Toward a Linguistically Valid Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet

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[This is a guest post by Frank Southworth]

Most subscribers to Language Log will be familiar with the NATO alphabet, and other alphabets such as the U.S. military version, which are used for spelling names and other words over the telephone and radio. I personally had experience with the military version when I served in the U.S. Army. It worked reasonably well, because Army people were accustomed to it, but–for a number of reasons–I do not find it useful now for occasions when I have to spell words over the phone.

However, there seems to be a need for such an alphabet, and I would like to invite any linguists interested in developing one which would meet some key linguistic criteria (see next paragraph) to join me in creating it. The version presented below is my first attempt, which I offer as a model to be discussed and modified as needed.

This version is designed to be used by speakers of U.S. English. (An international alphabet, as some of the existing ones purport to be, would need to be very different.) It is not necessarily intended to be memorized, though frequent users might find it useful to do so. In order to make it potentially workable, I have been guided by the following criteria: the words should be  (1) at most three syllables long, (2) while providing sufficient phonological clues to differentiate them from similar words, (3) and sufficiently common in casual speech to  be familiar to most speakers of all social and regional versions of U.S. English.

Each code word is preceded by a word or phrase which could be used to provide semantic context in case the hearer does not recognize the word on first hearing, which is most likely to happen in cases of poor sound transmission. In such a case the sender would say, for example, "Angel, as in guardian angel".


Radiotelephony spelling alphabet for U.S. English (Version 1)


(guardian) ANGEL

(picnic) BASKET


(mummy and) DADDY

EVENING (time)

(forty-nine,) FIFTY


HARVEST (season)

(brilliant) IDEA

JUMBO (jet)

KITTY (cat)

LILY (pond)

(short-term) MEMORY

NANNY (goat)

OREO (cookie)


QUIET (time)



(movie) TICKET

(the) USUAL (crowd)

(cash) VALUE

WILLOW (tree)

(chest) X-RAY

(it's so) YUMMY

ZIGZAG (course)


I invite anyone who is interested in this project to contact me ( for discussion. The first step would probably be to make sure that the code words are the best possible ones to fulfill the selection criteria–as well as any other criteria which may be included. (Note, for example, that many words in this list contain the initial letter more than once, on the assumption that this makes it easier to identify; however, I was unable to find satisfactory words for all of the letters.) It will also be necessary to test all the words to determine their reliability–in terms of phonological recognition, as well as general acceptance in U.S. varieties of English. These issues will be discussed in subsequent posts.


  1. John Rohsenow said,

    January 26, 2021 @ 7:32 pm

    An interesting project, altho "A as in Apple" seems to work for me most of the time, rather than ABLE, BAKER, CHARLIE…..(am I dating myself?)
    A much more complex problem, caused by the homophony of many Chinese morphemes (or 'paucity of vocables, as some 19th C scholar referred to it) is clarifying Chinese morphemes/characters e.g. over the telephone, or -sometimes- even in person, when a paper and pencil is not readily available. Aside from 'writing in air' with one's finger, there are a few commonly used oral formulas (e.g. er-dong CHEN, [the surname CHEN written with an 'ear' radical [on the left] and [the character for] 'east' [on the right]) or referring to a common (usually) two syllable compound word in which the morpheme/character in question occurs: e.g.ZHIDAO de ZHI the ZHI in the word ZHIDAO, 'to know'. There are some commonly used examples in these formulas, especially in the case of surnames, but in the case of other morphemes, as in English there is often variation in the example words chosen by the explainer.

    (An additional 'wrinkle' arises when the form of the written character has been 'simplified' in the PRC, making some of the formulas no longer workable, e.g., my own Chinese surname LUO. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, it can still be communicated using the traditional formula "Si-wei-LUO", the [surname] LUO [written with a top component which resembles the character for the number] 'four', [over the character for WEI, to support]. As the lower part of this character has been 'simplified' in the PRC by substituting another less common character for 'sunset' (XI), the older formula is not understood by younger people in mainland China, and I cannot substitute XI for WEI in the old formula and be understood, so I have to switch to some other circumlocution, such as "Luo-si-fu de LUO", the LUO in the surname Roosevelt, assuming that my listener knows who Roosevelt was :-)

    (P.S. I have deliberately not added Chinese characters in this comment to stress the orality of the interactions.)

  2. Monscampus said,

    January 26, 2021 @ 7:39 pm

    *Christmas* for the third letter of the alphabet surprises me, but then again I'm not American. In the children's song it's pronounced as *cee* after all and the word is often written Xmas. What about cinnemon or cinema or city? Circus?

  3. Cyndy said,

    January 26, 2021 @ 7:43 pm

    apple, ball, cat, dog, egg, fire, goat, house, ice-cream, jam, kite, lion, moon, nose, owl, puppy, queen, red, sun, television, umbrella, vegetable, window, x-ray, yellow, zoo
    I have a young grandchild, you see.

  4. Y said,

    January 26, 2021 @ 8:00 pm

    Does anyone in the U.S. write "mummy" for "mommy"?

  5. Arthur waldron said,

    January 26, 2021 @ 8:29 pm

    Mummy in my family

    I believe that the primary effort in devising the NATO alphabet was to be sure the words could not be confused with others. To hear a fluent speaker like my son rattle it off is awe inspiring.

    Who will join me in a NEA grant application to present Shakespeare in bravo-zulu? I figure a million bucks. Do it at MOMA or TANGLEWOOD. Failing that, Lowell House. Over and out. Arthur

  6. Alexander said,

    January 26, 2021 @ 8:32 pm

    @Y I was just going to ask the same thing.

  7. James said,

    January 26, 2021 @ 8:40 pm

    I love this idea, and the list as it stands is quite excellent. The only changes I'd suggest are one of KITTY & LILY and one of RIVER & SISTER, since the words in each pair share their vowels. Maybe LAVENDER (scented) for L?

    A few years ago I tried devising an actual phonetic alphabet for English phonemes, but it ended up being something of a stretch, unsurprisingly.

  8. Edward McClure said,

    January 26, 2021 @ 8:56 pm

    As someone who spent a lot of time using the NATO/US military phonetic alphabet, I think both Prof. Southworth's and Cyndy's proposals are good (and Cyndy's is also cute). Some caveats: Using numbers (FIFTY) could be really confusing at just the wrong time. Also a word like EVENING or "fire" could be ambiguous in several contexts. And we need to watch out for trademarks (OREO). I think the NATO alphabet may have been designed to includes words that would _not_ be used in common military environments (Alpha, Quebec, Zulu). Don't know. We probably need to make a list of commonly used initialisms and abbreviations, to make sure they sound all right. ANGEL MEMORY and PAPER MEMORY sound fine, as do "apple moon" and "puppy moon". GINGER MEMORY TICKET and "goat moon television" are both OK. Nothing bad comes to mind, but…

  9. Chester Draws said,

    January 26, 2021 @ 9:29 pm


    Won't get funding with the current US administration. Such sexist language is an outrage against … actually, I'm not sure who. But outmoded anyway.

    SIBLING, perhaps?

  10. Gregory Marton said,

    January 26, 2021 @ 10:30 pm

    I don't love the dominant-culture references ANGEL and CHRISTMAS.

    GINGER is occasionally considered a racial slur.

    Watch out for near-rhymes like KITTY, FITTY, LILY. DADDY NANNY. Even LILY with WILLOW. In many high-noise cases, the most easily heard aspects are rhythm and stress.

    I love the repetition idea, also because the alliteration makes it easier to remember. It may be okay to do pairs of words, even, rather than requiring each entry to be a single word.


  11. Gregory Marton said,

    January 26, 2021 @ 10:34 pm


  12. Gregory Marton said,

    January 26, 2021 @ 10:37 pm

    Yeah, totally LEAKY –> LAVENDER per James!

  13. Uly said,

    January 27, 2021 @ 1:02 am

    Chester Draws, you're neither funny nor accurate. Whichever you were going for – you missed!

  14. Tom Ace said,

    January 27, 2021 @ 2:01 am

    Pairs from the proposed alphabet form phrases readily, e.g. yummy harvest, usual value, quiet kitty; this strikes me as distracting. Juxtaposed words from the NATO alphabet come across as phrases less frequently, which I consider an advantage.

  15. John Swindle said,

    January 27, 2021 @ 2:36 am

    It's a linguistics question, all right, but maybe you need ham radio operators or hard-of-hearing people instead of linguists to answer it. Members of both groups are likely to have devoted some attention to how to sort signal from noise. Not that a linguist couldn't be a hard-of-hearing ham radio operator.

  16. Chris Partridge said,

    January 27, 2021 @ 2:42 am

    Very clever – reminds me slightly of Cockney rhyming slang, where the word rhymes with the second in a word pair. So your teeth are ‘Hampsteads’ from Hampstead Heath. Of course, most of CRL is far too filthy for general use…

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    January 27, 2021 @ 4:57 am

    It is not for me, a Briton, to express any views on an alphabet specifically intended for use by speakers of U.S. English, but I do have a suggestion concerning the methodology used — might it not be better to initially present the alphabet as a ordered set of IPA sequences (/ˈælf ə/, /ˈbrɑːv əʊ/, /ˈtʃɑːl i/ …) or (/ˈeɪndʒ əl/, /ˈbɑːsk ɪt/, /ˈkrɪst məs/), and then to seek feedback as to whether informed commentators agree that their own pronunciation, and that of their friends / relatives / neighbours, etc., is sufficiently close to the canonical pronunciation that there would be little or no risk of their pronunciation being misunderstood ?

    I suggest this on the basis of the arguably ill-chosen "golf" in the present NATO alphabet, where within the British armed forces one would expect other ranks to say /ɡɒlf/, /ɡɒɫf/ or even /ɡɒʊwf/ while their officers would tend to say /ɡɒf/ or perhaps /ɡɔːf/. An other rank, hearing /ɡɒf/, might well think that he had heard "cough" rather than "golf", and therefore assume a "c" was intended rather than a "g".

  18. Michael Watts said,

    January 27, 2021 @ 6:26 am

    I suggest this on the basis of the arguably ill-chosen "golf" in the present NATO alphabet, where within the British armed forces one would expect other ranks to say /ɡɒlf/, /ɡɒɫf/ or even /ɡɒʊwf/ while their officers would tend to say /ɡɒf/ or perhaps /ɡɔːf/. An other rank, hearing /ɡɒf/, might well think that he had heard "cough" rather than "golf", and therefore assume a "c" was intended rather than a "g".

    But isn't "c" "Charlie"? You don't get free choice in how to indicate letters. Is there another NATO alphabet element that might be confused with "golf"?

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    January 27, 2021 @ 6:44 am

    Agreed that there is no free choice, Michael, but anything that can cause even momentary uncertainty in the mind of the listener could (especially in a war-zone) have disastrous consequences.

    Imagine "Sniper sighted in first-floor window of property at Tango November One Two Niner Sierra Golf". If the listener isn't 100% on the ball, and thinks that the postcode he heard was TN12 9SC rather than TN12 9SG as intended, he could be dead before he has a chance to realise that "cough" is not in the alphabet.

  20. milu said,

    January 27, 2021 @ 6:50 am

    @Frank Southworth and others who seem to take the need for a new spelling system for granted, I'm curious what issues you have had with the current NATO alphabet? I worked in a customer service call centre for a year or so, and used it regularly in both French (with customers) and English (when consulting other technicians) and it seemed good enough for my purposes, but of course I was talking into a headset in a reasonably quiet office.

  21. Carl said,

    January 27, 2021 @ 7:41 am

    We used to use one composed of American TV icons – admittedly generationally determined but useful within our own cohort: A-Team, Bugs, Columbo, Daffy, etc etc

  22. Mark said,

    January 27, 2021 @ 9:15 am

    Why would you want to try reinvent something well established? I've never found any problem using the traditional option – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo. For what reason do you that doesn't work and something new that nobody knows is necessary ? Isn't it a bit of a Cnut like proposition ?

  23. Peter Taylor said,

    January 27, 2021 @ 9:21 am

    YUMMY seems close enough to MUMMY to be a potential problem, but I can't at the moment think of any word which would be easily confused with YOGHURT.

    Is RIVER too close to LIVER?

  24. Erik said,

    January 27, 2021 @ 9:26 am

    I agree that "fifty" is an iffy choice, for two reasons. One of the most common use cases is reading of serial numbers, which are often a sequence of letters *and* numbers. Also, in some US dialects, "fifty" is pronounced something like /ˈfɪti/, meaning that it would be very similar to "kitty".

    And yeah, something less Christian-centric than "Christmas" and "Angel" might be better.

  25. Bob Ladd said,

    January 27, 2021 @ 9:26 am

    What Mark and milu said. The NATO version works fine, and has the virtue – which was designed into it – of working in other European languages.

  26. Philip Taylor said,

    January 27, 2021 @ 9:50 am

    Peter Taylor wrote " I can't at the moment think of any word which would be easily confused with YOGHURT". How about "boggart", a creature in English folklore, either a household spirit or a malevolent genius loci ?

  27. Bob Ladd said,

    January 27, 2021 @ 10:20 am

    @Philip Taylor: But since this is a specifically American English project under discussion, boggart is not a problem, because in AmEng the stressed vowel of yoghurt is GOAT, not LOT. (And of course, I expect the number of AmEng speakers who know what a boggart is is fairly small.)

  28. Scott P. said,

    January 27, 2021 @ 10:21 am

    If you'd like the letter to appear more than once, how about VALVE for 'V"?

  29. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    January 27, 2021 @ 11:07 am

    BOGGART: Alternative spelling of boggard ?

  30. Philip Taylor said,

    January 27, 2021 @ 11:18 am

    Indeed so —

    boggard | boggart, n.2
    Pronunciation: /ˈbɒɡəd/, /ˈbɒɡət/
    Forms: Also 1500s buggard, 1700s bag-.
    Frequency (in current use): 3/8
    Etymology: A word in popular use in Westmoreland, Lancashire, Cheshire, Yorkshire, and the north Midlands, and of occasional appearance in literature since c1570. Evidently related to boggle v., bogle n., and bog n.2: if the status of the last-named were more assured, it would be natural to see in bogg-ard a derivative with the augmentative suffix -ard suffix; or if the occasional variant buggard could be assumed as the etymological form, it might stand in the same relation to bug n.1 See bogle n.

    a. A spectre, goblin, or bogy; in dialectal use, esp. a local goblin or sprite supposed to ‘haunt’ a particular gloomy spot, or scene of violence.

  31. Kenny Easwaran said,

    January 27, 2021 @ 11:58 am

    I was expecting this post to say a little bit about what the "number of reasons" are why the existing NATO alphabet isn't good. It looks like it satisfies all the desiderata mentioned for the new project, in that the words involved sound quite different from each other, and aren't easily confused for words beginning with other letters. It's a fun project to come up with such a list, but why a new one? If there's some reason the existing one is bad, then that might likely shape what form a new one would take, but it isn't described here.

  32. Philip Taylor said,

    January 27, 2021 @ 12:10 pm

    I inferred, from the rationale offered by Frank Southworth, that his primary concerning regarding the present NATO alphabet is that it does not meet criterion three : "the words should be […] (3) sufficiently common in casual speech to be familiar to most speakers of all social and regional versions of U.S. English". Now I know absolutely nothing about the vocabulary routeinely encountered in the "casual speech [of] most speakers of all social and regional versions of U.S. English" but I would hazard a guess that "alpha", "bravo", "delta", "foxtrot", "papa" and "tango" would not feature regularly in the casual speech of this particular demographic. Of course, I may be wrong (on both counts).

  33. Grover Jones said,

    January 27, 2021 @ 5:55 pm

    In the semantic context, shouldn't the key word always come first in the phrase? Otherwise you're starting the phrase (such as guardian angel) with the "wrong" letter. That could briefly throw off the listener.

  34. Ken said,

    January 27, 2021 @ 8:59 pm

    Years ago I saw a deliberately-bad phonetic alphabet: "K as in Knight, A as in Aisle, O as in Ouija, S as in Sea…" Googling "bad phonetic alphabet" turns up a couple versions. It's a fairly obvious idea and a fun exercise.

  35. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    January 27, 2021 @ 11:33 pm

    @ Ken — There is a children’s book called P is for Pterodactyl:

  36. Vanya said,

    January 28, 2021 @ 1:52 am

    Why do we need a radiotelephony alphabet in 2022? In the German speaking world we still use a radiotellephony alphabet („Anton,Ärger,Berta,Cäsar…“). My American wife finds the whole thing a pointless waste of time („why do I need another pointless thing to memorize? Letters have names already“). She tends to see it as grown men cosplaying at being in the military. My sense is that most Anglophone expats agree with that.

    A lot of English speakers would resent you using a radiotelephony alphabet on the phone for similar reasons. Now you are forcing them to do more work mentally mapping the words to letters. Every American has a-b-c drummed into them in kindergarten, specifically through the alphabet song, and (perhaps because we don’t have as many dialects?) there isn’t much perceived ambiguity when spelling out words. It may also be the American attachment to spelling bees.

  37. Philip Taylor said,

    January 28, 2021 @ 2:07 am

    Vanya — I think that there is a conflation of ideas in "[a] lot of English speakers would resent you using a radiotelephony alphabet" and "[e]very American has a-b-c drummed into them in kindergarten". In my experience, as a native British English speaker, fellow British English speakers on the telephone areusually very grateful when one spells out one's postcode, or one's car registration number, using the NATO alphabet (and I routinely do both, not only on the telephone but also face-to-face). However, earlier exchanges with an American contributor to this forum suggested that the same situation did not necessarily obtain on the other side of the pond.

  38. Bob Ladd said,

    January 28, 2021 @ 2:27 am

    @Vanya: (Actually, Vanya's American wife): Having spent two years in the military rather against my will, I can assure you that I feel no need to pretend I'm there once again. However, since I am old enough to have been drafted in the US, I can also assure you that the normal names of some letters really can be hard to distinguish for anyone with elderly ears (ess and eff are a particular killer). Whether you use sierra and foxtrot or whether you just improvise with "S as in sugar", this stuff does serve a purpose that has nothing to do with the fantasies of grown men.

  39. Twill said,

    January 28, 2021 @ 2:35 am

    @Vanya Because people still communicate with each other in radiotelephonic contexts (perhaps even moreso in the Days of COVID than in the recent past), and the canonical English letter names are still inadequately distinct from each other to not cause ambiguity not exclusively but particularly over a compressed audio codec.

    I have never met a single person in my life who has expressed a sentiment close to resent with regard to spelling alphabets, and the idea seems bizarre outside of a context where people are forced to learn a particular one. Spelling alphabets are a consistent and very common strategy when faced with the consistent and common problem of communicating letters. I can only assume anyone who does not perceive the ambiguity has never used a telephone in their life. I can think of literally dozens of conversations with tech support, restaurant staff, etc., in the past and recently and on either end of the conversation, where one of the handful of letters that end with /iː/ were misheard, and the solution was naturally to use a spelling alphabet or invent one impromptu. The problem to me only seems to have grown as outsourcing and globalization has meant it is increasingly likely that the person on the other side of the phone does not in fact speak the same dialect as you, increasing the likelihood of errors.

    I'm not sure how spelling bees would relate to this given participants invariably use the regular letter names, though making children spell out words Sierra-Yankee-Zulu would almost certainly increase their watchability.

  40. John Swindle said,

    January 28, 2021 @ 3:44 am

    Maybe the US should have its own set of weights and measures, too. Instead of SI and its derivatives we could have "inches," "feet," "yards," "miles," "pounds," "ounces," "gallons," and "tons," some with more than one value to meet differing needs.

  41. Philip Taylor said,

    January 28, 2021 @ 4:21 am

    I'd stick with rods, chains, poles, perches, drachms, minims and scruples if I were you, John. These new-fangled units will never catch on.

  42. Vanya said,

    January 28, 2021 @ 5:17 am


    Until I moved to Austria, at age 45, I had never encountered a spelling alphabet in normal civilian life in America, nor felt a need for one. I assume it is far more current in American veteran circles where people are used to them. That might also explain why they are more widely used in German speaking countries, where military service is still required in Switzerland and Austria and was until recently in Germany.

    The number of times I have had issues spelling things over the phone doesn’t justify memorizing a whole table. It’s easy enough to say “f like Frank” if one needs clarity.

    Then, as some commentators have already pointed out, creating the table opens you up to accusations of bias, political correctness, etc. this is an issue in Germany where the table was changed by the Nazis to avoid “Jewish” names (eg. David was replaced by Dora, Samuel was replaced by Siegfried) and now there is a move to go back to the pre 1934 designations. Which means an older person who inadvertently says “Siegfried” out of habit may be unwittingly signaling Nazi sympathies. Who needs these headaches just to spell a word over the phone?

  43. Philip Taylor said,

    January 28, 2021 @ 6:06 am

    Vanya, I am 73, and missed call-up ("national service") by a couple of years. Yet I use the NATO alphabet on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times in a single day. If someone were to say to me "f like Frank", I would probably ask "f like what ?1", since I would be expecting "F-foxtrot" or "S-sierra". I honestly don't think that this has anything to do with national service, metaphorical costume-playing or anything similar. It is purely cultural — in some circles, use of the NATO alphabet is the norm; in others, it is thought of as unnecessary and/or affected.

  44. Alexander Browne said,

    January 28, 2021 @ 9:21 am

    American in Minneapolis here, and in my experience most American don't know the NATO alphabet, but there is definitely a need, so ad-hoc systems are used. For example, when my partner gives her surname over the phone, she always says "D as in David" for the first letter.

    But the NATO alphabet isn't unknown outside of military/veteran contexts. I deal with Apple (Inc.) at work, and their support reps universally communicate/confirm things like serial numbers with the NATO alphabet. They seem to appreciate it when I do the same, but don't expect it.

  45. Keith said,

    January 28, 2021 @ 9:44 am

    Hmm… I disagree with the statement that "the NATO alphabet isn't unknown outside of military/veteran contexts".

    I see no real need to find a substitute for the existing NATO alphabet. I learnt it as a child (in the UK) both through the Scout movement and through a board game based on air-traffic control, where players had to call out their plane when talking to the controller.

    In a previous job, in teh US working with few former service-people, we often needed to use a spelling alphabet when reading out abbreviations or genetic mutations in telephone conversations or teleconferences. Colleagues would usually use common first names, while I would use the NATO alphabet, for example a colleague would have said Kevin 159 Thomas while I would have said Kilo 159 Tango. we all understood each other, because there was very little or no ambiguity.

  46. Victor Mair said,

    January 28, 2021 @ 9:44 am

    My neighbor always signs her name thus: "Robin, like the bird".

  47. Victor Mair said,

    January 28, 2021 @ 9:44 am

    When talking on the telephone or in other circumstances where I don't have a blackboard or chat room handy to write things down, I often experience the need to use radiotelephonic techniques. I just extemporaneously spell things out like this:

    "a" as in "apple"

    "b" as in "boy"

    "c" as in "cat"

    "d" as in "dog"

    I make them up as I go, and they never fail, probably because I always choose words that are short, simple, and known to everyone in the given speech environment that I'm operating at the moment. If I'm talking to people in India, I might say "d" as in "Delhi", just for fun and familiarity, but "dog" would still work there too.

    My technique is related to the way Chinese "spell" characters orally, as described by John Rohsenow in the first comment to this post, e.g.,

    "Měiguó" de "měi" "美國"的"美" (the "měi" of "America")
    "guójiā" de "guó" "國家"的"國" (the "guó" of "country")

    When I'm in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, or other Sinitic language environment, I feel the need to resort to such techniques multiple times per day. I have to be more careful, though, to choose expressions that I'm confident my auditors will be familiar with.

    For example, when I "spell" my own name, Méi Wéihéng 梅維恒, I can use "méihuā 梅花" (the "méi 梅" of "méihuā 梅花" ["plum blossom"]) in Hong Kong, Taiwan, the PRC, and in practically any Sinitic language environment), but for "wéi 維" I choose more carefully among expressions such as "wéichí 維持" ("maintain") for the PRC, "sìwéi bādé 四維八德" ("the four social bonds ['propriety, justice, integrity, and honor']" and "eight virtues ['filial piety, love and respect for one's elder brother(s), loyalty, trustworthiness, propriety, righteousness, integrity, shame']") for Taiwan, etc. Ditto for héng 恒 / 恆 ("constant; permanent; lasting; usual; common; perseverant") with "yǒu héngxīn 有恆心 ('perseverance')" in most situations, but among knowledgeable Buddhists I might say "Hénghé 恒河" ("Ganges"), but if there's a possibility they might confuse that with Hénghé 橫河 (exact homophonic Mandarin pronunciation of "Yokogawa"), then I might modify it as "Yìndù de Hénghé 印度的恒河" ("The Ganges of India").

    "Spelling" morphosyllabic Chinese characters radiotelephonically is far more difficult than it is for words written with the alphabet.

  48. Philip Taylor said,

    January 28, 2021 @ 10:46 am

    Victor's mention of how his neighbour gives her name reminds me of how I give our hotel's web address and/or mailbox — "Westberry as in fruit, not as in graveyard". The Westbury hotel domain does exist (it is owned by a cyber-squatter), and without my "as in fruit" qualifier could easily end up getting traffic intended for us.

  49. alex said,

    January 28, 2021 @ 11:50 am

    not too related but the first time I encountered Yao for the number 1 in China I had no clue it meant the number 1

  50. Vanya said,

    January 28, 2021 @ 12:42 pm

    It is purely cultural — in some circles, use of the NATO alphabet is the norm; in others, it is thought of as unnecessary and/or affected.

    Agreed. I am just curious why. In the Northeast of the United States, at least in my experience, no one would ever use the NATO alphabet in normal life, and I am sure there are many people who have no idea such a concept even exists. On the other hand, in the German speaking world, the "Buchstabiertafel" is familiar to almost everyone, and even regulated by a DIN standard (the German ISO).

    Happy to be corrected, but I think other cultures tend to spell out words informally a la americaine, and not using a codified list of names. In Russia, for example, there is a radio alphabet for radio use, but it doesn't seem to be widely used in civilian life (of course Russian is easier to spell than English). But the same in France, whose language is notoriously annoying to write, especially with the accents.

  51. John Walden said,

    January 28, 2021 @ 12:58 pm

    The planes in the dam-busters raid were A-Apple B-Baker C-Charlie
    E-Easy F-Freddie G-George H-Harry J-Johnny K-King L-Leather
    (officially L-London) M-Mother N-Nuts O-Orange P-Popsie
    S-Sugar T-Tommy W-Willie Y-York and Z-Zebra.

    L for Leather is part of the Cockney alphabet, which may take some figuring out:

    A for ‘orses
    B for Mutton
    C for th’ ‘ighlanders
    D for ential
    E for Adam
    F for vessence
    G for police
    H for respect
    I for Novello
    J for orange
    K for ancis
    L for leather
    M for sis
    N for lope
    O for the garden wall
    P for relief
    Q for music
    R for mo
    S for you
    T for 2
    U for films
    V for la France
    W for a fiver
    X for breakfast
    Y for God’s sake
    Z for breezes

    for enlightenment and its many variations:

  52. John Rohsenow said,

    January 28, 2021 @ 2:21 pm

    RE: "The planes in the dam-busters raid were A-Apple B-Baker C-CharlieE-Easy F-Freddie G-George H-Harry J-Johnny K-King L-Leather(officially L-London) M-Mother N-Nuts O-Orange P-Popsie
    S-Sugar T-Tommy W-Willie Y-York and Z-Zebra."
    Thanks for the Cockney Rhyming Alphabet; in the above, just curious about the omission of D, R, and maybe V? (Not so curious about the other missing letters). Not enough planes?
    P.S. Films about the famous (at least in certain circles/age groups) "Dam Busters [air] Raid" during WW II are also listed on Google.

  53. Chester Draws said,

    January 28, 2021 @ 3:04 pm

    Uly, just wait. If they can remove "sister" from the The Rules of the House of Representatives, why would they stop there? Bet you soon it will be all new legislation.

    I can't at the moment think of any word which would be easily confused with YOGHURT".

    Yoghurt is pronounced strikingly differently in different places even by native English speakers. And wildly differently by non-native speakers.

    The NATO alphabet is designed to be hard to confuse even if a Greek is speaking to a German.

    So the proposed "jumbo" would be pronounced "yumbo" by many Europeans. Thus confusingly similar to the proposed "yummy". A problem "Juliet" and "yankee" do not have.

  54. Mark Metcalf said,

    January 28, 2021 @ 3:39 pm

    The highly authoritative children's book "P is for Pterodactyl* *the worst alphabet book ever" provides a range of phonetic options for most letters:
    A – aisle, autumn, aeon
    B – bdellium
    C – czar, Czech
    D – Djibouti
    E – ewe, euphoric, eulogy
    F – foto
    G – gnocchi, gnome
    H – heir, herbalism, hymn
    I – isle
    J – jai alai
    K – knight, knave, knot
    L –
    M – mnemonic
    N –
    O – Ouija, Oaxaca, oui
    P – pterodactyl, phlegm, phooey, Ptolemy, Psychic, psorasis
    Q – quinoa, Qatar, quiche, quay
    R – rendezvous
    S – seas, solemn
    T – tsunami, Tchaikovsky, tchotchke
    U –
    V – five
    W – wren, wrapped, write
    X – xylophone, Xavier
    Y – Yves
    Z – Zhivago,

    Excerpts here:

  55. Jay Sekora said,

    January 28, 2021 @ 4:30 pm

    In the "P for Pterodactyl" vein, some years ago I decided that the throwaway line "P as in psychiatrist" in a radio play needed to be fleshed out and came up with this start at a spelling alphabet (with some alternate possibilities):

    M MNEMONIC (look for another)
    O LEOPARD (not great; OESTROGEN? YOU?)
    Q LACQUER RACQUET (best I could come up with; maybe KABBALAH)
    V MILNGAVIE (/mɨlˈɡaɪ/, town near Glasgow)

  56. Anthony said,

    January 28, 2021 @ 9:59 pm

    I once worked for a company called C&D, and on the telephone we always said "as in cat and dog." But as a shortwave listener and lifelong prospective radio amateur, I'm familiar with the NATO alphabet and use it in my current office when needed. My colleagues (not all native speakers of English) get it quite well.

  57. Michael Watts said,

    January 29, 2021 @ 1:45 am

    reminds me of how I give our hotel's web address and/or mailbox — "Westberry as in fruit, not as in graveyard". The Westbury hotel domain does exist (it is owned by a cyber-squatter), and without my "as in fruit" qualifier could easily end up getting traffic intended for us.

    This made me curious. I would expect the second syllable of Westberry to use the SQUARE vowel, just like "berry", while Westbury would use NURSE, unlike "bury" (which is SQUARE, homophonous with "berry").

    Is the potential for confusion here coming from an identical pronunciation of Westberry and Westbury, or just from the fact that mistakes happen and they're particularly likely over the phone?

  58. Philip Taylor said,

    January 29, 2021 @ 3:52 am

    In <Br.E>, Michael, "Westberry" and "Westbury" are pure homophones, just as are "berry" (fruit) and "bury" (verb, and occasionally noun). There is a place called "Bury" which may well have its own pronunciation locally but which in the LPD is glossed as identical with the other two. In <Br.E> all the monosyllabic variants will have the DRESS vowel, not the SQUARE or the NURSE, whilst both bisyllabic "Westberry" & "Westbury" will have the DRESS vowel if the second syllable carries the primary stress, and possibly (but not invariably) a schwa otherwise.

  59. Philip Taylor said,

    January 29, 2021 @ 3:59 am

    Jay, I enjoyed your list, but find that in my idiolect one does not work — "caulk", for me, has a clear /l/, which serves to differentiate it from my non-rhotic "cork".

  60. Michael Watts said,

    January 29, 2021 @ 4:43 am

    I'm a little confused over the descriptions above; I can easily imagine bisyllabic "Westbury", but what I imagine for that case is /'wɛst.bɹi/, DRESS in the first (stressed) syllable and happY in the second, with the syllable I meant to inquire about before having been reduced to a zero vowel. I have a hard time imagining bisyllabic "Westbury" with stress on the second of the two syllables. I do not understand what is meant by monosyllabic "berry" or "bury" with a DRESS vowel.

    These are the AmE pronunciations I imagine:

    Westberry /'wɛstbɛɹi/ (3 syllables, DRESS-SQUARE-happY)

    Westbury /'wɛstbɚi/, possibly reduced all the way to /'wɛstbɹi/ (3 or 2 syllables, DRESS-NURSE-happY or DRESS-happY)

    Berry and bury /'bɛɹi/ (2 syllables, SQUARE-happY)

    Brie /bɹi/ (1 syllable, FLEECE)

    What are these like in BrE?

  61. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    January 29, 2021 @ 6:14 am

    Dictionary of the British English Spelling System

  62. Philip Taylor said,

    January 29, 2021 @ 7:23 am

    For Michael — (my own idiolect, other speakers of <Br.E> may vary, and restricting myself to the LPD subset of the IPA) :

    Westberry /ˈwest beri/, /west ˈberi/, /west ˈbəri/ or /west ˈbri/, depending on context and importance of clear articulation1. First vowel DRESS, second vowel (DRESS, lettER or null), third happY.

    Westbury — exactly as Westberry.

    Berry and bury /ˈberi/ (DRESS, happY).

    Brie /briː/, but /bʁi/ if I am in France (FLEECE)

    Note that "vary" is different (/ˈveər |i/), with the first vowel SQUARE, unlike "very" which follows the "berry" / "bury" model.

    NURSE features nowhere at all.
    1. So /ˈwest beri/ to clients or suppliers over the telephone, /west ˈbəri/ or , /west ˈbri/ to colleagues.

  63. Michael Watts said,

    January 29, 2021 @ 8:23 am

    It is probably fairer for me to say I'm thinking of lettER than NURSE in Westbury, though to be totally honest I would have even more trouble distinguishing those two than I would happY and FLEECE.

  64. Philip Taylor said,

    January 29, 2021 @ 9:21 am

    For me, NURSE is noticeably more rounded than lettER. Isn't the happY / FLEECE merger sometimes referred to as "HAPPY tensing" ?

  65. Stephen said,

    January 29, 2021 @ 9:37 am

    "The planes in the dam-busters raid were A-Apple B-Baker C-Charlie
    E-Easy …"

    In his 'trilogy' of war memoirs, Spike Milligan says that (presumably after Operation Torch) they had to stop using their existing system (Ack, Beer) and use the then current US system.

    Like Philip Taylor I missed national service, unlike him I missed it by a couple of decades. However having had the occasional mix-up on the 'phone (especially between F & S) and having to think of a word on the spot, I learnt the NATO phonetic alphabet. That would be some time in my early 20s.

    I was vaguely aware that there are other phonetic alphabets but it never occurred to me to find one or make up my own as there was one that was, AFAIUI, was in common use.

    At work I had dealings with clients & colleagues in many countries and never had a problem with using this. This was in a software context, so there were quite a lot of 'words' that are not in the normal dictionary of either of us.

    I have also used it a plenty of times when dealing with a company (or call centre) on the phone, and again have had no problem, even with people who sounded (for what that is worth) quite young.

  66. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    January 29, 2021 @ 9:38 am

    On point (?)

  67. Doug said,

    January 29, 2021 @ 1:43 pm

    "Charlie" or the like would be better than "Christmas" because "Charlie" has a distinct "ch" sound, instead of a /k/ sound that alliterates with the "K" word.

    Similarly, "Ginger," beginning with the same sound as "Jumbo" seems to be not as good as a word with /g/, like "Goat" or "Golf."

  68. ohwilleke said,

    January 29, 2021 @ 2:03 pm

    I'd prefer "Ocean" or "Ohio" or "Olive" to "Oreo". It seems unseemly to use a trademarked brand name for a spelling code.

    Also not a fan of "Christmas". Maybe "Cartoon" or "Comic" or "Color".

    Also not a fan of "Angel" not because it is dominant culture or religious, but because it is a word that can be hard to hear properly over static. How about "Apple" or "Avenue" or "Atlantic" or "Arrow" instead.

    I also agree that: "Similarly, "Ginger," beginning with the same sound as "Jumbo" seems to be not as good as a word with /g/, like "Goat" or "Golf.""

  69. Philip Taylor said,

    January 30, 2021 @ 6:55 am

    If "Oreo" is felt to be ill-chosen, how about "oriole" as replacement ? As regards "goat" as a replacement for "ginger", it seems to me that a tacit requirement is that the chosen word be not easily mis-heard as a word starting with a different letter, so as "goat" is not at all dissimilar to "coat" I would tend to rule it out. "Gluten" has hard "g", only two syllables, and can not easily be mis-heard as anything else, so I would propose "gluten", but I am sure that there are dozens of equally good possibilities.

  70. Jay Sekora said,

    January 30, 2021 @ 12:22 pm

    Philip Taylor wrote:

    Jay, I enjoyed your list, but find that in my idiolect one does not work — "caulk", for me, has a clear /l/, which serves to differentiate it from my non-rhotic "cork".

    Interesting! What's the vowel? (And where do you live/did you grow up?) Wiktionary has /kɔːk/ as unmarked and /kɑk/ and /kælk/ as particular North American variants. (I think I’ve heard /kɔːlk/ from time to time, which isn’t mentioned there.)

  71. Philip Taylor said,

    January 30, 2021 @ 12:54 pm

    Jay — the vowel is [ɔː], so / kɔːlk/. Born, bred (should be in reverse order !), grew up in South-East England on the London-Kent border. /kælk/, for me, would be the pronunciation of "calque".

  72. Ioanna said,

    January 30, 2021 @ 2:40 pm


  73. Toby said,

    January 30, 2021 @ 4:41 pm

    I'm so excited that you're doing this! I live in Israel, and actually created a list a few years ago for when I need to spell things out in English to Israelis on the phone, which doesn't happen as infrequently as one might assume. But mine is clearly a very different version than yours.
    As for your list, it looks fantastic – my only change would be for the letter F. Fifty doesn't sound that different from sixty, on a bad connection, and it's especially an issue since f and s are two letters that can be hard to differentiate over the phone. You're welcome to use my falafel, if you like :-)

  74. Leander Seah said,

    January 31, 2021 @ 8:39 am

    "Basket" has a totally different meaning in Singlish lol:


    I remember using "basket" often enough during my army days, and still have to make a conscious effort to avoid using the NATO alphabet when speaking with customer service representatives haha.

  75. Jay Sekora said,

    February 1, 2021 @ 11:40 am

    Philip writes:

    /kælk/, for me, would be the pronunciation of "calque".

    Me too (grew up in the Midwestern US; have spent my adult life in the Northeastern US), and I’ve never heard that for “caulk”. Thanks! Interesting that non-silent /l/ seems to be a relatively geographically widespread feature.

  76. Philip Taylor said,

    February 2, 2021 @ 4:18 am

    I lay in bed thinking about this one, Jay, and I decided that in my idiolect, in almost all words containing the sequence "lk", I sound the "l" as a clear /l/. Examples baulk, bilk, bulk, caulk, Falk (proper name), hulk, milk, silk, sulk, talk, walk, …

    But there is at least one set of exceptions: "folk" (/fəʊk/) and "yolk" (/jəʊk/). Were I to sound the "l" in "folk", it would rhyme with (in fact, be a homophone of ) the first element of the first syllable of "Volkswagen" — /fɔlks/, but without the /l/ the preceding "o" changes its quality completely.

  77. Frank Southworth said,

    February 3, 2021 @ 5:46 pm

    I must apologize for the delay in responding to all these valuable comments. Leftover effects of Covid, along with the recent snowstorm, have interfered with my activities.

    It is quite a surprise that my modest post produced such a large and varied response. I found all the comments worth reading, and I thank all of the responders for taking the time to offer their thoughts. In what follows, I will refer only to those comments which appear to be relevant to the main points of my original post, which I define as (1) the question of the need for a new radiotelephony spelling alphabet, and (2) if it is needed, how one might proceed in developing it. I am grateful that most of the responses so far are relevant to these questions, and are on the whole thoughtfully written and clearly expressed.

    Is a new spelling alphabet needed? Though I failed to give my reasons for thinking so in the initial post, Philip Taylor pointed out for example that certain words such as alpha, bravo, delta, foxtrot, and tango may not appear regularly in casual speech in American English. The word foxtrot is particularly notable, as it can be assumed to be obsolete or obsolescent for many speakers of U.S. English. I am familiar with it, but then I am in my nineties–and I am not certain that I have ever spoken it, or written it, before this moment.

    Wikipedia's article on the NATO alphabet states that it was "prepared only after the most exhaustive tests on a scientific basis by several nations", and that "The final choice of code words…was made after hundreds of thousands of comprehension tests involving 31 nationalities." On the other hand, this and other spelling alphabets were adopted in the 1950's and 60's, which means they are at least 60 years old, and may not have been tested since. In addition, it may be noted that this was intended from the beginning to be an international alphabet applicable (at least) to English, French, and Spanish. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which worked to develop the alphabet in the late 40's, stated the criteria for inclusion in the word list as follows:

    "To be included a word must:
    1. Be a live word in each of the three working languages.
    2. Be easily pronounced and recognized by airmen of all languages.
    3. Have good radio transmission and readability characteristics.
    4. Have a similar spelling in at least English, French, and Spanish, and the initial letter must be the letter the word identifies.
    5. Be free from any association with objectionable meanings."

    We do not actually know to what extent the NATO alphabet works. Even if some linguists have had positive experiences with it, this does not tell us how successful it is in general. After 60 years, it might be worth testing its accuracy. It might even be worth testing an alternative list at the same time, and comparing the accuracy scores of the individual items. However, I do not know if there is sufficient interest to get such a project funded. I hope to hear from those who think it worth discussing. Questions about methods of testing may perhaps wait for now.

    Following is my revised list, which of course is still subject to improvement. I believe it remedies all of the objections to my earlier version. (Some changes have also been made for phonological reasons, e.g. avoiding post-vocalic r; others were necessitated by following the suggestion that all semantic helping words follow the key word, rather than preceding it; others for my own ideas of appropriateness.) Those who have been using ad hoc words for this purpose might consider trying this list and reporting their experience with it–along with suggestions for further improvements.

    Radiotelephony spelling alphabet for U.S. English (Version 2)

    APPLE (pie)
    BUBBLE (bath)
    COMIC (strip)
    EVENING (gown)
    FAMILY (friend)
    GLASS (bottle)
    ICE-CREAM (cone)
    JUMBO (jet)
    KITCHEN (sink)
    LEMON (juice)
    MEMO (pad)
    NEXT (week)
    OPEN (book)
    PENCIL (point)
    QUIET (time)
    RING (finger)
    TICKET (stub)
    USUAL (routine)
    VALVE (oil)
    WILLOW (tree)
    YUMMY (treat)
    X-RAY (test)
    ZIGZAG (line)

  78. Philip Taylor said,

    February 4, 2021 @ 2:06 am

    Frank, to my ear GLASS is far too close to CLASS for comfort. Even tho' CLASS does not feature in your list, I fear that the word may be mishead/misunderstood in moments of stress. And given the similarity of LEMON and MEMO, I would offer LUNAR as an alternative for the first. JUMBO also poses a problem — consider the cycling team JUMBO VISMA, in which the initial J is invariably pronounced /j/ (as in YOU: /jʌm bəʊ/).

  79. Philip Taylor said,

    February 4, 2021 @ 2:38 am

    The following is clearly not a serious suggestion, but it does seek to address the perceived need for a (radio)-telephony spelling alphabet for the early 21st century —

    NUCULAR (sic)

  80. John Rohsenow said,

    February 4, 2021 @ 4:56 pm

    Phillip: Surely E as in "email"> echo,or (1) is 'email too 'last century'?
    (2)Has ECHO acquired some other referent/use of which I am not aware?

  81. Philip Taylor said,

    February 5, 2021 @ 4:31 am

    John, an ECHO is (or so I am informed by the Talking Newspaper Federation) an Amazon device that implements the Alexa engine. I had greater doubts concerning ZOMBIE, but was getting tired by the time I reached Z …

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