March 9, 2008

Wiki Weekend

Today's Wiki Weekend link is the entry on NATO phonetic alphabet.

The NATO phonetic alphabet, more formally the international radiotelephony spelling alphabet, is the most widely used spelling alphabet. Though often called "phonetic alphabets", spelling alphabets have no connection to phonetic transcription systems like the International Phonetic Alphabet. Instead, the NATO alphabet assigns code words to the letters of the English alphabet acrophonically so that critical combinations of letters (and numbers) can be pronounced and understood by those who transmit and receive voice messages by radio or telephone regardless of their native language, especially when the safety of navigation or persons is essential. The paramount reason is to ensure intelligibility of voice signals over radio links.

My first professional exposure to the NATO phonetic alphabet was when I was working on a naval defense contract in the productions of combat control systems for submarines. This spelling alphabet is used sometimes in the code-naming of things. In my experience you'd see these names when Americans were talking about semi-secret enemy technology for which we did not know the real name. Example: the Mike class submarine, and a number of other subs in the Russian navy.

That's the first time I tried to memorize it. it's not that tough to memorize, although it's easier if you try to use it now and again.

It's very handy for use over the phone. If the person on the oater end is at least familiar with the concept (and most people catch on quick, even if they have never heard of such a thing) it beats the slow and laborious '"P' as in 'Pete'" method where, for every letter, you have to come up with a word on the fly that is easily distinguishable. "Excuse me, did you just say 'B' as in "Beet?'" The folks who came up with the NATO alphabet have thought of all that for you. These words are easy to distinguish on the hearing end, and that's the whole point.

There is always the danger that someone will just think you're trying to sound like the military when you use the NATO alphabet, but don't let that worry you. Standardizing on one spelling alphabet is good for communications.

The words comprising composing the phonetic alphabet are as follows:

Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliet, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Opera, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-Ray, Yankee, Zulu

I always have trouble remembering:

Golf, Juliet, Papa, Sierra, Yankee

The last, probably because I am a Red Sox fan.

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Posted by James at March 9, 2008 7:27 PM
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"Mike" surprises me -- wouldn't you think "Michael" would be that much clearer?

Posted by: Karen at March 9, 2008 7:58 PM

According to the wiki entry, they originally tried "metro" and changed it to "mike" after many tests.

The problem with "michael" is that if you were unfamiliar with the alphabet or were familiar with a previous version, you might not expect the extra syllable after the "mike" sound in "michael." I'm not sure that this creates any specific ambiguities, but it could be confusing to have what sounds like extra information in there, especially in very poor transmission conditions.

Posted by: James at March 9, 2008 8:07 PM

I've always had trouble with Charlie - keep remembering it as Congo. I have NO idea where I ever got that.

Posted by: Julie at March 9, 2008 8:54 PM

That's why I prefer signal flags.

Plus, you can 'erase' in semaphore.

Posted by: PJ at March 10, 2008 10:08 AM
The words comprising the phonetic alphabet are as follows:
Only because you're picking jibe jiving nits, I have to do this one:

The whole comprises its parts. The parts compose (not "comprise") the whole. So it's either
==> The words composing the phonetic alphabet are as follows:
==> The phonetic alphabet comprises the following words:

[Yes, I know: the dictionaries have given in. They all list "compose" as a synonym for "comprise", these days. They are Philistines, and I will barricade myself, heavily armed, into a cabin in Idaho before I'll give up on the comprise/compose distinction!]

Posted by: Barry Leiba at March 10, 2008 4:32 PM

Thank you for the correction!

Posted by: James at March 10, 2008 4:40 PM

Barry, that's just how I feel about "moreso" - which is listed in the OED. To me, it just looks like a weird Spanish adjective.

Posted by: Julie at March 10, 2008 4:50 PM

Barry, at least Merriam-Webster agrees with you...

Posted by: Sharon at March 12, 2008 5:50 PM

I think you need a Red Sox phonetic alphabet:

Fisk (or Fenway)
Torrez (or Theo)
Yaz (or Yawkey)

Don't have any good suggestions for Q, U or X, though...

Posted by: BlueDuck at March 14, 2008 5:10 PM

Definitely Yaz.

Posted by: James at March 14, 2008 5:40 PM

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