What Is the NATO Phonetic Alphabet?

Vector illustration of the NATO Army Phonetic Alphabet

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The NATO phonetic alphabet is a spelling alphabet used by airline pilots, police, members of the military, and other officials when communicating over radio or telephone. The purpose of the phonetic alphabet is to ensure that letters are clearly understood even when speech is distorted or hard to hear. The importance of this universal code cannot be overstressed.

Men's lives, even the fate of a battle, may depend on a signaler's message, on a signaler's pronunciation of a single word, even of a single letter, (Fraser and Gibbons 1925).

The Evolution of the Phonetic Alphabet

More formally known as the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet (also called the ICAO phonetic or spelling alphabet), the NATO phonetic alphabet was developed in the 1950s as part of the International Code of Signals (INTERCO), which originally included visual and sound signals.

"The phonetic alphabet has been around for a long time, but has not always been the same," says Thomas J. Cutler in The Bluejacket's Manual. He continues:

Back in the days of World War II, the phonetic alphabet began with the letters "Able, Baker, Charlie," K was "King," and S was "Sugar." After the war, when the NATO alliance was formed, the phonetic alphabet was changed to make it easier for the people who speak the different languages found in the alliance. That version has remained the same, and today the phonetic alphabet begins with "Alfa, Bravo, Charlie," K is now "Kilo," and S is "Sierra," (Cutler 2017).

In the U.S., the International Code of Signals was adopted in 1897 and updated in 1927, but it wasn't until 1938 that all the letters in the alphabet were assigned a word. Today the NATO Phonetic Alphabet is widely used throughout North America and Europe.

Note that the NATO phonetic alphabet is not phonetic in the sense that linguists use the term. It's not related to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which is used in linguistics to represent the precise pronunciation of individual words. Instead, "phonetic" here simply means related to the way letters sound.

The NATO Alphabet

Here are the letters in the NATO phonetic alphabet:

  • Alfa (or Alpha)
  • Bravo
  • Charlie
  • Delta
  • Echo
  • Foxtrot
  • Golf
  • Hotel
  • India
  • Juliet (or Juliett)
  • Kilo
  • Lima
  • Mike
  • November
  • Oscar
  • Papa
  • Quebec
  • Romeo
  • Sierra
  • Tango
  • Uniform
  • Victor
  • Whiskey
  • X-ray
  • Yankee
  • Zulu

How the NATO Phonetic Alphabet Is Used

The NATO phonetic alphabet has a variety of applications, most of these relating to safety. Air traffic controllers, for example, often use the NATO Phonetic Alphabet to communicate with pilots, and this is especially important when they would otherwise be difficult to understand. If they wanted to identify plane KLM, they would call it, "Kilo Lima Mike." If they wanted to tell a pilot to land on strip F, they would say, "Land on Foxtrot."

Sources

  • Cutler, Thomas J. The Bluejacket's Manual. 25th ed., Naval Institute Press, 2017.
  • Fraser, Edward, and John Gibbons. Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases. George Routledge and Sons, 1925.