If people don’t understand something you say on the phone, what do you do? My guess is that you spell out the word you are trying to say. You may even give extra words for even more clarity. “M” for mother, “J” for juggling etc. The phonetic alphabet is the official version of these words.
History of the Phonetic Alphabet
The phonetic alphabet solves a rather modern problem. Before the invention of radio communication, there was no issue that needed solving. Early radio communications used Morse code, which ensured clarity of transmission. Problems started to develop when voice transmission was invented.
Ships and aircraft were some of the first to adopt the new radio communication technology. In the early days, their voice transmissions suffered from noise and a lack of clarity. This led to easy, and potentially even fatal, misunderstandings.
We identify ships and aircraft by using call signs. Call signs are a combination of letters and numbers that are unique to each and every vessel. Despite call signs being unique, it is still easy to misunderstand them with unclear communication. Imagine calling someone with a call sign of (M-95). It would be very easy for an aircraft with the identification of (N-95) to respond instead. If a controller directs the wrong aircraft to take action, anything could happen.
What was needed was a way to give standardised words to each letter so that they could not be confused with each other. Eventually, international efforts led to the development of the phonetic alphabet as we know it today.
Why do we use the phonetic alphabet today?
Aboard modern vessels, there are many ways to communicate. Some involve text, and some involve voice. The VHF is the most obvious example of equipment that transmits verbal messages. Even on the most modern vessels, VHF communication can still be subject to interference.
The modern shipping industry is very multicultural. Seafarers come from across the world, and they all speak different languages. English is the language of the sea, but that does not mean it is easy for everyone to understand.
Seafarers use the phonetic alphabet to communicate clearly. It means that they can transmit spoken words and know that they are understood by the recipient. It does not matter whether it is equipment, or nationality that makes words hard to understand. Phonetics eliminates confusion between letters.
The Phonetic Alphabet is just as relevant today as it always has been. It may even be more important today than in the past due to the multinational, multicultural nature of shipping and aviation.
When English is not your primary language, using phonetics to identify letters and numbers is vital. The phonetic alphabet is designed to be understood by everyone. When everyone uses the same words, nationality and native language are not important. The phonetic alphabet still does that perfectly.