For something as simple as the ABCs, getting here was a long and difficult process. Should we give it another go?

The current international standard spelling alphabet was adopted by the International Civil Aviation Organization in March 1956, by the International Telecommunication Union in 1959, and by the International Maritime Organization in 1965.

The original intention of the spelling alphabets was to enable clear and quick communication during war. In an increasingly international post-war world, clear communication across long-distance communication technologies between speakers of different languages is even more important. Well, that and the obvious need to spell out unusual last names for pizza places and hotel clerks. (Remember ordering pizza and booking hotel rooms over the phone with your voice?)

The current international standard spelling alphabet

The current spelling alphabet is by no means the only one that has been around. It’s been tweaked a lot. And some people have good reasons for thinking it should be tweaked again. We’ll get to that. But first, what’s the current spelling alphabet?

  • A – Alpha
  • B – Bravo
  • C – Charlie
  • D – Delta
  • E – Echo
  • F – Foxtrot
  • G – Golf
  • H – Hotel
  • I – India
  • J – Juliet
  • K – Kilo
  • L – Lima
  • M – Mike
  • N – November
  • O – Oscar
  • P – Papa
  • Q – Quebec
  • R – Romeo
  • S – Sierra
  • T – Tango
  • U – Uniform
  • V – Victor
  • W – Whiskey
  • X – Xray
  • Y – Yankee
  • Z – Zulu

A lot of those probably sounded really familiar from movies and general usage, but even in the United States, there have been very different versions of it. Straightforward as it seems, getting to those 26 letter-words was not easy or quick.

Tomohiro Tokunaga/Flickr

Before that, there was the ‘Able Baker’ spelling alphabet

From 1941 to 1956, all three branches of the United States military used what was known as the “Able Baker” spelling alphabet. Use of the military alphabet persisted in civilian post-war contexts. But Able Baker had problems. First, it was based on English sounds that weren’t helpful in Latin countries (who used an Ana Brazil version). So, the International Air Transport Association set to work to come up with a universal spelling alphabet. But that’s a step ahead. Here’s the Able Baker version:

  • A – Able
  • B – Baker
  • C – Charlie
  • D – Dog
  • E – Easy
  • F- Fox
  • G – George
  • H – How
  • I – Item
  • J – Jig
  • K – King
  • L – Love
  • M – Mike
  • N – Nan
  • O – Oboe
  • P – Peter
  • Q – Queen
  • R – Roger
  • S – Sugar
  • T – Tare
  • U – Uncle
  • V – Victor
  • W – William
  • X – Xray
  • Y – Yoke
  • Z – Zebra

But then ‘Able Baker’ was tweaked

In 1947, the International Air Transport Association unveiled a revised version of “Able Baker” designed to use sounds common in English, French, and Spanish. Here’s what they came up with.

  • A – Alfa
  • B – Bravo
  • C – Coca
  • D – Delta
  • E – Echo
  • F – Foxtrot
  • G – Golf
  • H – Hotel
  • I – India
  • J – Juliet
  • K – Kilo
  • L – Lima
  • M – Metro
  • N – Nectar
  • O – Oscar
  • P – Papa
  • Q – Quebec
  • R – Romeo
  • S – Sierra
  • T – Tango
  • U – Union
  • V – Victor
  • W – Whisky
  • X – Extra
  • Y – Yankee
  • Z – Zulu

Not everyone loved that version. The objectors felt like some words were confusing (Delta, Nectar, Victor and Extra) and that others couldn’t be understood in some circumstances. So, five letters — C, M, N, U, and X — were replaced.

And that is how we ended up with the current international standard. Whew!

Six arguments for tweaking it again

There are those who feel that the current standard should be tweaked. Why?

We live in an increasingly multi-cultural world that strives, or should strive, for inclusivity. The current standard is exceedingly Anglocentric.

Strange as it may seem, mobile phone technology has dropped voice transmission quality. The existing sound-letter combinations may not be the best for the new technologies’ limitations.

Studies show that more frequently used words are easier to hear that less commonly used words. Maybe there are more commonly used words for some of these letter sounds?

Some of the letter options are still really bad! Consider the various ways that Quebec can be pronounced.

Some words — like foxtrot with its collection of consonant sounds without a vowel sound to break them up – are hard for some people to pronounce.

Some words, like Sierra and Delta, are so tied to a particular geographic or technical context as to be unhelpful in many other contexts.

What say you? Are you persuaded? Should we give the creation of a universal spelling alphabet another go? Or just let sleeping Delta-Oscar-Golf-Sierra-s lie?

A deeper dive – related reading from the 101:

Lost language: The last of the Navajo Code Talkers | History 101

The Navajo Code Talkers played a critical role during World War II, and in Korea and Vietnam.

Before the telephone, Morse code relayed messages over long distances thanks to Samuel F.B. Morse | History 101

Communications technologies have changed a lot over the years.