jump to navigation

Learn the Phonetic Alphabet November 12, 2006

Posted by federalist in Language.

There are two types of people in America: Those who know the phonetic alphabet, and those who don’t.  And I’m sick of ending up on the phone with those who don’t.

How often do you have to spell out a name, address, or some other non-phonetic word or code?  Regretably, the standard alphabet is pronounced with a series of single-consonant sounds that are nearly indistinguishable.  “eh-ee, bee, see, dee, ee,” — it’s a cruel joke that we use these sounds to discriminate letters.

This has always been a problem with our low-fidelity wired telecom infrastructure.  The proliferation of even lower-fidelity cell phones and VOIP connections only exacerbates it.  So after trying to spell with the standard pronunciation, we resort to more distinguishing words to identify letters: “N as in Nancy, M as in Mary.”  Better than nothing, but do we really need to spend at least five syllables to identify a single letter?  Sometimes this ad hoc phonetic spelling charade gets even worse when people:

  • Can’t think of a word: “That’s N as in … um … Notorious?”
  • Use an ambiguous word: “E as in Err … no, not Air, Err — like Error.”
  • Try to switch it up: “A as in Apple, N as in Nancy, A as in … um … Adam.”

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just agree ahead of time on a concise but coherent way of saying letters?  Turns out we already have: Early radio operators dealt with this problem by establishing a standard phonetic alphabet.  And people who know the standard phonetic alphabet can efficiently communicate spellings with no more than 3 syllables per letter over very poor communications links.  (Why six of the letters were given three syllable names, instead of more concise two syllable names, I don’t know.  It would be an interesting exercise to come up with a two-syllable-only phonetic alphabet that’s as error-resistant as the standard one.)

When everyone knows the phonetic alphabet, it doesn’t require any preamble.  If someone says, “Alpha-India-Romeo” people understand that’s spelling out “A-I-R.”

Phonetic alphabet should be mandatory for all call-center workers, or for anyone who conducts business over the phone.  And nobody should graduate kindergarten without being able to recite the alphabet — phonetically.



1. peacecrusader - August 27, 2009


Thanks for the info.

I agree with you that people have to learn the Phonetic Alphabet, especially those in the Call Center business. We have a multicultural world and names of people and places are not common in this environment.

I put also in my wordpress site something about the International Phonetic Alphabet. You may check it out. I will appreciate your comment. You may be surprised what IDE stands for.

2. federalist - December 24, 2013

Archer shows why this is important:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: