Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and the rest of the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet

Dear readers and followers,

Have you ever had to deal with spelling something in English and realised that you have no idea how that works in your foreign language? Every single time I have to deal with my bank or with TfL, that is a huge obstacle, especially when it comes to addresses. Well, now it is time to learn what A is for and so on!


To make this task easier, I have prepared this image that combines some of the charts you can find on the internet, with the flags, the letters, the Morse code, the telephony correspondence, and the phonic spelling for English speakers. This spelling alphabet is the most known and most widely used and it is known by several names, the most commons being NATO phonetic alphabet, although it is not really a phonetic alphabet. The proper name is International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet or ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) spelling alphabet.

Some curiosities:

  • in airports with a majority of Delta Airlines flights, the D is spelled as ‘David’ or ‘Dixie’ to avoid confusions;

  • during the Vietnam War, ‘Charlie’ was a code name for a Viet Cong, so the C was spelled differently, often as ‘Cain’;

  • for those languages with letters not included in the English alphabet, such as German, Swedish, Danish, and more, when these letters have a two-letter ASCII substitute, they are spelled like that. One example for all, the ASCII substitute for ä is ae in German and Swedish, and the NATO spelling is Alfa-Echo.

If you want to learn more, you have plenty of material on the internet:

Wikipedia, in its entry, includes a voice file with the pronunciation of the whole NATO alphabet, and some spelling alphabets in other languages in a chart in this other page;

You have a phonetic alphabet converter, for which I don’t see the utility, but why not;

You also have an app to learn the spelling alphabet by playing.

Until next and… keep being naughty, Knotty surely will!!!


American English versus British English.


First thing to say: apologies for the mistakes in the image, I shared it as it was, but I decline any responsibilities. This may seem a post mimicking the copious, and sometimes questionable, pictures on Facebook, but it is a lot more than that. I have to admit that the discussion between British and American English has been part of my learning process long before I started following regular classes. Of course, both British and American try to defend their own diatopic variation and, at the same time, to make fun of the other. I will reserve my opinion for the end, and I will quote myself in expressing it, and I am pretty sure that more than one of you will be surprised.

Having been a self-taught English student for long time, I have not faced the dilemma of which variation to choose; in fact, I didn’t even know that these variations existed. I still remember the first time I found out about them, it was a sunny spring afternoon, I was walking down the arcade in Via Roma, I was young and innocent… Well, it was sunny, and I was in the arcade, that’s for sure! Anyway, I remember reading the word center and telling my friend and teacher at that moment: “I thought it was spelled centre.” His reply was definitely blunt: “It is for me. Center is the American spelling, they write a lot of words like that: theater, meter, liter…” I was really fascinated, and I asked him to explain to me more differences. As a result, and as it often happens with me, we ended up having a long conversation about linguistic. Among the things that I discovered that day, there were:

  • Jack Daniel’s is a whiskey, but Glen Grant is a whisky;

  • In the UK the leaves fall from the trees in autumn, in the US they fall in fall;

  • Benetton may unite his colors, but not the English speakers;

and, last but not least, my friend told me: “I don’t know why Americans call football a sport they play with their hands, and why they call hamburger a burger in which there is no ham!”

After this, and for various personal reasons, I always tried to be careful and to use the British version, if I was aware of the difference. The problem is that the differences are not only conspicuous, but also on different levels: of pronunciation in every sense (phonetic, prosody, accent), of spelling, of words, and it is not always that easy to avoid mixing, or to be aware of the choices. For that reason, I ended up writing colours, flavours and neighbour, but pronouncing version as \ˈvɜːʒən\ instead of \ˈvɜːʃən\ and schedule as \ˈskɛdʒʊəl\ and not \’ʃɛdjuːl\. Of course, I have to admit that my accent and spelling are closer to the British way because I always had British teachers, and that the pronunciation of single words may tend instead to the American way because of the influence from the movies, from where I learn a lot of vocabulary, but that doesn’t justify the fact that, linguistically, I am an oxymoron in flesh and blood!

If I thought that, at least, my accent in general was respectful of the original one, but I have recently discovered that I have being deceiving myself. The original accent was the one that now we associate with the American speakers, as you can read in this interesting article that I am linking for you.

But let’s go back to the actual writing differences, easier to explain on paper. I have tried to justify them to myself by trying to identify common rules, and I have later found some confirmations supporting my ideas. For some pairs, like cheque/check, catalogue/catalog, dialogue/dialog among others, it seems that the British spelling has tried to respect the spelling the words had in the languages from which they were borrowed (French for my examples, but also Latin). This article affirms the same. In other cases, however, I thought that the American version was simply the obvious evolution according to the principle of linguistic economy (e.g. honour/honor, colour/color, harbour/harbor and so on.) Always the same article, as you can read, tells us instead that the American spelling was a conscious choice of Noah Webster, author of the famous dictionary, who wanted “American spelling to be distinct from (…) British spelling.”

Before leaving you with some funny and, at the same time, interesting pictures with plenty of examples, I will express my opinion about the preferred behaviour in this case. As I already officially said in some works about Spanish, there is not a preferred or more correct variation, it always depends on the situation. I would never dream about correcting an American for writing center, and I wouldn’t want him to correct me for writing neighbourhood. The only rule, I think, is to be consistent, and to not go switching from one to the other. “Last fall I spent six months in my apartment in Cagliari and I loved walking by the harbor” is as correct as “Yesterday I went to the theatre with my neighbour,” but I would criticise a sentence like “I was looking at the new catalogue but I couldn’t decide if I really wanted to buy a tuxedo; I wish I could simply wear my pyjamas!”