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The History and Basics of the Phonetic Alphabet

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After radio communication came into use among the United States military, a problem soon arose; many English letters sound alike. This becomes quite cumbersome when one person tries to pass on an encoded message like “B-A-G” and the receiver hears “V-8-E,” which could lead to misdirected efforts, delays, or confuse the receiver. The phonetic alphabet was developed to solve this problem, ensuring quick, concise communication with little margin for error.

The phonetic alphabet, also known as the “spelling alphabet,” is a list of 26 words. Each word is acrophonic; the words represent the first letter in their spellings, meaning “Alpha” stands for the letter “A.” Under use of the phonetic alphabet, the previously mentioned code would be conveyed through the message “Bravo-Alpha-Golf.”

While several variants of spelling alphabets have arisen over the years, the most frequently invoked version is known as “IRSA,” which stands for the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet. IRSA was developed between IATA and ICAO, both of these organizations are associated with aviation, after the events of the second World War and it was later incorporated into the several federal organizations, including NATO; the last organization is notable as it led to usage on a global scale, earning the alphabet the nickname of the “NATO phonetic alphabet.”

The most up to date version of the phonetic alphabet is as follows:

  • (A)lpha
  • (B)ravo
  • (C)harlie
  • (D)elta
  • (E)cho
  • (F)oxtrot
  • (G)olf
  • (H)otel
  • (I)ndia
  • (J)uliet
  • (K)ilo
  • (L)ima
  • (M)ike
  • (N)ovember
  • (O)scar
  • (P)apa
  • (Q)uebec
  • (R)omeo
  • (S)ierra
  • (T)ango
  • (U)niform
  • (V)ictor
  • (W)hiskey
  • (X)-ray
  • (Y)ankee
  • (Z)ulu

Featured Image by Jeff Holt, CC

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