Atlas Obscura: Time to update the Spelling Alphabet?

Image by Annie Spratt

Photo by Annie Spratt

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributors, Paul Evans and Eric McFadden, who share this article from Atlas Obscura where author Dan Nosowitz asks if it’s time to update the spelling (a.k.a. phonetic) alphabet:

WHEN SOMEONE ON THE PHONE—THE doctor’s office, the bank, the credit card company—asks for my name, I always offer to spell it out—it’s a pretty uncommon surname. So far as I know, there are somewhere between 10 and 20 Nosowitzes in the world, and they’re all closely related to me. Because it’s uncommon, and because it would be a problem if my bank writes my name down as “Moskowitz,” I err on the side of caution. “N as in Nancy, O, S as in Samuel, O, W, I, T as in Thomas, Z as in Zebra,” I chant.

This uses what is what’s called a “spelling alphabet,” or, confusingly, a “phonetic alphabet.” (The latter is confusing because it has little to do with phonemes, or a unit of sound in a language. Plus there’s the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is something else entirely.) The history of spelling alphabets is fascinating and winding, but it’s notable that there hasn’t been an official update to the most commonly used English version in about half a century. We might be in need of one. As mobile phones have replaced landlines, call quality has, strangely, gone down. The general connectivity of the world—including the ease of international video calls and the use of foreign call centers—means that spelling out a name or word is an increasingly common practice. A modern, updated, globally friendly English spelling alphabet would be pretty useful right now, but getting people to use one might be harder than you’d think.

[…]For about 80 years, governments and corporations futzed with these spelling alphabets, and learned that some stuff didn’t work—it turns out, for example, that “Lima” is also the Malay word for the number five. A tremendous amount of research, time, and money was invested into figuring out the optimal spelling alphabet—at least for the three languages that the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO, the United Nations agency that handles air transportation) felt significant enough to have one (English, French, and Spanish). The ICAO scrambled, using researchers across the globe on the problem, and by 1959 had finalized what is today probably the best-known spelling alphabet: Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, and so on. (As a side note: “Alfa” is not a typo. The whole “ph equals f” thing is confusing, and reasonably so, for non-English speakers. The same goes for the alphabet’s J—Juliett with a doubled final letter so the French won’t say “Juliay.”)

That is the now the standard alphabet for organizations including NATO (which often lends its name to the alphabet), the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States, the International Amateur Radio Union, and pretty much any international group that wants or needs a standard. It’s certainly the most commonly used spelling alphabet in the world, but it is, as most of these alphabets are, exceedingly Anglocentric.[…]

Click here to continue reading the full article at Atlas Obscura.

Thanks for sharing this, Eric and Paul!

Funny story: Last week, I visited my parents and started cooking a nice dinner. Ten minutes into baking a roasted vegetable dish, the oven’s temperature started rising unexpectedly because the oven’s control board  (turns out) could no longer receive the temperature probe data. Its fail safe was to shut down the oven completely.

After a little online research, I found the parts that had most likely failed, so I pulled the oven away from the wall, disassembled the back panel, evaluated the parts, gathered the model number, and called a local appliance parts store.

When the associate answered the phone I described the problem and the parts I might need. He agreed with my diagnosis, so asked for the oven’s 16 character model number :

Me: LWZTF700…

Him: LWCDF700…???

Me: Sorry, let me try again. Lima Whiskey Zulu Tango Foxtrot…

Him: Excellent! I copy that. Say, were you in the military?

Me: Ha ha… No, I’m a ham radio operator.

Him: I am too! My call sign is….

He then proceeded to give me their best price on the parts.

I’m sure he hears variations of the spelling/phonetic alphabet multiple times a day and appreciates it when his customers use the one most widely accepted!

For your reference, here’s the standard spelling alphabet currently accepted by NATO, the FAA, and the IARU:

(Source: Wikimedia)

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6 thoughts on “Atlas Obscura: Time to update the Spelling Alphabet?

  1. David Shannon

    Although I’ve not been in the military or a ham I’ve always used the military phonetic alphabet as in my experience when dealing with parties over bad lines or where English was not their first language it helped to cut through the misunderstanding barrier. I have, like most, if not all, of us heard some pretty awful attempts at using phonetics such as B for banana, H for hat and X for xylophone! 🙂 One thing I heard many years ago and it may just be an urban myth was that Uniform was replaced with Unicorn by the RAF when a certain member of a certain family was airborne. Maybe someone can help to put that one to bed.

  2. Cranios

    OK, so it’s Anglocentric – so what? The concept was conceived of, and instituted by, Anglos, so you’d expect they would get to have an outsized influence on the phonetic alphabet. This seems like just one more manifestation of the attitude that if something is Western, then it must be wrong, or must be replaced.

    1. RonF

      Personally I get much more from reading an article and trying to understand its point, than I do from reading just enough to trigger one of my prejudices and getting annoyed at an argument I only imagined it made. But I understand that different people may act differently.

      It’s strange, though, that while ham & SWL culture likes to think of themselves as communities interested in and fostering international understanding and brotherhood, as soon as anything touches even slightly on issues other people might face some people will throw that out the window…

  3. 13dka

    Cue Bill Salerno talking through a studio mic and $10,000 worth of audio processing gear “this is Whiskey Two One Nice Voice”. 🙂


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