Wednesday 3 April 2013

bravo lima oscar golf

In an on-line forum discussion about what language teachers need to know about pronunciation, one unusual suggestion made was this, from David Deterding:

We should teach them the Alpha Bravo Charlie Delta alphabet. Then, when they cannot be understood [when spelling a word out aloud], they could easily solve the problem. (And it would also be brilliant for telling someone your name.)

I agree that this is something that it is useful to know. I was taught it in my teens, as part of “corps” at school (= officer cadet training corps, playing at soldiers). I use it from time to time, particularly when giving information over the phone to travel agents, airline call centres and the like.

It is particularly useful for distinguishing letters whose traditional names are easily confused, such as F ef and S es or T tiː and D diː. How much clearer to say foxtrot and sierra, tango and delta.

That’s why in LPD I decided to include the relevant “communications code name” at the entry for each letter of the alphabet. Before we had the web it could be difficult to lay your hands on the list, though nowadays of course you can quickly access it on Wikipedia. For avoidance of doubt, as the lawyers say, it goes Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliett, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, Zulu.

Although it’s often known as the NATO Phonetic Alphabet, it is neither an alphabet (it’s a list of letter names) nor particularly phonetic, and NATO is only one of a number of international organizations that have adopted it.

The list on the Wikipedia page includes a column headed “phonic (pronunciation)”, which explains the intended pronunciation of each letter name by respelling it in accordance with English spelling conventions, with all the ambiguity that can imply.

So, although Delta is keyed to “DELL-TAH”, it is normally pronounced by speakers of English as ˈdeltə (rather than the ˈdeltɑː that could be implied by this respelling). There is no indication of stress in the list given (though there is here), so while anglophones will say Uniform (“YOU-NEE-FORM or OO-NEE-FORM”) as ˈjuːnɪfɔː(r)m, francophones, for example, are apparently free to stress it anywhere or nowhere, in accordance with their native habits. On the other hand we English speakers are supposed to stress Papa with final-syllable stress and to say Quebec with no w. No one seems to take any notice of the instruction to pronounce Golf as if it were Gulf. The Wikipedia page has an analysis of the various versions to be found in officially recommended recordings.

The choice of letter names has changed slightly over the years. When I learnt them in the 1950s, N was called Nectar. Clearly, November is an improvement, being less likely to be confused with Victor.


  1. The Swedish alphabet (my native language) all consists of disyllabic men’s names: Adam, Bertil, Cesar, David, Erik, Filip, Gustav, Helge, Ivar, Johan, Kalle, Ludvig, Martin, Niklas, Olof, Petter, Quintus, Rudolf, Sigurd, Tore, Urban, Viktor, Wilhelm, Xerxes, Zäta (not a name), Åke, Ärlig, Östen.

    Zäta is the name of the letter Z.

    Until 1930, the numbers all had disyllabic women’s names: Anna for 1, Beda for 2 etc., but it changed to the noun form of the numbers ”tvåa” rather than ”två”, except for 1 and 7, which are in their ”number form”: ett and sju, to avoid confusion with 8 (åtta) and 4 (fyra).

  2. German has a similar list, mostly of first names (both men's and women's), for the letters of the alphabet: Anton, Berta, Cäsar, Dora, Emil, Friedrich, Gustav, Heinrich, Ida, Julius, Kaufmann, Ludwig, Martha, Nordpol, Otto, Paula, Quelle, Richard, Samuel, Theodor, Ulrich, Viktor, Wilhelm, Xanthippe, Ypsilon, Zacharias. And rather to my surprise, people in Germany genuinely know and use these names all the time. If you ask someone to spell their name, especially over the phone, chances are that they'll use these letter names. And in German choirs and orchestras, if the conductor wants to start from rehearsal letter "D" (for example), he'll say to start at "Dora".

    I'm also reminded of an old Mike Nichols and Elaine May routine where he's playing a guy getting a phone number from the information operator, and she is spelling back the name Kaplan: "That is K as in Knife, A as in Aardvark, P as in Pneumonia, L as in Luscious, A as in Aardvark again, N as in Newelpost, Kaplan?"

    1. I think there's some sketch, something before my time so I'm afraid I'm hazy on the details, along the lines of:

      Ealing: E for 'enry, that's me; A for what the 'orses eat; L for where you're going; I, like an 'ill; N for what lays the eggs; and G for gor-blimey ain't you got it yet?

  3. The second list gives explicitly non-rhotic pronunciations for Oscar and Victor (but not for November). I wonder if these are taught and used in mostly rhotic countries.

  4. I've often heard older people using a different *(but apparently standardised) set of men's names on the phone, including F for Freddie, H for Harry, J for Johnny, P for Peter and T for Tommy...and also M for Mother and S for Sugar.

    I suspect this is a remnant of an older radio alphabet that's been supplanted by the more familiar NATO alphabet.

    piː mæk ənɛnə

    1. A bit of research indicates that this is the old RAF alphabet, which does indeed predate the NATO one.

      Both Charlie and Victor are also found in the RAF alphabet.

  5. Since it's used internationally, I assume that "Lima" is pronounced both as in Lima, Peru, and as in lima beans and Lima, Ohio, depending on the speaker?

    1. Read what it says. Lima is to be preonounced with the FLEECE vowel, i.e. as in Spanish (and for that matter in the UK). I don't think anyone except Americans would dream of saying it with the PRICE vowel, anyway.

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    3. I (a Yank) say Lima with the PRICE vowel in the following two situations:

      1. If it's the name of a place in the U.S.
      2. If it comes before bean(s).

      I might also say Lima from the "NATO phonetic alphabet" with the PRICE vowel. I'm not sure, though, because I don't ever use that "alphabet". But I never say it with the PRICE vowel if I'm referring to the capital of Peru and if I'm speaking Spanish, I always try to say [ˈlima].

    4. That's what most Americans do, unless they have been trained to use the NATO 'alphabet'. And your point is...?

    5. I guess I don't have one.

  6. You mention call centres, and it seems to me that this "NATO alphabet" has enjoyed a big resurgence since the growth in call centres. However, when call centre staff use it, they tend to say both the usual name for the letter and the NATO name, rather than assume that the caller is familiar with the latter, e.g. bee for bravo, ell for lima, .... This makes it very verbose.

    Still, it is pretty useful, though I rather doubt whether the altered forms of the numbers have any acceptance outside military or other specialised circles.

    You also mention the ambiguities in the respelling pronunciation. It is a mess, isn't it? The GOAT vowel is sometimes written O (in tang-GO, zee-RO), sometimes OH (in brah-VOH, eck-OH, key-LOH, row-me-OH), and sometimes OW (in ROW-me-oh) – the last of these particularly confusing as it could also suggest raʊ – while AH is variously PALM (in BRAH-voh) or schwa (in many others). Indeed I suspect the meaning of OW varies too, and that in FOW-er it is meant to be MOUTH, to rhyme four with flour – unless we really are meant to say raʊmiːəʊ...

  7. I think I know why it's known as the NATO alphabet. I remember in my boyhood hearing on the radio that the British Army (and, presumably, the other services) was changing overnight in the interest of what NATO calls interoperability. There was much amusements that dispatch riders were to be delta romeos. I'm not sure that's any more suggestive than dog rogers.

    Many people used to be aware of ABLE, BAKER, CHARLIE, DOG, but perhaps no further. I've seen this described as the US Navy alphabet, but the UK equivalents were clearly identical or very similar.

  8. I learned this in the Korean Army because we worked with U.S. forces, and there were special pronunciations for numerical digits that went along with it. Most of them were pronounced as in regular speech, but 5 was pronounced as 'fife' and 9 as 'niner'. In addition, 4 was given an exaggerated disyllabic pronunciation to rhyme with 'blower'.

    The Wikipedia article confirms this but also adds that 3 is to be pronounced 'tree'. I might be wrong, but I don't remember learning this. Unlike the other altered pronunciations which help to distinguish the digits (e.g. 'five' from 'nine'), this one must be simply a concession to speakers of other languages who have trouble with /θ/. Since we had no such troubles being already fluent in English, maybe the alteration was thought unnecessary.

    Jongseong Park

    1. Many thanks for the clarification about FOW-ER. I'd guessed wrongly that it represented a rhyme with flour, chosen based on the spelling of four. Inadequacy of respelling scheme demonstrated empirically...

  9. Wikipedia also lists a Russian equivalent. I see that И is Иван (Ivan), so it's of course perfectly reasonable that Й, seldom used word-initially and normally called И-краткий (short i), should be called Иван Краткий, but it does rather conjure up some ideas of some historical figure called "Ivan the Short".

    1. My wife tells me that ordinary Russians don't know this list. That is to say, Russians who haven't served in the forces or the police don't use it — or didn't when Elena lived in Russia.

      Dictating over the phone, they did, and probably still do use first names, but in diminutive forms not Анна, Борис, Василий but Аня, Боря, Вася (or Ваня).

    2. @Alan
      I always thought that Russian letters were neuter and й was called и краткое (except, of course, on Монотайп Island, where things are more regularized).

    3. @homoid - Sorry, yes, I think you're right. In which case, the masculine adjective here all the more suggests "Ivan the Short"!

    4. Alan, I can’t estimate what multitude of ideas Иван Краткий might conjure up in all the the heads of Europe’s largest speech community by far, and the only one that spans Asia from east to west, but this I know for sure: Pepin the Short is Пипин Короткий in Russian, not Пипин Краткий. (краткий is used in a more figurative sense, not for things like body height or hair length that are measured in units of length such as metres or miles; in и краткое or Иван Краткий it is used for duration.)

    5. Ah, okay, many thanks.

  10. The root korotk- is native Russian, whereas kratk- is a cognate borrowed from Old Church Slavonic. Russian has many such doublets, like golova 'head (of body)' (native) and glava 'head (of organization), chapter' (OCS) as well as gorod 'city' (native) and -grad 'city (in compounds)' (OCS).

  11. I've been familiar with this alphabet for about fifty years (since studying for my radio amateur's licence) and the one choice that has always struck me as odd is that of "golf", which JW tells us is to be pronounced as if it were "gulf". The reason I find it an odd choice is that I would expect officers to use a very different pronunciation (if not following the "gulf" rule) from other ranks : for officers, /ɡɒf/ (listen to any recording of Betjeman reading his poems to hear this variant) whilst I would expect the other ranks to use the more common /ɡɒlf/ or even /ɡəʊɫf/. I wonder whether this was ever discussed.

    Philip Taylor

  12. "English speakers are supposed to stress Papa with final-syllable stress"

    And how else would an English-speaker pronounce it? The ersatz pronunciation "papper" is the province of badly-directed child actors in rubbish period dramas.

    1. As I never used "Papa" to address my late father, the pronunciation I used in this context is guided more by analogy than anything else, and the vast majority of the 26 words have stress on the initial syllable (the exceptions being ho'tel, No'vember, Que'bec, si'erra, as far as I can see) so for probably that reason alone I use the "papper" version that you deprecate.

      Philip Taylor

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