FORT LEE, Va. (July 28, 2011) -- Alpha Lima Papa Hotel Alpha Bravo Echo Tango - That's "alphabet" rendered in the international spelling or phonetic alphabet, and its route to its present form might surprise you.
As long as there have been armies and enemies, there's been a need to communicate clearly over distance with one's own forces. Bamboozling the enemy is also an aim. The Greeks had an ingenious torch and water signaling system that was documented as early as the 4th century B.C. The Romans favored colored smoke as did aboriginal tribes in what would become known as North America.
"In England, during the 16th century, beacons were used and, in 1796, the Admiralty adopted a shutter-type machine, known as the ‘Murray Lettering Telegraph.' Morse Code and electric telegraph were used for the first time in the Crimean War (1835-1837)," Wikipedia reports. Other visual and auditory signals have included flashing lights, whistles, sirens, foghorns and bells.
So when did "names" for the letters of the alphabet come into play? "The origins of this communications tool can be found in the late 19th century when the navies of the world needed a means to communicate rapidly between ships steaming in close formation and to give administrative messages in port," said Daniel A. Brown, historian and archivist at the U.S. Army Signal Center at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga.
Flags were designed for each letter of the alphabet, and they were given word names to avoid misunderstandings and ensure clarity, said Brown. The 1913 U.S. Navy Bluejackets Manual is one of the first publications to include this code, he noted.
Each flag stood for a letter and, sometimes, for a command. The "A" flag, for example, meant "affirmative" or "afirm" while the "P" flag stood for "prep" or "preparatory."
Technological advances always seem to demand changes. The advent of wireless radio communication was no exception. In the early years, transmissions could be difficult to understand because of static, bad weather or other interference. "The phonetic code used for flags," said Brown, "was adapted for radio use. During World War I, each nation had its own particular list of words. The need to standardize this list for international use was realized in 1927 (and such a) code was promulgated."
In World War I, Americans used Able, Boy, Cast, Dog and Easy while their British counterparts used Apples, Butter, Charlie, Duff and Edward. About that time, the Germans were using Anton, Berta, Caesar, Dora and Emil.
During World War II, it was necessary for British ships to communicate with the U.S. and other Allied forces so many letter words were standardized. The current phonetic alphabet became official in 1957 because of action taken by the International Civil Aviation Organization and the Joint Communications-Electronics Committee. Air traffic controllers, military personnel and others around the world share this language that meets several criteria.
For example, the words used to name the letters are usually two syllables. "November" and "Mike" are a notable exception. They sound pretty much the same whether they are being pronounced by an air traffic controller in Bangladesh or one in Baltimore. None of the letter names is a word that's easy to mistake for another.
Twenty-four of the 26 letters' names have changed at least once since 1913. "Mike" and "X-ray" have stood the tests of time and remained the same through all phonetic alphabets used by the American military. "Love," which survived through WWII, was replaced by "Lima" (pronounced like the city, not the bean), probably because "Lima" has two distinct syllables and "Love" does not.
Other changes include "Boy" that became "Baker" and then "Bravo," "Cast" that yielded to "Charlie," "Dog" that morphed into "Delta," "King" that was dethroned by "Kilo" and "Vice" that was conquered by "Victor."
The first four letters of the World War II version of the phonetic alphabet used by American and Allied forces has been immortalized in music. Contemporary folk singer and songwriter Joe Crookston recorded "Able Baker Charlie and Dog" in 2008. His song tells the story of his maternal grandfather and other members of a U.S. Navy construction battalion or Seabees who were assigned to build the four runways on Tinian Island in the South Pacific. The runways were named Able, Baker, Charlie and Dog, and they were used by the Enola Gay and Bockscar for their war-ending bombing flights over Japan.
Many civilians may not recognize the term "phonetic alphabet," but the light of recognition comes to their faces when they hear an example. Perhaps that's because popular culture, from war movies to folk songs, has embedded bits of this special lingo in their memories.