It’s easy to forget that there are other alphabets other than one’s own. Not just languages which use different characters, or languages which use the same Latin alphabet as English, but without some letters or with some additional ones. There are other alphabets which we come across a lot which we don’t think too much about. Like the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet, or as it’s more commonly known, the NATO phonetic alphabet.
You’ll know it if you’ve seen any film or TV programme featuring military radio communication. It replaces each letter in the Latin alphabet with a corresponding word beginning with the same letter: C – Charlie, W- Whiskey, B – Bravo etc. The reasons for the existence of the alphabet are clear enough: to make communication clear by making it easy to identify each letter of a word. This is especially important in international communication, where an English word might not be clear to the ears of the speaker of another language. This was taken into consideration when choosing the words to correspond with each letter, with the final choice being made after thousands of comprehension tests involving 31 nationalities. The international nature of the language also influenced the spelling of some of the words. Most are spelled as they normally are in English, except for Alfa and Juliett. The ph in Alpha was changed to an f as ph does not obviously have the same sound as f for some non-English speakers. Equally, the single t at the end of Juliet might be taken to be silent, particularly by French speakers.
The alphabet hasn’t greatly affected how we use English, apart from examples such as Checkpoint Charlie, the infamous Checkpoint along the Berlin Wall, which was of course Checkpoint C. Similarly, the Viet Cong were often referred to as Charlie during the Vietnam War, as an even shorter form of Victor Charlie, which was code for VC, which was in turn short for Viet Cong. Phew!
Having a working knowledge of the alphabet could be useful in everyday life though, particularly for those times we need to spell something over the phone. You might think you’d have no problem coming up with a word to correspond to a letter off the top of your head, especially if you’re a native speaker, but that can be surprisingly difficult. I became aware of this watching the UK version of Wheel of Fortune after school back in the late 90s. Unlike some other editions of the programme, contestants had to provide a corresponding word when choosing a letter to make it clear which one they were choosing. There were always some contestants who kept forgetting and having to be reminded, which was infuriating. But what I always found hilarious was when someone clearly couldn’t think of a word, panicked, and either blanked or came out with something ridiculous. Like “S” for “Spatchcock,” or “R” for “Reverse engineering.”
I could understand what was happening. First of all, pressure was surely the biggest factor in making them panic. Even if we’re not on TV though, thinking of a word beginning with a certain letter can be surprisingly difficult. I think sometimes a word comes to us, usually something familiar like a name, but we dismiss it as not being suitable, and try to think of something else. Which adds pressure of course, but also, it’s hard to think of a word without a context for it. We use words beginning with j all the time without noticing, for example, but if I put you on the spot and told you to think of a word beginning with j, it might take you some time, at least to find one you’re happy with. And that’s because we rarely think of words in isolation. We think of how they relate to other words through associations like work, family, feelings, but rarely based on their first letter. We can see this in language learning. It’s much easier to see vocabulary when you’re presented with it in a context in which you can see how’s it used and what it means, like in a text, as opposed to learning lists of individual words.
Our brains work by creating links between different concepts, and this includes vocabulary. So trying to isolate a particular item without consideration of its associations is hard, even if it’s in our native language. It might be useful then to learn the NATO phonetic alphabet, so you always have a word to correspond with a letter on the tip of your tongue, and you don’t sound like a complete India Delta India Oscar Tango on the phone.