What’s with Our Ham Radio Phonetic Alphabet?

by Bob KG7JKQ on 2015-03-29

One of the most elemental demands in effective HAM radio communications is correct use of the phonetic alphabet. All new hams struggle a little with memorizing which word goes with each letter. However, it may be interesting to step back and remind ourselves about the history of this phonetic alphabet and some of its unique characteristics and uses.

So where did this phonetic alphabet we use come from? Called by its most formal name as the “International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet,” it originally went into development by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in the early 1950s. That was in the context of that aviation organization’s recommendation that the English language be used in all aeronautical radio communications. However, one of the problems with English was that virtually one third of English letters, like B,C,D,E,G,P,T,V and Z, were virtually indistinguishable in low audio or scratchy communications. And, too, the ICAO would be recommending a phonetic alphabet that had to be pronounced and understood by a great number of non-native English speaking persons. After what was then described as hundreds of thousands of comprehension tests involving 31 nationalities, the ICAO formally adopted the alphabet we use in March of 1956. But ham use was not immediate.

Given the work that went into it, the ICAO alphabet was slowly but surely adopted by a great many other organizations. Each time it took on names that associated it with these new organizations like NATO, FAA, various maritime organizations and the ITU (International Telecommunications Union). Indeed, the ITU, which governs all international radio communications, announced acceptance of the alphabet in its official publication Radio Regulations in 1959. Because of its relationship with the ITU, the phonetic alphabet was then officially a part of the protocols for communications generated by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL). In the final analysis, within a few years of its overall promulgations by the ICAO, this system of phonetic alphabet nomenclature had become, and continues today, the most widely used phonetic spelling alphabet used in radio telecommunications.

The international origins and orientation of this particular ICAO phonetic alphabet has left it with some interesting peculiarities. How, for example, was it decided that the words would have no common theme, include one, two and three syllable words scattered at random, and contain a diverse mix like the names of two foreign capitals (Lima and Quebec), two dance steps (tango and foxtrot), both men’s and women’s names, and several words of more Hispanic than English origin (Romeo and Sierra)? Incidentally, until 1956 the phonetic alphabet recommended by ICAO only used predominately the names of countries and cities around the world (think: Madagascar, Uppsala, Gallipoli, Yokohama or Xanthippe) With its new phonetic alphabet however, ICAO paid great attention to the chance the word would be understood in the context of other words as well as in lengthy text. It is reported, for example, that “football” was better understood in isolation but that “foxtrot” was more comprehensible in extended communications.

Also in recognition of its international origins and use, ICAO has suggested a pronunciation for many of the words in the alphabet that would not be recognized as Standard English today. Other adopting agencies have also adjusted and changed recommendations in pronunciation. Two words in the ICAO alphabet even have completely unique spelling so as to aid non-native English speakers to recognize how they might be pronounced (Alfa and Juliet). And the alphabet also recommends pronunciations to help native English speakers avoid producing sounds quite foreign to English. After listening to people curl their tongue deep to say the French sound “Que ..” part of Quebec, I think the ITU may have done it right with recommending a pronunciation as “KEH-BECK”

Of course phonetic alphabets have a history in communications that go well before the ICAO (or its current permutations with ITU, FAA, NATO, and IMU). When some of us were growing up as Boy Scouts in the 1950s, we used one that was then standard for the US military. It started out: Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy, Fox, George …etc. Thankfully, a remnant of this phonetic alphabet still survives today. “Roger” was the word for “R” in those days and was the code abbreviation for “Received.” It would be awkward to say “Romeo” to indicate ‘Received” for many folks today. Check out http://usmilitary.about.com/od/theorderlyroom/a/alphabet.htm if you want to see all the different changes in phonetic spelling the US military has gone through over the years.

Finally, it can be noted that different localities often introduce changes into the ICAO phonetic alphabet for quite understandable reasons. For example, it is reported that “Delta” is variously replaced by “Data”, “Dixie” or “David” at airports, like Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, that handle large numbers of flights by Delta Airlines. Sounds like a good idea to avoid confusion there.

Hope this helps everyone to appreciate a little more the work that went into developing the phonetic alphabet we use in ham communication and maybe also to enjoy some if its unique characteristics.


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