepted all over the world. The alphabet used code words which used the names of international cities.

In 1941 the American military decided on a Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet which was used throughout their military branches. Called Able Baker, it was also used by the British Royal Air Force two years later.

Why didn’t this version stick?

The problem with this alphabet was that it was based primarily in English. In response to this criticism, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) assimilated sounds which were not only usual in English, but also in Spanish and French. This started being used in November 1951, but only when it came to civil aviation. This version was very alike to the NATO phonetic alphabet we currently use: Alfa, Bravo, Coca

Even though NATO and militaries carried on using the Able Baker phonetic alphabet, it was recognized that a phonetic alphabet which could be used worldwide was still required. As such, the NATO Allies UK and US decided to have another look at the Able Baker and come up with a suitable revision.

What were their proposed amendments?

As a result of this inquiry, they proposed changes to the code words for five letters. This was sent to the International Civil Aviation Organization (IACO), but there continued to be disagreement over the word to be used for N (Nectar vs. November). Despite this, in April 1955, the North Atlantic Military Committee Standing Group decided that the new alphabet would be used by NATO from January 1956, even if it wasn’t approved by the IACO.

This decision proved strange seeing as the Allies weren’t sure about using this alphabet until the ICAO approved the proposal. Thankfully, the alphabet was approved and November was used as the word for N.

When did the version we know today start being used universally?

Finally, the NATO phonetic alphabet was put into effect on 1 March 1956 as announced in February 1956 and all Member States were expected to comply. It was adopted by the ITU after a couple of years and consequently became the most well-known universal phonetic alphabet which would rule all amateur radio, military, and aviation communications.

Final Considerations

The code words that form the NATO phonetic alphabet were chosen exactly because they couldn’t lead to miscommunication – especially in situations where miscommunication has the potential to be fatal. In no way shape or form does Foxtrot and Echo sound the same – and that is exactly the worth of the NATO phonetic alphabet.

The NATO phonetic alphabet is a bit more complicated than the phonetic alphabet which is used to validate word sounds and pronunciation as used by speech therapists, langauge teachers, and linguists.

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