The NATO Phonetic Alphabet: History & Uses

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  • 0:01 NATO Phonetic Alphabet
  • 0:42 The Need for Clearer…
  • 2:22 The Need for Consistency
  • 3:41 Uses
  • 4:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

The NATO Phonetic Alphabet is a universal word database created to make communications consistent no matter what the surrounding circumstances. Learn the alphabet, its history, and common uses in this lesson. Take a short quiz at the end to see what you learned.

NATO Phonetic Alphabet


Did you get all of that? Using the NATO phonetic alphabet, we can see the phrase is 'consistency.'

One of the main reasons for the development of the alphabet was a need for uniformity and consistency. This alphabet is not a language but rather a spelling alphabet.

It has many uses, including military communication, radio transmissions, and aviation lingo. That and, let's face it, speaking it just sounds cool! Originally adapted from earlier aviation languages, the alphabet's evolution over time has ensured its use and existence into the present.

The Need for Clearer Communications

Historically, radio has been a great tool for communication to the masses. Some of the most famous moments in American and world history were heard over the radio.

But if you looked up these clips and heard them in their original form, you would have a hard time understanding everything that was said without a transcript. The quality of the transmission was not always the greatest, especially the farther away from the source you went. This is not any different than today's radio. The difference is that technology has enabled the distances from the transmitter to increase greatly, and we have digital radio, receivers built by NASA, HD radio, Internet streaming, and others. So to hear broadcasts like these is almost archaic.

In the 1920s, the ITU, or International Telecommunication Union, created a spelling alphabet that was originally developed as a tool for aviation communications. This version was the first to be recognized internationally. Earlier versions were not global, like the U.S. having its own military version as early as 1913. The ITU system was used until World War II. Radio was the primary mode of communication in the war, but given the earlier-mentioned issues, it was not a perfect system.

Also, there was the noise factor. If you've ever seen a WWII movie, you know war is not calm and serene. Guns are firing, bombs exploding, hundreds of soldiers yelling, and a ton of other outside sounds. Whether speaking in whispers or screaming, it became hard to decipher what was being said (or trying to be said). So, now the problems of low-quality broadcasting and unconsciously loud background noise combined to make a real issue.

The Need for Consistency

With the need for something to change, militaries, such as those in the U.S. and Britain, started to develop their own languages to combat this problem. By using a word to represent a letter rather than just letters, it made clearer what was trying to be said over the airwaves. If one tried to say 'C-S,' for example, it might be hard to hear. But if it was said as 'Charlie-Sierra,' those hard-spoken words were easier to decipher.

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