What Is the NATO Phonetic Alphabet?

NATO Phonetic Alphabet
The International Maritime Signal Flag Chart with the Nato Phonetic Alphabet. (Steve Allen/Getty Images)
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.
(Edward Fraser and John Gibbons, Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases, 1925)

The NATO phonetic alphabet is a spelling alphabet--a standard set of 26 words for letter names--used by airline pilots, police, 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.

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.

Here are the phonetic letters in the NATO 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

As an example, an air traffic controller using the NATO Phonetic Alphabet would say "Kilo Lima Mike" to represent the letters KLM.

"The phonetic alphabet has been around for a long time, but has not always been the same," says Thomas J. Cutler.

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.

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."
(The Bluejackets' Manual. Naval Institute Press, 2002)

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. Likewise, it's not related to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which is used in linguistics to represent the precise pronunciation of individual words.