If you’ve ever heard soldiers communicating over the radio, you might hear them say stuff like, “proceed to map grid tango hotel five eight” you might wonder, “what in the world are they talking about?” That’s the beauty of the NATO phonetic alphabet.

History

The International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet (IRDS) is a communication tool used by the Armed Forces of the United States, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It is widely used in telephone communication, even by civilians, to spell out words and avoid errors through a phonetic alphabet that uses 26 code words. If you worked in a call center, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Imagine being in the middle of explosions, and you requested backup. The person on the other line asked, “What’s your twenty? (location)?” and you wanted to say that you’re at building MTD. Due to the noises around, he repeated what he thought he heard, “Did you say building NPB?” and you kept yelling back that it was MTD in your thick Brooklyn accent. Thanks to the NATO phonetic alphabet, confusion caused by noise and different dialects of the English language can be cleared up.

An Estonian Soldier conducts a radio check during a situational training exercise defense lane here, June 10, 2014.

Before the war, phonetic alphabets were used to improve long-distance and poor-quality telephony communication. During WWII, nations had their own versions of the phonetic alphabet, so what is Foxtrot for the US was Freddie for the British, and civilians still use these variations until now.

The NATO phonetic alphabet was adopted in the 1950s. Several international assigned code words for each of the 26 letters of the alphabet, and several variations existed through the years. Major F.D. Handy, directorate of Communications in the Army Air Force, asked help from Harvard University’s Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory to help them select the most successful word for each letter when communicating using the military interphones in the war field. He included the variations from the US, Royal Air Force, Royal Navy, British Army, and some international telecommunications.

According to a report, “The results showed that many of the words in the military lists had a low level of intelligibility, but that most of the deficiencies could be remedied by the judicious selection of words from the commercial codes and those tested by the laboratory. In a few instances where none of the 250 words could be regarded as especially satisfactory, it was believed possible to discover suitable replacements. Other words were tested, and the most intelligible ones were compared with the more desirable lists. A final NDRC list was assembled and recommended to the CCB.”

Yes, you read that right.  NATO’s phonetic alphabet was invented in a laboratory by scientists.  We imagine whole teams of guys in white lab coats working day and night on just the letter “G.”

The modification made by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) became the international standard. Here they are.

NATO Phonetic And Morse Code Alphabet, from the U.S. Navy Signalman 3 & 2 training manual. This table combines the ICAO international spelling alphabet and the ITU International Morse Code.

Air Charter Service reported that the words were selected based on the following criteria:

  • A word could only be considered if it was a live word in each of the three working languages and had a similar spelling in English, French, and Spanish.
  • It had to be easily pronounced and recognized by airmen of all languages, clearly transmissible by radio, and easy to read.
  • A chosen word could not have any negative meaning or association.

The US Army Infantry, US Navy, US Marines, US Airforce, and other militaries around the world are all using these code words. While it sounds simple and easy enough, the NATO phonetic alphabet is crucial and can save lives.

Next time you get into a Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot moment, make sure to communicate effectively using the NATO phonetic alphabet, and it could just save your life!

Are you reading us Lima Charlie?

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