Why We Use “Real” Phonetics in Ham Radio
Kilo Charlie Three Kilo Foxtrot Whiskey
Early in the history of radio communication, operators recognized the need for a universally understood system of letter identification. Such a “phonetic alphabet” was and still is, employed to overcome obstacles that often impede clear communication when relaying important information. This need applies to the correct communication of call signs, coordinates, addresses, and many other things. One of the earliest systems devised to address this issue used the names of cities around the world to identify individual letters in the alphabet…
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
Two questions come to mind. Where the heck is Xanthippe, and what was the person smoking who thought that Xanthippe would make a good addition to a list of easy-to-remember words? You can imagine how well that one worked out.
Around the time of WWII, the US military came up with what they called the Alpha Baker alphabet. The British Royal Air Force also chose to use this alphabet during that era…
Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy, Fox, George, How, Item, Jig, King, Love, Mike, Nan, Oboe, Peter, Queen, Roger, Sugar, Tare, Uncle, Victor, William, X-ray, Yoke, Zebra
Unfortunately, there were other phonetic alphabets still in use around the world, and the lack of universal adoption of a single phonetic alphabet seemed an insurmountable problem. However, on February 21, 1956, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) formally adopted a Phonetic Alphabet for it’s member countries. It took a few years, but organizations like the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) also eventually adopted what came to be known as the NATO Phonetic Alphabet…
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
Even though this alphabet has been, and still is, regularly challenged by those who think they have a better idea, it still is the alphabet we use in ham radio today, and it still is the phonetic alphabet universally considered to be “the” way to identify letters in radio communication. The fact that every radio operator in the entire world references these exact twenty-six words when identifying letters makes the value of this system priceless!
Perhaps, an even more invaluable reason for adopting a specific universal phonetic alphabet has to do with a universal characteristic of the human brain. Numerous studies have shown that all humans have a phenomenal natural ability to instantly fill in missing sounds in known words with expected information even though those sounds are not there! This ability is often called Phonemic Restoration. It happens without effort. It happens without your knowledge, and you’ve done it all of your life.
If someone says the word Whiskey on the radio, and the transmission momentarily skips completely eliminating the “s” in the word, you usually never even notice it! You don’t hear Whi-blank–key. You think you clearly hear the word Whiskey even though the “s” was never actually transmitted. This phenomenon enables you to easily recognize familiar words, both on the radio and in everyday life, when listening conditions are poor. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it.
In addition, the more you use the phonetic alphabet, the more seamless letter recognition becomes. Ask any accomplished guitarist. At first, note recognition, finger placement, and correct tone production seem incredibly awkward. With practice, however, the musician eventually glances at a note or a chord symbol on a page, and the right tone simply comes out of his or her instrument. No actual conscious thought is given to any step in the process, yet music fills the air. This type of seamless recognition and action also develops as you use and hear the phonetic alphabet.
Unfortunately, some hams like to substitute their own words for those in the NATO Phonetic Alphabet. Perhaps, you have even been guilty of doing it. Hams do it for various reasons. Some may do it because they believe it’s cute or funny. Others may do it because they believe it makes them unique and more memorable. I’ve actually heard someone using the words “jumping zebra hippie” in their call sign instead of “Joliett Zulu Hotel.” Even worse, some hams substitute more than one word for a single letter in the alphabet. For example, I’ve heard someone saying “America First” to represent just the letter “A” his call sign. There was no “F” in his call sign. Talk about confusing!
No matter the reason, substituting your own words for those in the NATO Phonetic Alphabet simply defeats the entire purpose of having it! Remember the musician? Substituting your own words for the Phonetic Alphabet instantly reintroduces the element of awkwardness back into communication for those listening to you. Remember Phonemic Restoration? Substitution defeats the natural ability of your listener’s brain to recognize your information when conditions are less than optimal because you are not using standard words that he or she already knows. Remember the hard-fought-for universal nature of the NATO Phonetic Alphabet? You totally destroy that the second you substitute your own words for those accepted around the world.
But, you say, the only people listening to me are on the other side of town, and they all know what I mean. If you think about it, that is not necessarily true, and, in fact, it never really has been true. You have no way of knowing who is listening on the public airwaves, even if they are only on the other side of town. Add the internet into the mix, and, even when talking on a local repeater, your listener may be anywhere in the world. Your listener’s native language may not be English, and, even if it is, he or she may not comprehend the words you substitute or the manner in which you use them.
The bottom line is simple! Develop the good habit of using the NATO Phonetic Alphabet whenever you give your call sign or you are delivering any type of important information. Avoid the temptation to change Kilo to kilowatt. Try not to change Sierra to sugar, and, please, don’t identify yourself as a jumping zebra hippie or any other kind of jumping hippie for that matter. This is especially true if you are of PA Dutch heritage like me and jumping typically comes out more like “Chumpping.”
“The NATO Phonetic Alphabet,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 20 October 2016, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/
Samuel A G, “Phonemic restoration: insights from a new methodology,” December 1981, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.