Allied military phonetic spelling alphabets
The Allied military phonetic spelling alphabets prescribe the words that are used to represent each letter of the alphabet, when spelling other words out loud, letter-by-letter, and how the spelling words should be pronounced. They are not a "phonetic alphabet" in the sense in which that term is used in phonetics, i.e. they are not a system for transcribing speech sounds.
The Allied military radiotelephone spelling alphabets were created prior to World War I and evolved separately in the United States and the United Kingdom—and separately among the individual military services in the two countries—until being merged during World War II. The last WWII spelling alphabet continued to be used through the Korean War, being replaced in 1956 as a result of both countries adopting the ICAO/ITU Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet, with the NATO members calling their usage the "NATO Phonetic Alphabet".
Sometime during WWII, the Allies had defined terminology to describe the scope of communications procedures among different services and nations. A summary of the terms used was published in a post-WWII NATO memo:
- combined—between services of one nation and those of another nation, but not necessarily within or between the services of the individual nations
- joint—between (but not necessarily within) two or more services of one nation
- intra—within a service (but not between services) of one nation
Thus, the Combined Communications Board (CCB) spelling alphabet was mandated for use when any U.S. military branch was communicating with any British military branch; when operating without any British forces, the Joint Army/Navy spelling alphabet was mandated for use whenever the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy were communicating in joint operations; if the U.S. Army was operating on its own, it would use its own spelling alphabet, in which some of the letters were identical to the other spelling alphabets and some completely different.
WWII CCB and NATO alphabets
An alternative name for the ICAO spelling alphabet, "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. The NATO alphabet appeared in some United States Air Force Europe publications during the Cold War. A particular example was the Ramstein Air Base, Telephone Directory published between 1969 and 1973 (currently out of print). The USA and NATO versions had differences and the translation was provided as a convenience. Differences included Alfa, Bravo and Able, Baker for the first two letters.
The NATO phonetic spelling alphabet was first adopted on January 1, 1956, while the ICAO radiotelephony spelling alphabet was still undergoing final changes.
|Letter||1943 CCB (US-UK)
(same as 1947 ICAO)
Jan 1 – Feb 29, 1956
March 1, 1956 – present
United States military spelling alphabets
U.S. Army radiotelephony spelling alphabet
|Letter||1916 Signal Book
† 'Interrogatory' was used in place of 'Inter' in joint Army/Navy Operations.
The U.S. Navy's first phonetic spelling alphabet was not used for radio, but was instead used on the deck of ships "in calling out flags to be hoisted in a signal". There were two alternative alphabets used, which were almost completely different to one another, with only the code word "Xray" in common.
The U.S. Navy's first radiotelephony phonetic spelling alphabet was published in 1913, in the Naval Radio Service's Handbook of Regulations developed by Captain William H. G. Bullard. The Handbook's procedures were described in the November 1917 edition of Popular Science Monthly.
The Joint Army/Navy (JAN) spelling alphabet was developed by the Joint Board on November 13, 1940, and it took effect on March 1, 1941. It was reformulated by the CCB following the entrance of the U.S. into World War II by the CCB "Methods and Procedures" committee, and was used by all branches of the United States Armed Forces until the promulgation of its replacement, the ICAO spelling alphabet (Alfa, Bravo, etc.), in 1956. Before the JAN phonetic alphabet, each branch of the armed forces had used its own radio alphabet, leading to difficulties in interbranch communication.
Vestiges of the JAN spelling system remain in use in the U.S. Navy, in the form of Material Conditions of Readiness, used in damage control. Dog, William, X-Ray, Yoke, and Zebra all reference designations of fittings, hatches, or doors. The response "Roger" for "· – ·" or "R", to mean "received", also derives from this alphabet.
The names Able to Fox were also widely used in the early days of hexadecimal digital encoding of text, for speaking the hexadecimal digits A to F (equivalent to decimal 10 to 15), although the written form was simply the capital letters A to F.
|I||Item (or Interrogatory)||ITEM||India|
United Kingdom military spelling alphabets
British Army radiotelephony spelling alphabet
RAF radiotelephony spelling alphabet
The RAF radiotelephony spelling alphabet, sometimes referred to as the "RAF Phonetic Alphabet", was used by the British Royal Air Force (RAF) to aid communication after the take-up of radio, especially to spell out aircraft identification letters, e.g. "H for Harry", "G for George", etc. Several alphabets were used, before being superseded by the adoption of the NATO/ICAO radiotelephony alphabet.
During World War I both the British Army and the Royal Navy had developed their own quite separate spelling alphabets. The Navy system was a full alphabet, starting: Apples, Butter, Charlie, Duff, Edward, but the RAF alphabet was based on that of the "signalese" of the army signallers. This was not a full alphabet, but differentiated only the letters most frequently misunderstood: Ack (originally "Ak"), Beer (or Bar), C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, eMma, N, O, Pip, Q, R, eSses, Toc, U, Vic, W, X, Y, Z.
a The choice of Nuts following Monkey is probably from "monkey nuts" (peanuts); likewise Orange and Pip can be similarly paired, as in "orange pip".
b "Vic" subsequently entered the English language as the standard "Vee"-shaped flight pattern of three aircraft.
- Allied Communication Procedures
- International Code of Signals
- Spelling alphabet
- Toc H—example of signalese carry-over
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