Have you every tried to spell your name out to someone over the telephone? How about give your loan officer the VIN of your car? The phonetic differences between B, C, D and E are pretty small when they’re mixed in with a bunch of different letters and numbers.
Thankfully the military has had a solution for this for a number of years. If you’ve ever heard a report on a police radio or at least watched a military film, you’ve probably noticed the use of words in replace of letters. Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo and so on. This is called the NATO alphabet and the final version we know today was implemented in 1956.
The first alphabet – or “able baker” – dates back to 1927 and was specifically used by pilots and naval captains to be able to communicate clearly over “messy” radio frequencies. This is how it read.
The problem with this first alphabet and other subsequent alphabets was that many of the sounds and word were unique to the English language. International law dictates that English must be used when two ships from different countries are communicating with each other in international waters; even if neither ship is from an English speaking country. The International Air Transport Association made revisions to the existing alphabet and implemented sounds common in English, French and Spanish in 1951. This is how their alphabet looked.
However, there were immediate problems with the list, and some felt they were so much, that they returned to the original “able baker” alphabet. To identify and resolve the problems with the alphabet, tests were conducted in 31 separate nations. Some words like Delta and Nectar can be confusing in languages like Spanish, and other words posed problems in other languages. After a lot of study only five words were replaced. These replaced the letters C, M, N, U and X. The final version was implemented in 1956. Different spellings can be found in different countries, but the phonetics are the same. The current alphabet reads like this.
So what’s the big deal? It’s not like I’m saying you’re a bad citizen if you can’t use these words instead of their letters. But, I am saying you can be a better one if you do. Part of being a Citizen is being considerate of those around you and being able to communicate as effectively as possible. Learning to use the NATO alphabet in place of letters is one way to speed up your own day, and make the life of the poor guy answering your phone calls in India just a little bit easier.
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