Mastering the Basics: The Phonetic Alphabet

The Phonetic Alphabet is a series of words assigned to letters, in order to provide a standard for the clear understanding of messages or information of a verbal nature.

The NATO Phonetic Alphabet is also, coincidentally enough, the standard phonetic transcription system for the ITU (International Telecommunications Union).

this might be considered a clue

One might begin to think that the intended application of the modern phonetic alphabet was for radio communications…

The purpose of having the standard in place, is to obtain and process the correct information being transmitted. By working with the same set of corresponding data, in this case, the Phonetic Alphabet, everyone’s ability to handle traffic in a concise and timely manner is increased.

Using this system, the likelihood of confusion is reduced. If you’re digging a weak phone signal out from amongst the noise, letters like C, B, D, E, G, P, T, V, and Z start to sound A LOT alike. As well, during a high-traffic situation such as a disaster, brevity and clarity are significant aids in regards to relaying information.

The words on the list were NOT chosen at random; they were generated as unique terms that were dissimilar in tone from one another.

For instance, if the receiving station asks for you to phonetically spell the last word of your message, “weapon,” and your phonetic translation is:

Wine – Emily – Arkansas – Paul – Orson – Nancy…

The RX station may hear:

Mine/Fine/Time/Rhyme/Lime/Dime – Family/Heavenly/Remedy/Felony – Hacksaw/Panama/Ottowa/Chickasaw/Chippewa – Ball/Fall/Brawl/Crawl/Gall – Arson/Dorsal/Coarsen/Worsen – Fancy/Candy/Pansy/Ansty.

I’ll just leave this here:

Using location, or country names as a phonetic device is a great way to confuse the station operator on the receiving side of the transmission, especially if the receiving station is attempting to log information in poor conditions. 

Below is the breakdown of the Phonetic Alphabet, along with the pronunciation, and related CW code for each letter and number.

Letter CW Code Word Pronunciation
A  • – Alpha / Alfa AL-FAH
B – • • • Bravo BRAH-VOH
C – • – • Charlie CHAR-LEE
D – • • Delta DELL-TAH
E Echo ECK-OH
F • • – • Foxtrot FOKS-TROT
G – –  • Golf GOLF
H • • • • Hotel HOH-TEL
I  • • India IN-DEE-AH
J • – – – Juliet JEW-LEE-ETT
K – • – Kilo KEY-LOH
L  • – • • Lima LEE-MAH
M – – Mike MIKE
N – • November NO-VEM-BER
O – – – Oscar OSS-CAH
P • – – • Papa PAH-PAH
Q – –  • – Quebec KEH-BECK
R • – • Romeo ROW-ME-OH
S  • • • Sierra SEE-AIR-RAH
T Tango TANG-GO
U  •  • – Uniform YOU-NEE-FORM
V • • • – Victor VIK-TAH
W • – – Whiskey WISS-KEY
X –  • • – Xray ECKS-RAY
Y –  • – – Yankee YANG-KEY
Z – –  • • Zulu ZOO-LOO
1 • – – – – One WUN
2 • • – – – Two TOO
3 • • • – – Three TREE
4 • • • • – Four FOW-ER
5 • • • • • Five FIFE
6 – • • • • Six SIX
7 – – • • • Seven SEV-EN
8 – – – • • Eight AIT
9 – – – – • Nine NIN-ER
0 – – – – – Zero ZEE-RO

Notably absent from the above list are, “Nancy,” “Zed,” and my new favorite, “Japan.”

If it helps, think of the Phonetic Alphabet like analog Forward-Error-Correction. Usually, even if only a partial word from the Phonetic Alphabet is heard, it can be enough to understand the intent. By using the same set of standards, there’s a limited pool of words to decipher to determine intent.

This stuff may seem petty or insignificant for rag-chews, and general breeze-shooting, but in the event of a crisis, your ability to accurately and effectively communicate to another party could literally be a matter of life-or-death. The little things, regardless of the nature of them, tend to stack up into the big things.

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