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Why the NATO phonetic alphabet was chosen

The NATO phonetic alphabet is a language used especially by servicemen and women in the name of more effective communication. This military alphabet is also known as the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet is made up of 26 code words which each represent a letter of the English alphabet, for example, Alpha is for A, Bravo is for B, and Charlie is for C. The codes are also combined in order to formulate new words, for example, hat is Hotel-Alpha-Tango


The NATO phonetic alphabet’s primary value lies in its ability to bridge the gap of communication between languages and accents. The clarity of communication is essential in a world where people of many different experiences work together. Although it is most well-known for being used in the Armed Forces, the military alphabet is also used in the aviation industry and even finance.  

How we got to the NATO phonetic alphabet as we know it


The NATO phonetic alphabet became widely used in 1956 and within a couple of years it was established as the universal phonetic alphabet after many amendments. 


However, the first version to really come about was in the 1920s when the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) developed what would become the first ever phonetic alphabet that could be used worldwide. For this alphabet, they used the names of cities around the world, for example: Amsterdam, Baltimore, Casablanca etc. 


In America, the military preferred a Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet referred to as the Able Baker alphabet. In 1941, this alphabet was utilized across all of its branches. The British Royal Air Force soon followed suit two years later and used the same system. This alphabet used words like Able, Baker, Charlie etc. 


However, this system was built too much on the English language. In response, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) developed another version which used sounds which were often found in not only English, but also French and Spanish. This newly developed amendment started being used on 1 November 1951, but only in civic aviation. This one is very similar to the version used today with Alfa, Bravo, and Coca


Still, it was recognized that a universal phonetic alphabet was necessary. As such, NATO Allies US and UK looked at how the Able Baker alphabet could be amended. As such, changes to the words for the letters C, M, N, U, and X were put forward to the International Civil Aviation Organization (IACO) even as there was still disagreement over the word for the letter N (Nectar vs. November). 


Before approval of the proposal, on 8 April 1955, the North Atlantic Military Committee Standing Group asserted that the reviewed alphabet would be used for NATO on 1 January 1956 even if approval never came. 


This caused a bit of a dilemma as the Allies were in two minds about using the alphabet without approval from the ICAO and as such, NATO Military Commands would be the only ones using the new phonetic alphabet. Thankfully, the ICAO gave its approval to the alphabet using November as the code word for N. 


Finally, on 21 February 1956, it was announced that the NATO phonetic alphabet as we know it would be used by all Member States in NATO on 1 March 1956. After a couple of years, the ITU started using it and it became recognized as the most well-known and accepted universal phonetic alphabet used in all military, civilian, and amateur radio communications. Seeing as the motion for the alphabet was led by NATO, it officially became known as the NATO Alphabet. 


Final Considerations

The potential for the military alphabet to be used in everyday life is extensive. From communication at work, at home, and in call centers, the military alphabet is useful to everyone who learns it. 


Its evolution and use through both World Wars speak to its value and the extensive effort put into making it the best version of itself. The NATO phonetic alphabet ensures that regional accents, different voice patterns, and varying dialects do not inhibit meaning between individuals. The code words chosen were specified exactly because they would lead to miscommunication. Generally speaking, it doesn’t matter how you say it, but Foxtrot and Echo don’t sound the same.

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