- NATO phonetic alphabet
The NATO phonetic alphabet, more accurately known as the NATO spelling alphabet and also called the ICAO phonetic or spelling alphabet, the ITU phonetic alphabet, and the international radiotelephony spelling alphabet, is the most widely used spelling alphabet. Though often called "phonetic alphabets", spelling alphabets are not in fact phonetic in the sense that linguists use the term, and they do not have any association with phonetic transcription systems like the International Phonetic Alphabet. Instead, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) alphabet assigns code words to digits and acrophonically to the letters of the English alphabet (Alfa for A, Bravo for B, etc.) 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 navigation or persons might be endangered due to transmission static.
After the phonetic alphabet was developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) (see history below) it was adopted by many other international and national organizations, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the American Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), and the American Radio Relay League (ARRL). It is a subset of the much older International Code of Signals (INTERCO), which originally included visual signals by flags or flashing light, sound signals by whistle, siren, foghorn, or bell, as well as one, two, or three letter codes for many phrases. The same alphabetic code words are used by all agencies, but each agency chooses one of two different sets of numeric code words. NATO uses the regular English numeric words (Zero, One, with some alternative pronunciations), whereas the IMO provides for compound numeric words (Nadazero, Unaone, Bissotwo...). In practice these are used very rarely, as they frequently result in confusion between speakers of different languages.
The spelling alphabet's common name (NATO phonetic alphabet) exists because it appears in Allied Tactical Publication ATP-1, Volume II: Allied Maritime Signal and Maneuvering Book used by all allied navies of NATO, which adopted a modified form of the International Code of Signals. Because the latter allows messages to be spelled via flags or Morse code, it naturally named the code words used to spell out messages by voice its "phonetic alphabet". The name NATO phonetic alphabet became widespread because the signals used to facilitate the naval communications and tactics of NATO have become global. However, ATP-1 is marked NATO Confidential (or the lower NATO Restricted) so it is not available publicly. Nevertheless, a NATO unclassified version of the document is provided to foreign, even hostile, militaries, even though they are not allowed to make it available publicly. The spelling alphabet is now also defined in other unclassified international military documents.
Most of the words are recognizable by native English speakers because English must be used upon request for communication between an aircraft and a control tower whenever two different nations are involved, especially when they speak different languages. It is generally required internationally, not domestically, however, thus if both parties of a radio conversation are from the same country, then another phonetic alphabet of that nation's choice may be used.
In most versions of the alphabet, the non-English spellings Alfa and Juliett are used. Alfa is spelled with an f as it is in most European languages. The English and French spelling alpha would not be pronounced properly by speakers of some other languages the native speakers of which may not know that ph should be pronounced as f. Juliett is spelled with a tt for French speakers because they may otherwise treat a single final t as silent. For English versions of the alphabet, like that from ANSI or the version used by the British armed forces and emergency services, one or both may revert to their standard English spelling.
The pronunciation of the codes for the letters of the alphabet and for the digits varies according to the language habits of the speaker. To eliminate wide variations in pronunciation, posters illustrating the pronunciation desired by the ICAO are available. However, there are still differences in pronunciation between the ICAO and other agencies, and the ICAO has conflicting Roman-alphabet and IPA transcriptions. Also, although all codes for the letters of the alphabet are English words, they are not in general given English pronunciations. Assuming that the transcriptions are not intended to be precise, only 11 of the 26—Bravo, Echo, Hotel, Juliet(t), Kilo, Mike, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Whiskey, and Zulu—are given English pronunciations by all these agencies, though not always the same English pronunciations.
Letter Code word Pronunciation US Army
ICAO and ITU
Consolidated transcription A Alfa
AL fah AL FAH ALFAH or
ˈælfɑ /ˈælfɑː/ al-fah B Bravo BRAH voh BRAH VOH BRAHVOH or
ˈbrɑːˈvo /ˈbrɑːvoʊ/ brah-voh or
C Charlie CHAR lee CHAR LEE or
/ˈtʃɑrliː/ char-lee or
/ˈtʃɑːliː/ chah-lee or
/ˈʃɑrliː/ shar-lee or
D Delta DEL tah DELL TAH DELLTAH or
ˈdeltɑ /ˈdɛltɑː/ del-tah E Echo EKK oh ECK OH ECKOH or
ˈeko /ˈɛkoʊ/ ek-oh F Foxtrot FOKS trot FOKS TROT FOKSTROT or
ˈfɔkstrɔt /ˈfɒkstrɒt/ foks-trot G Golf Golf GOLF GOLF ɡʌlf [sic] /ˈɡɒlf/ golf or
H Hotel HO tell HOH TELL HOHTELL or
hoːˈtel /hoʊˈtɛl/ hoh-tel or
I India IN dee ah IN DEE AH INDEE AH or
ˈindiˑɑ /ˈɪndiɑː/ in-dee-ah J Juliett
JEW lee ett JEW LEE ETT JEWLEE ETT or
ˈdʒuːliˑˈet /ˈdʒuːliɛt/ jew-lee-et or
K Kilo KEY loh KEY LOH KEYLOH or
ˈkiːlo /ˈkiːloʊ/ kee-loh L Lima LEE mah LEE MAH LEEMAH or
ˈliːmɑ /ˈliːmɑː/ lee-mah M Mike Mike MIKE MIKE mɑik /ˈmaɪk/ myk N November NOH vem ber NO VEM BER NOVEMBER or
noˈvembə /noʊˈvɛmbə/ noh-vem-bə or
O Oscar OSS car OSS CAH OSSCAH or
ˈɔskɑ /ˈɒskɑː/ os-kah or
P Papa PAH pah PAH PAH PAHPAH or
pəˈpɑ /pɑːˈpɑː/ pah-pah or
/pəˈpɑː/ pə-pah or
Q Quebec keh BECK KEH BECK KEHBECK or
keˈbek /kɛˈbɛk/ ke-bek R Romeo ROW me oh ROW ME OH ROWME OH or
ˈroːmiˑo /ˈroʊmioʊ/ roh-mee-oh S Sierra see AIR ah SEE AIR RAH SEEAIRAH or
siˈerɑ /siˈɛrɑː/ see-err-ah T Tango TANG go TANG GO TANGGO or
ˈtænɡo /ˈtæŋɡoʊ/ tang-goh U Uniform YOU nee form YOU NEE FORM or
OO NEE FORM
YOUNEE FORM or
/ˈjuːnifɔrm/ ew-nee-form or
/ˈjuːnifɔːm/ ew-nee-fawm or
V Victor VIK ter VIK TAH VIKTAH or
ˈviktɑ /ˈvɪktɑː/ vik-tah or
W Whiskey WISS key WISS KEY WISSKEY or
ˈwiski /ˈwɪski/ wis-kee X X-ray or
EKS ray ECKS RAY ECKSRAY [sic] or
ˈeksˈrei /ˈɛksreɪ/ eks-ray or
Y Yankee YANG kee YANG KEY YANGKEY [sic] or
ˈjænki /ˈjæŋki/ yang-kee Z Zulu ZOO loo ZOO LOO ZOOLOO or
ˈzuːluː /ˈzuːluː/ zoo-loo (hyphen) Dash /ˈdæʃ/ dash
Digit Code word Pronunciation Wikipedia transcription 0 Zero (FAA)
Nadazero (ITU, IMO)
ZE-RO (ICAO), ZE RO or ZEE-RO (FAA)
NAH-DAH-ZAY-ROH (ITU, IMO)
/ˈzɛroʊ/ zerr-oh or /ˈziːroʊ/ zee-roh
1 One (FAA)
Unaone (ITU, IMO)
WUN (ICAO, FAA)
OO-NAH-WUN (ITU, IMO)
2 Two (FAA)
Bissotwo (ITU, IMO)
TOO (ICAO, FAA)
BEES-SOH-TOO (ITU, IMO)
3 Three (FAA)
Terrathree (ITU, IMO)
TREE (ICAO, FAA)
TAY-RAH-TREE (ITU, IMO)
4 Four (FAA)
Kartefour (ITU, IMO)
FOW-ER (ICAO), FOW ER (FAA)
KAR-TAY-FOWER (ITU, IMO)
5 Five (FAA)
Pantafive (ITU, IMO)
FIFE (ICAO, FAA)
PAN-TAH-FIVE (ITU, IMO)
/ˈfaɪf/ fyf 
6 Six (FAA)
Soxisix (ITU, IMO)
SIX (ICAO, FAA)
SOK-SEE-SIX (ITU, IMO)
7 Seven (FAA)
Setteseven (ITU, IMO)
SEV-EN (ICAO), SEV EN (FAA)
SAY-TAY-SEVEN (ITU, IMO)
8 Eight (FAA)
Oktoeight (ITU, IMO)
AIT (ICAO, FAA)
OK-TOH-AIT (ITU, IMO)
9 Nine (FAA)
Nine or niner (ICAO)
Novenine (ITU, IMO)
NIN-ER (ICAO), NIN ER (FAA)
NO-VAY-NINER (ITU, IMO)
100 Hundred (ICAO) HUN-dred (ICAO) /ˈhʌndrɛd/ hun-dred 1000 Thousand (ICAO) TOU-SAND (ICAO) /ˌtaʊˈsænd/ tow-sand (??) . (decimal point) Decimal (ITU, ICAO) DAY-SEE-MAL (ITU) (ICAO) /ˌdeɪˌsiːˈmæl/ day-see-mal . (full stop) Stop (ITU) STOP (ITU) /ˈstɒp/ stop
Several important short words and responses have set equivalents designed to make them more reliably intelligible, and are used in the same situations as the NATO alphabet. For "yes" and "no", radio operators say affirmative and negative however to avoid possible confusion affirm is sometimes used rather than affirmative; "help" is mayday – emergency; and acknowledgement of a message is expressed with roger message: "roger" was the WWII-era code word for R, standing for "received". Telegraphese is used, with functions words like the, a/an, and is/are dropped, and contractions are avoided for full forms such as do not. And, as noted above, stop is used to end a sentence, contrasting with decimal for a decimal point in a number.
Pronunciations are somewhat uncertain because the agencies, while ostensibly using the same pronunciations, give different transcriptions, which are often inconsistent from letter to letter. The ICAO gives different pronunciations in IPA transcription than in respelling, and the FAA also gives different pronunciations depending on the publication consulted, the FAA Aeronautical Information Manual (§ 4-2-7), the FAA Flight Services manual (§ 14.1.5), or the ATC manual (§ 2-4-16). ANSI gives English spellings, but does not give pronunciations or numbers. The ICAO, NATO, and FAA use modifications of English numerals, with stress on one syllable, while the ITU and IMO compound pseudo-Latinate numerals with a slightly different set of modified English numerals, and with stress on each syllable. Numbers 10–99 are spelled out (that is, 17 is "1-7" and 60 is "6-0"), while for hundreds and thousands the English words hundred and thousand are used.
Only the ICAO prescribes pronunciation with the IPA, and then only for letters. Several of the pronunciations indicated are slightly modified from their normal English pronunciations: /ˈælfɑ, ˈbrɑːˈvo, ˈʃɑːli, ˈdeltɑ, ˈfɔkstrɔt, ɡʌlf, ˈliːmɑ, ˈɔskɑ, siˈerɑ, ˈtænɡo, ˈuːnifɔrm, ˈviktɑ, ˈjænki/, partially due to the substitution of final schwas with the ah vowel; in addition, the intended distinction between the short vowels /o ɑ ɔ/ and the long vowels /oː ɑː ɔː/ is obscure, and has been ignored in the consolidated transcription. Both the IPA and Latin alphabet pronunciations were developed by the ICAO before 1956 with advice from the governments of both the United States and United Kingdom, so the pronunciations of both General American English and British Received Pronunciation are evident, especially in the rhotic and non-rhotic accents. The Latin alphabet version is usually at least consistent with a rhotic accent ('r' pronounced), as in CHAR LEE, SHAR LEE, NO VEM BER, YOU NEE FORM, and OO NEE FORM, whereas the IPA version usually specifies a non-rhotic accent ('r' pronounced only before a vowel), as in ˈtʃɑːli, ˈʃɑːli, noˈvembə, and ˈjuːnifɔːm. Exceptions are OSS CAH, VIK TAH and ˈuːnifɔrm. The IPA form of Golf implies it is pronounced gulf, which does occur, but not in either General American English or British Received Pronunciation. Different agencies assign different stress patterns to Bravo, Hotel, Juliett, November, Papa, X-ray; the ICAO has different stresses for Bravo, Juliett, X-ray in its respelled and IPA transcriptions. The ŋ phoneme ('ng') in the IPA forms of Tango and Yankee is shown as an 'n' and marked '[sic]'. The midheight back rounded vowel shown in Oscar and Foxtrot is actually a low back rounded vowel in Received British, and a low unrounded vowel in General American. Furthermore, the pronunciation prescribed for "whiskey" agrees with many (but by no means all) English dialects, in which the "wh-" is simplified into the non-fricative "w-" sound.
The first internationally recognized spelling alphabet was adopted by the ITU during 1927. The experience gained with that alphabet resulted in several changes being made during 1932 by the ITU. The resulting alphabet was adopted by the International Commission for Air Navigation, the predecessor of the ICAO, and was used for civil aviation until World War II. It continued to be used by the IMO until 1965:
Amsterdam Baltimore Casablanca Denmark Edison Florida Gallipoli Havana Italia Jerusalem Kilogramme Liverpool Madagascar New_York Oslo Paris Quebec Roma Santiago Tripoli Upsala Valencia Washington Xanthippe Yokohama Zurich
Military alphabets before 1956 Royal Navy Western Front slang
RAF phonetic alphabet U.S. phonetic
1914–1918 (WWI) 1924–1942 1943–1956 1941–1956 Apples
For military use, British and American armed forces each developed their spelling alphabets before both forces adopted the ICAO alphabet during 1956. British forces adopted the RAF phonetic alphabet, which is similar to the phonetic alphabet used by the Royal Navy during World War I. The U.S. adopted the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet during 1941 to standardize systems amongst all branches of its armed forces. The U.S. alphabet became known as Able Baker after the words for A and B. The United Kingdom adapted its RAF alphabet during 1943 to be almost identical to the American Joint-Army-Navy (JAN) one.
After World War II, with many aircraft and ground personnel from the allied armed forces, "Able Baker" continued to be used for civil aviation. But many sounds were unique to English, so an alternative "Ana Brazil" alphabet was used in Latin America. But the International Air Transport Association (IATA), recognizing the need for a single universal alphabet, presented a draft alphabet to the ICAO during 1947 that had sounds common to English, French, and Spanish. After further study and modification by each approving body, the revised alphabet was implemented on 1 November 1951 for civil aviation (but it may not have been adopted by any military):
Alfa Bravo Coca Delta Echo Foxtrot Golf Hotel India Juliett Kilo Lima Metro Nectar Oscar Papa Quebec Romeo Sierra Tango Union Victor Whisky Extra Yankee Zulu
Problems were soon found with this list. Some users believed that they were so severe that they reverted to the old "Able Baker" alphabet. To identify the deficiencies of the new alphabet, testing was conducted among speakers from 31 nations, principally by the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States. Confusion among words like Delta, Nectar, Victor, and Extra, or the unintelligibility of other words during poor receiving conditions were the main problems. After much study, only the five words representing the letters C, M, N, U, and X were replaced. The final version given in the table above was implemented by the ICAO on 1 March 1956, and was adopted before 1959 by the ITU, because it appears in the 1959 Radio Regulations as an established phonetic alphabet. Because the ITU governs all international radio communications, it was also adopted by all radio operators, whether military, civilian, or amateur (ARRL). It was finally adopted by the IMO in 1965. During 1947 the ITU adopted the compound number words (Nadazero Unaone, etc.), later adopted by the IMO during 1965.
A spelling alphabet is used to spell parts of a message containing letters and numbers to avoid confusion, because many letters sound similar, for instance "n" and "m" or "b" and "d"; the potential for confusion increases if static or other interference is present. For instance the message "proceed to map grid DH98" could be transmitted as "proceed to map grid Delta-Hotel-Niner-Ait". Using "Delta" instead of "D" avoids confusion between "BH98" and "DH98". The unusual pronunciation of certain numbers was designed to reduce confusion.
In addition to the traditional military usage, civilian industry uses the alphabet to avoid similar problems in the transmission of messages by telephone systems. For example, it is often used in the retail industry where customer or site details are spoken by telephone (to authorize a credit agreement or confirm stock codes), although ad hoc coding is often used in that instance. It has been used often by information technology workers to communicate serial/reference codes (which are often very long) or other specialised information by voice. Additionally, most major airlines use the alphabet to communicate Passenger Name Records (PNRs) internally, and in some cases, with customers.
Several letter codes and abbreviations using the spelling alphabet have become well-known, such as Bravo Zulu (letter code BZ) for "well done", Checkpoint Charlie (Checkpoint C) in Berlin, and Zulu Time for Greenwich Mean Time or Coordinated Universal Time. During the Vietnam War, Viet Cong guerrillas and the group itself were referred to as VC, or Victor Charlie; the name "Charlie" became synonymous with this force.
- "Delta" is replaced by "Data", "Dixie" or "David" at airports that have a majority of Delta Air Lines flights, such as Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in order to avoid confusion because "Delta" is also Delta's callsign.
- "Lima" is replaced by "London" in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore because "lima" means "five" in Indonesian, Malay and a number of other languages in those countries. Thus, confusion could occur if a string of mixed numerals and letters were being given.
- In Saudi Arabia, where a diverse population results in English being used for many commercial communications, the NATO alphabet is used. However, because alcohol is banned, "Washington" or "White" replaces "Whiskey" for "W".
- In Pakistan, where tolerance of alcohol varies, "Washington" often replaces "Whiskey" for "W". Additionally, "Indigo" or "Italy" replaces "India" because of historical and present conflicts between Pakistan and India.
Many unofficial spelling alphabets are in use that are not based on a standard, but are based on words the transmitter can remember easily, including first names, states, or cities. The LAPD phonetic alphabet has many first names.
Additions in other languages
Certain languages' standard alphabets have letters, or letters with diacritics (e.g., umlauts) that do not exist in the English alphabet. If these letters have two letter substitutes, NATO code words corresponding to the two letters may be used.
- International Code of Signals Includes flag representations.
- LAPD phonetic alphabet
- List of military time zones
- Procedure word
- Q code
- Voice procedure
- ^ International Code of Signals, United States Edition, 1969 Edition (Revised 2003), Chapter 1, pages 18-19, 148.
- ^ Globalization and Sea Power
- ^ Communication instructions – General, Allied Communications Publication ACP 121(H), Combined Communications-Electronics Board, April 2007, section 318
- ^ a b c d e f International Civil Aviation Organization, Aeronautical Telecommunications: Annex 10 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, Volume II (Fifth edition, 1995), Chapter 5, 38–40.
- ^ a b "American National Standard T1.523-2001, Telecom Glossary 2000". Atis.org. http://www.atis.org/glossary/definition.aspx?id=2568. Retrieved 2010-08-22.
- ^ Military phonetic alphabet by US Army
- ^ a b "ITU Phonetic Alphabet and Figure Code". Life.itu.ch. http://life.itu.ch/radioclub/rr/ap14.htm. Retrieved 2010-08-22.
- ^ a b "ICAO Phonetics in the FAA ATC Manual, §2-4-16". Faa.gov. 2010-02-11. http://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/publications/atpubs/ATC/atc0204.html#atc0204.html.5. Retrieved 2010-08-22.
- ^ a b Phonetic alphabet in the FAA Aeronautical Information Manual, §4-2-7
- ^ The ITU and ICAO (romanized) transcribe this as /nɔːˈvɛmbər/ naw-vem-bər, presumably an error.
- ^ The pronunciation "fife" is required. Failure to use this pronunciation has resulted in '5' being misheard as '9'. (McMillan, 1998, "[http://www.scribd.com/doc/19647051/Miscommunications-in-Air-Traffic-Control#outer_page_50 Miscommunications in Air Traffic Control]")
- ^ Transcribed as if it were /ˈnɪnər/ nin-ər, but this pronunciation is never used.
- ^ "ICAO phonetic alphabet by Canada". Tc.gc.ca. 2010-05-20. http://www.tc.gc.ca/CivilAviation/general/CCARCS/TP11957/Appendices/appendixa.htm. Retrieved 2010-08-22.
- ^ a b c d L.J. Rose, "Aviation's ABC: The development of the ICAO spelling alphabet", ICAO Bulletin 11/2 (1956) 12-14.
- ^ International Telecommunication Union, "Appendix 16: Phonetic Alphabet and Figure Code", Radio Regulations (Geneva, 1959) 430-431.
- ^ "Where does the term "Bravo Zulu" originate?". 2005-03-06. Archived from the original on 6 March 2005. http://web.archive.org/web/20050306051400/http://www.chinfo.navy.mil/navpalib/questions/bzulu.html. Retrieved 2010-08-22.
- ^ "Sambandsregelmente för Försvarsmakten, Telefoni - HKV 12800: 70799" dated 2006-06-26.
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