From Alpha to Zulu: The Evolution of the Phonetic Alphabet
The Early 1900s
The US military’s phonetic alphabet, also known as the NATO phonetic alphabet or the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet, is a standardized system of code words used to communicate letters clearly over the radio or telephone. The phonetic alphabet dates back to the early 1900s. Since then, it has evolved with changes in technology, military tactics, and global politics.
Prior to the development of the phonetic alphabet, military communication relied on spelling out words letter by letter. However, this method proved to be inefficient, particularly in noisy environments where clear communication was critical.
In 1901, Richard H. Geiger, a telegraph operator for the US Navy, came up with the idea of using words instead of letters. This helped people to understand each other more easily, even during the chaos of combat.
Following Geiger’s idea, phonetic alphabets began to pop up all over the world, each with its own set of phrases. These early alphabets were often specific to a particular country or region. Most of the time, they were not understood or recognized outside of their local contexts.
The need for a standardized phonetic alphabet became more urgent with the start of WWI. During the war, military commanders relied heavily on radio communication to coordinate their forces.
Prior to WWI, the British Army’s alphabet consisted of 7 words: Ack, Beer, Emma, Pip, Esses, Toc, and Vic. These words were chosen because they were easy to pronounce and helped to differentiate between letters (like B and P) that were indistinguishable over radio. By 1918, however, British forces had expanded their alphabet to include 26 words, and US forces had established their own complete alphabet.
After WWI, the phonetic alphabet continued to evolve. In 1927, the International Telegraph Union (ITU) officially standardized the phonetic alphabet with words to accommodate international communication. The new alphabet included cities across the globe: Amsterdam, Baltimore, Casablanca, Denmark, Edison, Florida, Gallipoli, Havana, Italia, Jerusalem, Kilogramme, Liverpool, Madagascar, New York, Oslo, Paris, Quebec, Roma, Santiago, Tripoli, Uppsala, Valencia, Washington, Xanthippe, Yokohama, Zurich. By the start of WWII, most commercial airlines around the globe were using the ITU alphabet.
During WWII, radio communication became a critical tool for coordinating military operations on a global scale. In 1941, the US Army and Navy began working together to develop a standardized phonetic alphabet that all branches of the military, and even the Allied Forces as a whole, could use. This system was completely different from the ITU alphabet, but it took many words from the WWI-era alphabets.
This revised alphabet became the Joint Army/Navy Phonetic Alphabet. In most settings though, it was casually referred to as the Able Baker alphabet, after the first two code words. You can hear this version mentioned in movies and TV shows dating from the 1950s. In fact, it was a very important part of popular culture at the time. In 1959, an Army experiment sent two monkeys into space. The monkey’s names? Able and Miss Baker. The Able Baker alphabet has even made its way into modern cinematic depictions of WWII, such as Saving Private Ryan.
1950s – Now
On February 21, 1956, NATO officially established the phonetic alphabet we are familiar with today. This final version included: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliet, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, and Zulu.
The ITU formally adopted it a few years later, which finally made it the universal phonetic alphabet governing all military, civilian and radio communications. As it was NATO Allies who had spearheaded the final revision, it became known as the NATO alphabet.
This version of the phonetic alphabet, which is still in use today, was designed to be more precise. Researchers carefully selected each word so that no two letters in a set shared any similarities or resemblances. This was especially important for international aviation communication, where the smallest of misunderstandings could have catastrophic consequences.
At Charlie Mike, we embrace the phonetic alphabet and its influence on the way service members connect with each other. Our name is even a phonetic phrase for C-M, which means “continue the mission.” Our programs at Charlie Mike help Veterans continue the mission of life after their military service, so we thought the name fit perfectly.
Now that you know the history, try using the alphabet yourself! For Military Appreciation Month, thank a Veteran for their service with “Tango Yankee.”