Why do we have phonetic alphabet?

Because many letters sound very similar one another and if you can’t see someone’s mouth moving or hear them very well — as might be the case for a bad phone or radio connection — it helps if they can make the distinction more clear.

For example, my last name is spelt P-E-D-E-N and over the phone most people need me to provide the phonetic alphabet spelling to be sure they get it right: Papa, Echo, Delta, Echo, November.

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  1. Garrett August 26, 2011 10:46 am

    I indeed use the phonetic alphabet often. I think it’s a fascinating challenge because the developers of the alphabet need to think about several factors:

    1. The words need to be different enough to distinguish from each other and other common english words. That’s the whole point of having it in the first place, since so many of our letter names sound so similar. Can you imagine being a soldier receiving orders over the radio without a phonetic alphabet? “OK, AT 0900 YOU’LL RENDEZVOUS WITH COMPANY B”
    “COMPANY P?”
    “NO, COMPANY C!”
    “COMPANY Z?”

    2. The words chosen must be easily spoken and discerned by speakers of as many languages as possible. The NATO Phonetic Alphabet is used around the world, so they have to take into consideration the multitude of different linguistic backgrounds the users of the alphabet will bring to the table.

    I use it to spell my last name on the phone all the time, and inevitably, a piece of mail shows up every now and then addressed to “Victor Onk.” D’oh!

    • Trey Givens August 26, 2011 1:01 pm

      I once made a haircut appointment at a salon where a lady could not understand how to spell my last name, so I rattled off, “Papa-Echo-Delta-Echo-November.”

      Unfortunately, I didn’t realize this would confound the poor woman and she wrote that my last name was, “Papaekodelt…”


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