Pecan, pecan, let's call the whole thing off…

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If you ask Google (in various ways) how to pronounce pecan, you'll get suggested additional questions like these:

For more contentful commentary, see e.g. Steven Petrow, "Pecan vs. pecan: The divide over how to say the word can drive you nuts", WaPo 11/23/2016.


  1. Craig said,

    August 9, 2020 @ 5:16 pm

    Hmm. I don't say "puh-KAHN" or "PEE-can". I say "pee-KAHN", with a definite long E in the first syllable and "ah" in the second, with the accent on the second.

  2. L'Homme Armé said,

    August 9, 2020 @ 5:41 pm

    I tried entering "How do you pronounce pecan" into Google and one of the options that came up is even more delightfully ridiculous than the options our esteemed author found:

    "Is Pecan pronounced pecan or pecan?"


  3. Michael Watts said,

    August 9, 2020 @ 5:59 pm

    I'm kind of bemused by how the suggested questions (#1 and #3) blithely use the identical strings "pecan" and "pecan" to refer to what they clearly believe are different productions.

    If you asked me "how do you pronounce it, pecan or pecan?", the only possible answer would be "pecan" — and you would have no idea what I meant to say, and I would have no idea what you meant to ask!

    This is why you usually see the saying written as "tomato, to-mah-to" or the like, and not "tomato, tomato".

  4. Thomas Rees said,

    August 9, 2020 @ 7:14 pm

    Presumably the OP had applied bold or italic and the formatting was stripped out

  5. Carl said,

    August 9, 2020 @ 8:07 pm

    It’s sort of ridiculous that an educated American can graduate college without even exposure to be idea of IPA, let alone competence in using it. Our written language does not convey phonetic information. Failing to supplement it with an alphabet that does is just negligent.

  6. David C. said,

    August 9, 2020 @ 8:43 pm

    @Carl, better yet is the hodgepodge of pronunciation respellings and custom notation systems that vary from (mainly American) dictionary to dictionary, such as ī for aɪ, and "eye" in non-phonemic systems.

  7. Andrew Usher said,

    August 9, 2020 @ 9:01 pm

    For the record, the historically correct pronunciation is /pəˈkɑn/ (i.e. puh-KAHN); all others are guesses based partly or wholly on the standard spelling, or perhaps also alternating-stress preference in 'pecan pie'.

    k_over_hbarc at

  8. Richard Rubenstein said,

    August 9, 2020 @ 10:16 pm

    When I'm outside Nevada I say "pecan", but in Nevada I say "pecan".

  9. Daisy Marino said,

    August 10, 2020 @ 12:19 am

    Hmmm… I ask Google the "pecan pronunciation" and I got the answer as "puh·kaan"

  10. AG said,

    August 10, 2020 @ 12:34 am

    There's even a fourth (or fifth?) pronunciation, used by Method Man in the outro to "Ice Cream", where he rhymes "pecan" with "[Puerto] Rican", resulting in something like "peek'n" (sorry, I'm not even going to try APA). On the hook, however, he says "pee-CAN".

    around 3:35 here:

  11. Tim said,

    August 10, 2020 @ 7:12 am

    Also, envelope.

  12. ===Dan said,

    August 10, 2020 @ 8:15 am

    Hear also Ant/Aunt.

  13. KeithB said,

    August 10, 2020 @ 8:21 am

    What's next: All-mond vs Aaa-mond?

    (We had a family friend with an almond ranch who used the second pronunciation because "We shake the ell out of them.")

  14. John Swindle said,

    August 10, 2020 @ 8:27 am

    I doubt that American college/university graduates are unfamiliar with IPA, even if we don't learn how to write it, and I wonder whether it's true that educated non-specialists worldwide, except in America, do commonly write pronunciations in IPA. Is information on these points available?

  15. Ellen K. said,

    August 10, 2020 @ 9:13 am

    I would guess questions like "Is Pecan pronounced pecan or pecan?" are one's people ask by speaking to Google, rather than typing, not thinking about the questions not making sense when translated to written text.

  16. Twill said,

    August 10, 2020 @ 9:56 am

    @John Swindle I don't know of any research into IPA literacy but anecdotally as far am I'm aware I'm yet to meet one native speaker of English without some sort of linguistic background who understands IPA. It certainly is not a common part of English language curricula. I distinctly recall a Chinese learner who was shocked that, in stark contrast to pinyin, IPA or indeed any phonological system for English was so disused.

  17. Robert Coren said,

    August 10, 2020 @ 10:04 am

    Discussion of this issue always brings to my mind this verse from Robert W. Wood's How to Tell the Birds from the Flowers. (The one on the right; the one about the Quail and the Kale is a bonus.)

  18. Tim Morris said,

    August 10, 2020 @ 10:31 am

    I usually teach IPA in the one language-studies course we require of English majors, at a four-year university. Occasionally theater majors will come in familiar with IPA, as of course will anyone who's studied linguistics. But that's a tiny fraction of the whole university population.

    Of course, typing that, I realize that other types of IPA are pretty universally familiar to college students, even if many of them prefer Bud Light.

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    August 10, 2020 @ 10:47 am

    I clearly still have a 20th-century mindset. When Ellen wrote "I would guess questions like "Is Pecan pronounced pecan or pecan?" are [questions] people ask by speaking to Google", the idea that she meant "speaking" (qua "speaking"), as opposed to simply "communicating with" simply did not cross my mind, so it took me a very long time to understand what point she was seeking to make. I am, nonetheless, forced to ask, not "do people really speak to Google ?", since based on Ellen's premise I must assume that they do, but rather "what fraction of Google's user population communicate with it through speech rather than through a keyboard and monitor ?".

  20. Doug said,

    August 10, 2020 @ 10:56 am

    Even people familiar with IPA (as I am) may not know how to type IPA into Google to ask a question about pronunciation (I don't).

  21. wanda said,

    August 10, 2020 @ 12:02 pm

    Majored in biology, went on to get a PhD in neuroscience. Never encountered IPA in formal schooling.

  22. Alexander Browne said,

    August 10, 2020 @ 2:00 pm

    I believe singers/singing majors are learn/use IPA (probably similar to the mentioned theater majors).

  23. Misha Schutt said,

    August 10, 2020 @ 2:14 pm

    In college l had a friend from Lafayette, Louisiana, who specified pih-CAHN pra-LEENZ because she shuddered when people said PEE-can PRAY-leenz. (She could also put on a Cajun accent, in which not just the phonology but her tone of voice and even her posture changed.)

  24. Leo said,

    August 10, 2020 @ 2:25 pm

    I haven't a shred of evidence, but I strongly doubt that most British graduates know IPA. I never once heard it mentioned during seven years of higher education. The British university system emphasises depth over breadth, so the likelihood of somebody on a non-linguistics degree taking a linguistics course is very low. As far as I know, and I hope someone will correct me if I'm wrong, most undergraduates in Britain take a single-subject degree – we don't even call them "majors", there's no "minor" to contrast them with – and face no requirement to take a single "elective" course outside their subject if they prefer not to.

    By far the most familiar phonetic alphabet in the UK is the NATO alphabet, a staple of pub quizzes and police dramas – alpha, bravo, charlie…

  25. Andrew Usher said,

    August 10, 2020 @ 6:41 pm

    No, I think IPA and the NATO alphabet are completely different kinds of things (and I wonder how many people would get through the _entire_ NATO alphabet correctly). The fact that both are called 'phonetic alphabets' doesn't change their different origins (two meanings of 'phonetic').

    And the IPA is a monolingual context is really just a funny-looking respelling system.

  26. Andreas Johansson said,

    August 10, 2020 @ 11:39 pm

    In Sweden, I was taught IPA (or rather a subset thereof useful for teaching English) in primary school, and so were, I assume, most Swedes my generation. Very few people, though, ever seem to use it outside school, and even there, the emphasis was on reading it, not producing it.

  27. Chas Belov said,

    August 11, 2020 @ 1:24 am

    I say "PEE-con"

  28. John Swindle said,

    August 11, 2020 @ 2:01 am

    It seems to me that Hanyu Pinyin and IPA are different in principle, and not only because one is restricted to writing a single language. Hanyu Pinyin is intended as phonemic, like say the Shavian alphabet. Simpler than IPA and less flexible. IPA at fine enough detail is more complex and almost agnostic to phonemes. (Ducks head in anticipation of thorough correction.)

  29. Philip Taylor said,

    August 11, 2020 @ 3:09 am

    "and I wonder how many people would get through the _entire_ NATO alphabet correctly)" — in Britain, the majority. It is used on a daily basis when giving one's postal code, car registration number, etc.

  30. Philip Taylor said,

    August 11, 2020 @ 3:14 am

    Robert — "[d]iscussion of this issue always brings to my mind this verse from Robert W. Wood's How to Tell the Birds from the Flowers". Wonderful, thank you. I have now shared the link to the Gutenberg edition with a large number of friends.

  31. Robert Coren said,

    August 11, 2020 @ 8:34 am

    I picked up (a simplified subset of) IPA from the fact that the series of French textbooks (that is, textbooks used in teaching French to English-sopeaking students) employed by my high school used it

  32. Carl said,

    August 11, 2020 @ 12:02 pm

    My evidence that the majority of college educated Americans have no exposure to the existence of IPA is that news articles about pronunciation differences never even try to get it out of the way with an offhand reference, ie. "Pecan (pronounced pɪˈkɑːn or pɪˈkæn in IPA)". Yes, the IPA is hard to type, but I literally just copied that from Wikipedia, which is the source most journalists do research with. :-)

  33. Michael Watts said,

    August 11, 2020 @ 3:34 pm

    I'll add a voice to the chorus of assurances that educated Americans should not be expected to have heard of the IPA. You'd expect them to be familiar with the symbols that American dictionaries use to indicate pronunciation, like "o͝o".

    I believe Britons are familiar with it, though, for the same reason — it is my impression that IPA is what British dictionaries use.

    But they use a variety that is specifically meant to describe English phonemes without worrying about making cross-linguistic comparisons, e.g. using /e/ for the DRESS vowel and /r/ for the onset of "road", where in an American linguistics program I was taught to use /ɛ/ and /ɹ/.

    (This use would make it essentially identical to pinyin.)

  34. Andrew Usher said,

    August 11, 2020 @ 7:41 pm

    I agree that the form of IPA used in dictionaries that use it, and generally in English-language sources, is not really intended for cross-linguistic comparisons. But it could at least accommodate the variety _within_ English: /r/ is fine for that, as all Englishes have exactly one rhotic phoneme; but /e/ for DRESS really needs to be given up. The American /ɛ/ for DRESS and /e/ for FACE is more historically and phonetically accurate, and deserves pride of place as it still allows using a diphthongal symbol for FACE if you insist, while the other does not allow a monophthongal one.

    Philip Taylor:
    The British use of the NATO alphabet for that is another strange custom. In any 'civilian' context where exact accuracy is important, you're going to read back the sequence anyway, so what have you saved over ordinary spelling?

  35. John Swindle said,

    August 11, 2020 @ 8:41 pm

    @Andrew Usher: What using the NATO alphabet saves over ordinary spelling, if you're going to read back the sequence anyway, is that communicating letters of the alphabet can go awry in either direction or both directions. The NATO alphabet mostly avoids that.

    A telephone caller once told me her name was /ˈlɪliˌdʒiːn/. She spelled it for me: L-I-L-I-G-E-A-N. "J" like in "Jupiter"? No, "G" like in /'dʒiː.bɹə/. It took us a round or two to sort that out.

  36. Michael Watts said,

    August 12, 2020 @ 2:16 am

    I'm still mystified. G as in jebra? ("gebra"??)

    I would have spelled /ˈlɪliˌdʒiːn/ as "Lily Jean", space included, without blinking.

  37. John Swindle said,

    August 12, 2020 @ 4:10 am

    Michael Watts: Indeed. We agreed on Z (how else would you spell "gebra"?), but I still wasn't sure what had happened.

  38. January First-of-May said,

    August 12, 2020 @ 5:06 am

    "Robert W. Wood's How to Tell the Birds from the Flowers"

    I'm happy to find out that I'm not the only person to have heard of that book.

    (Seabrook's biography of Robert Wood is itself worth reading, though good luck finding it in English; for some reason it's far more popular in Russia.)

  39. January First-of-May said,

    August 12, 2020 @ 5:08 am

    "Robert W. Wood's How to Tell the Birds from the Flowers"

    I'm happy to find out that I'm not the only person to have heard of that book.

    (Seabrook's biography of Robert Wood is itself worth reading, though good luck finding it in English; for some reason it's far more popular in Russia.)

    (If you're seeing this comment twice, this is because I messed up the italics in the original. LL was a lot better when it included comment previews.)

  40. Philip Taylor said,

    August 12, 2020 @ 9:25 am

    Andrew — "In any 'civilian' context where exact accuracy is important, you're going to read back the sequence anyway, so what have you saved over ordinary spelling?". If the initial speaker, and the listener who then repeats the sequence, both eschew the use of the NATO alphabet or analogue, then neither is any wiser at the end of the conversation as to whether both agree as to which letters were intended. They may agree as to which sounds were used, but neither will know (qua> know) what letters the other intended by those sounds.

  41. Philip Taylor said,

    August 12, 2020 @ 10:39 am

    Further to the above, I have just given my postal code to the Cornwall Council electoral registration officer over the telephone as "Papa Lima Two Six Eight Hotel Lima". It was not read back to me.

  42. Andrew Usher said,

    August 12, 2020 @ 7:34 pm

    John Swindle:
    Now that anecdote is bizarre. "G as in gebra" makes me laugh out loud. Did you really write a Z for her name? Besides that, that spelling is practically designed to confuse.

    Philip Taylor:
    I'm not going to condemn the British practice, but in America those kind of identifiers are normally digits only, which are less often misunderstood (but still commonly read back). Only in names do we have to use letters, and as much as the letters have an established correspondence to sounds, I think your statement 'we will never know what letters were intended by those sounds' vacuous.

  43. John Swindle said,

    August 12, 2020 @ 10:17 pm

    Andrew Usher: We were using English. She wasn't a native speaker. Did she find some sound difficult? Was there some hypercorrection? I didn't have a plausible hypothesis. At least we agreed on the spelling. Whether it was the right spelling I don't know.

    In the U.S. if you call for emergency services and need to spell something they won't expect NATO alphabet but they'll appreciate it if you have it. Tell them I said so.

  44. Philip Taylor said,

    August 13, 2020 @ 3:12 am

    Yes, "the letters have an established correspondence to sounds", but that correspondence is not only one:many (different speakers may pronounce the name of a letter differently), but worse, many:many — if a speaker of a betacist language such as Catalan says /β/, it is impossible to know whether he intended /biː/ or /viː/.

    And if (e.g.,) /piː eɪtʃ dʒiː θriː ˈθaʊz ənd ænd tuː/ were clear and unambiguous, why would both pilot and ATC refer to the flight as Papa Hotel Golf Three Zero Zero Two in a series of exchanges where brevity is the very essence ?

    Or to offer another example — my wife frequently asks me over the telephone to place an order for something; I rarely understand the item she needs; I ask her to spell it, and still fail to understand (far too many ambiguities : PB TD MN FS BV, to give just five examples), so I ask her to spell the item phonetically and all is instantly clear.

    The statement "neither will know (qua know) what letters the other intended by those sounds" was the very opposite of vacuous — it was an absolute statement of fact. The NATO alphabet would not exist were it not for the fact that there is a clear, demonstrable and undeniable need for it (or for an analogous system).

  45. Doug said,

    August 13, 2020 @ 5:51 am

    My understanding is that police in the US use a NATO-like alphabet to read out automobile license plates (which generally have both letters and numbers) and the like:

    Beyond police, we seem to have no standard. Back in school, if my teachers wanted to read aloud the answers to a multiple choice quiz (A,B,C,D,E), they would resort to "B as in Boy, D as in David."

  46. Andrew Usher said,

    August 13, 2020 @ 6:41 pm

    I am not questioning the rationale of the NATO alphabet or anything similar. In the environments they were developed they are the most practicable option that deals with the need for standardisation, the presence of speakers of different languages, the existence of bad/noisy communications channels, distractions, and the fact that a mistake might be catastrophic.

    But when dealing with other speakers of standard English, over a reasonably clear channel, without undue distractions, misunderstandings caused by mishearing in a sequence of letters and/or digits are at least very uncommon, and I know this from personal experience. So I don't think it reasonable to point this out as a way America is backward.

    And Philip Taylor's statement:
    "if a speaker of a betacist language such as Catalan says /β/, it is impossible to know whether he intended /biː/ or /viː/"

    is irrelevant. The names of the letters of the English alphabet are in English. B and V correspond to the sounds /bi/ and /vi/, even if a foreigner might mispronounce them. The sound of any sequence of symbols read out properly in the English alphabet unambiguously corresponds to those symbols: if misheard once, it could (in theory) be replayed until gotten right.

    In any case, this digression started only because someone ignorantly presented 'the NATO alphabet' as an alternative to IPA, presumably because they are both, not unnaturally, called a 'phonetic alphabet'. Is there a better term that would distinguish them?

  47. Michael Watts said,

    August 14, 2020 @ 4:05 am

    Actually, it occurs to me that I knew a Korean who referred to Zookeeper (the software) as "Jewkeeper". So I guess the sound confusion exists.

    This doesn't explain how the speaker chose to spell the perfectly normal name "Lily Jean" as "Lilizean".

  48. Michael Watts said,

    August 14, 2020 @ 4:10 am

    Followup thought:

    I knew a Chinese girl with terrible English who chose the English name "Cynthia", which she couldn't pronounce. I always found it a little strange that she would pick a name for herself that was so difficult for her to say. It's not so hard to find English names that don't pose any special difficulty to a Mandarin speaker.

    Similarly, I would expect the person in John Swindle's story, if she thought like me, to avoid names that included a Z.

  49. Philip Taylor said,

    August 14, 2020 @ 4:42 am

    "[…] misunderstandings caused by mishearing in a sequence of letters and/or digits are at least very uncommon, and I know this from personal experience."

    Andrew, you are one of approximately 7.8×10^9 people. How can your personal experience give you any insights whatsoever into what the remaining ≈7.8×10^9-1 people find common or uncommon ?

    My personal experience, played out daily in telephone conversations with my wife, tells me that attempts to understand what word was intended by asking the other party to "please spell it" are doomed to failure eight times out of ten, and only by resorting to the NATO alphabet can we communicate satisfactorily. Neither your personal experience nor mine tells either of us anything useful whatsoever about what problems (or lack thereof) the remainder of the human race experience when needing to identify an unknown word solely by having it spelled out.

    "The sound of any sequence of symbols read out properly in the English alphabet unambiguously corresponds to those symbols" — I could not disagree more.

  50. Doug said,

    August 14, 2020 @ 5:45 am

    Michael Watts said,

    "I'm kind of bemused by how the suggested questions (#1 and #3) blithely use the identical strings "pecan" and "pecan" to refer to what they clearly believe are different productions."

    I recall reading somewhere that court reporters, who transcribe the testimony spoken in courts, render everything into normal orthography, leading to a similar problem. If a lawyer asked a witness, "Did the defendant say pe-KAN or pe-KAHN?" the transcript would show "Did the defendant say pecan or pecan?"

  51. James Wimberley said,

    August 14, 2020 @ 6:14 am

    Misha Schutt: French and Belgian chocolatiers write "praliné". Did the accent disappear in the USA – leading to the current pronunciation – because printers didn't have the accented letter in the type box, as with Caxton's regrettable disappearance of ð and þ?

  52. Robert Coren said,

    August 14, 2020 @ 10:02 am

    @Michael Watts: I had a colleague back in the 1970s, Chinese-born, with fluent but heavily accented English, whose English name was "Gabriel", which struck me as an odd choice for similar reasons.

  53. Lee C. said,

    August 14, 2020 @ 3:35 pm

    Years ago, before I started booking hotel rooms online, I booked a room in Las Vegas by telephone, directly to the hotel (not through an agency). The hotel staff told me "Your confirmation code is J as in jackpot, M as in money [and a few more]"

    The hotel could certainly have arranged for its confirmation codes to be digits instead, which would probably be quicker and easier, but perhaps this way they could plant a suggestion in my mind using their own phonetic alphabet as a pretext.

  54. Andrew Usher said,

    August 14, 2020 @ 7:16 pm

    Yes, no doubt that's what the hotel was doing, and some marketing guy came up with the idea, silly as it may be.

    Michael Watts and John Swindle:
    /z/ -> /dʒ/ certainly seems a bizarre change if it's an inability to produce the former. It makes me wonder if that is attested as a sound change.

    So, the name (it wasn't clear the first time) actually was spelled 'Lilizean' and not 'Liligean'? Either way, the problem was a violation of expectations, not mishearing. You expect a J there, and would even if a phonetic alphabet was being used; if a different letter is used, you suspect it was a mistake (which, at a higher level, it was).

    Philip Taylor:
    Yes, I used my own experience, I don't have access to anyone else's in my mind. Perhaps it matters that I know to pronounce clearly and carefully in that situation, and almost always do.

    Although I don't intend to criticise you or your practice, your repeated emphasis on it calls for a reply: I thought you said your wife was foreign-born, in which case she would not be covered by my generalisation anyway. If not, then I'd suspect one or both of you may have hearing difficulty, as that level of incomprehension does not seem normal.

  55. John Swindle said,

    August 14, 2020 @ 9:26 pm

    Regarding names: Yes, my expectations were off. English or English-sounding names are common in many places and don't all follow the same rules.

    Regarding hearing loss: In the first place don't write us off as irrelevant. I got mine in service to my misguided country, thank you. (To war! To war! Freedonia goes to war!) In the second place think again about whether everyone with supposedly normal hearing (except the dreaded foreigner) hears the same thing with no need for clarification.

  56. Philip Taylor said,

    August 15, 2020 @ 3:41 am

    John, you have hit the nail on the head — no matter how "clearly and carefully" something is pronounced, what matters is only what the listener hears.

    And yes, Andrew, there is no doubt that telephone communication between my wife and myself, when absolutely certainty is required, can be hindered by the fact that English is not her L1, and additionally that the phonology of her L1 differs significantly from the phonology of British English, but if (for example) I am giving my car registration or postal code over the telephone, I have no way of knowing whether the other party has British English as their L1 and/or has partial hearing loss, so I regard it as a matter of both common politeness and commonsense to spell out Papa Lima Two Six Eight Hotel Lima (or Papa Tango Zero Three Juliet Alpha Golf) rather than put the listener to the trouble of having to try to work out what letters I had intended …

  57. Andrew Usher said,

    August 15, 2020 @ 6:55 pm

    Enough. I mean no judgement of non-native speakers or those with hearing trouble, I was merely intending to state facts. If the NATO alphabet works for you, fine. You can't generalise from _your_ experience any more than I can from mine; and it's simply not customary here to use the phonetic alphabet anyway. I can't guarantee (as no one can) that a listener will always hear exactly what I say, but that was never implied anyway – of course I sometimes have to clarify or repeat things, as I sometimes have to ask of others, but that's just common courtesy.

    The one linguistic fact at issue is whether a sequence of letters and/or digits can be ambiguous when spoken properly. I maintain that it can't, almost by definition, as they all have distinct pronunciations – and I don't think that should really be debatable, correctly understood. Why do you suppose that we do have standard names for the letters (as do other languages using an alphabet) and that they've remained in place since literacy began, and not been replaced by a phonetic alphabet?

  58. KevinM said,

    August 15, 2020 @ 9:19 pm

    Re the pecan or pecan: I recall a comedy sketch in which a singer was sight-reading the Gershwins' "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off." Obviously mystified, she went with "I say tomato, and YOU say tomato."

  59. Philip Taylor said,

    August 16, 2020 @ 3:40 am

    "The one linguistic fact at issue is whether a sequence of letters and/or digits can be ambiguous when spoken properly. I maintain that it can't, almost by definition, as they all have distinct pronunciations" — and I maintain that it can. Because what matters is not what is said but what is heard and understood.

  60. Andrew Usher said,

    August 16, 2020 @ 5:43 pm

    Now that is just a semantic difference: if you say something is ambiguous because it _might_ be misheard, then of course it is, as is the majority of language. But I am talking about the abstract sound, as if recorded with perfect fidelity, then replayed as often as you like. In that case, my assertion has to be true.

    Re 'I say tomato, and you say tomato': English doesn't offer any standard way of doing this (and I don't think any other language does, either). And mixing IPA into conventional orthography looks kind of weird. So one feel reduced to – what – 'to-may-to' and 'to-mah-to', but then the reader is going to hesitate at the unconventional spelling, and ultimately it has to be taught orally anyhow.

  61. Philip Taylor said,

    August 17, 2020 @ 5:26 am

    To be honest, I don't know what "just a semantic difference" is. If it means "you are just quibbling", then I strongly disagree. To me (perhaps not to you) it is clear that the NATO alphabet exists solely for the benefit of the listener. Its existence is predicated on the fact that, no matter how carefully a letter is enunciated, the listener may be uncertain as to whether he has heard "B" or "V", "C" or "G", "D or "T", "F" or "S", etc. This is not helped by the facts that with the sole exception of "W", the English names of all letters are monosyllabic. In contexts where absolute certainty is required (identification of aircraft, cars, post codes and so on), the use of the NATO alphabet significantly reduces (but can never totally eliminate [1]) the risk of a letter being mis-understood.

    [1] With the benefit of hindsight, NATO might accept that "GOLF" was ill-chosen, since in high RP this is pronounced /ɡɒf/ or /gɔːf/ and therefore potentially confusable with "COUGH" (/kɒf/ or /kɔːf/). Of course, there is no NATO letter-name "COUGH" but nonetheless "GOLF" is probably the poorest example of the genre.

  62. Andrew Usher said,

    August 17, 2020 @ 9:15 pm

    Well, I suppose it means something close: when I say that it's only semantic (and therefore not worth arguing any more) I mean that the only remaining issue is the _definition_ of a word or concept, which is generally not arguable anyway. I agree on the utility of a phonetic alphabet, for example, and have all along.

    In this case, it is the word 'unambiguous', which I use in the same sense it would be used for a written passage, but you appear to want to mean something unattainable (perfect comprehension for all potential listeners).

    The fact that the names of the letters are monosyllabic is not an accident nor the fault of English: the Romans, or more likely the Etruscans before them, deliberately invented them to be so, and all their letter names except 'H' have descended to us directly in that form.

  63. Felix said,

    August 18, 2020 @ 4:15 pm

    Concerning j/z, it is common at least amongst Sundanese speakers in West Java to substitute the common j sound for z in words of Arabic origin.

  64. Phil Wershba said,

    August 21, 2020 @ 11:47 pm

    As a pilot who uses the NATO alphabet frequently, I've always been uncomfortable with the letter "Q" whose pronunciation is required to "keh BECK" Seems to me that can be confused with "K". (My usual non-aviation pronunciation would be "kwa BECK", although just now as I type this, I see the problem is about the same). To a lesser extent, the NATO for "X" is "EKS ray", although I can't think of a better choice. Mea maxima culpa for not using IPA.

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