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Another Way to A-B-C

By Frank Armbruster
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #68, 2005.

Teaching the military alphabet for better communication.
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Frank Armbruster


I am old and almost deaf. Well not exactly deaf; I've lost sensitivity in the high frequency range. Having this particular problem has made me especially sensitive to speech sounds and how they are perceived.

For example I was just recently having a phone conversation with someone and she gave me an e-mail address. Now with an email address, one has to have each and every letter exactly correct or the Internet won't deliver your message. One of the letters in the address was a "Z" and it sounded like a "B" to me. I said, "Bravo?" She said, "No, zebra." That exchange was the impetus for this article.

The Problem

Ever since people started communicating by telephone or radio, the frequency capability of the communications channel, i.e. radio or telephone, has been limited by the technology of the times. Early telephone was limited to perhaps 1 to 2 kilohertz. With this frequency limitation the letter "A" sounds like "J" and also like "K." "B" is worse. It sounds like C, D, E, G, P, T, V, or Z, as I described in that first paragraph above. "F" sounds like "S." And so on, with certain letters-actually, the letter names-being frequently misunderstood. This same problem exists in noisy environments, such as an airplane, aboard ship or on a noisy factory floor. The high frequency sounds just get lost in the noise.

Early Solutions

As you might imagine, the military was particularly sensitive to this problem, so as early as 1891 a word substitution code was devised. (The Oxford English Dictionary has a reference for "Beer" and "Emma" dated 1891.) Through time, many variations have evolved, mostly from military requirements. In WWII "Able," "Baker," "Charlie," "Dog," etc. were used as letter substitutions.

The Communications Code Alphabet
Alpha
Bravo
Charlie
Delta
Echo
Foxtrot
Golf
Hotel
India
Juliet
Kilo
Lima
Mike
November
Oscar
Papa
Quebec
Romeo
Sierra
Tango
Uniform
Victor
Whiskey
Xray
Yankee
Zulu
Modern Adaptations

Today, if you are in the U.S. military, or if you pilot a plane anywhere in the world, or if you talk to an international telephone operator anywhere in the world, you will use the code originally adopted by NATO: the Alpha Bravo Charlie code.

This alphabet code dates from about 1955 (my dictionary cites 1952) and is approved by the International Civil Aviation Organization, the FAA, and the International Telecommunication Union. Different bodies prefer different spellings, so one also sees Alfa, Juliett, Juliette, Oskar, Viktor.

Early Reading Starts at Home

Parents read to their children, and that's good. Parents teach their pre-schoolers the ABCs, and that's okay, but I wish they'd also teach the Alpha, Bravo, Charlie's. For those of us interested in teaching early reading, children's learning the names of the letters of the alphabet as ABCs is a bit of a problem. And the better the child learns it as ABCs-without the Alpha, Bravo, Charlie-the bigger the problem. Learning the ABCs causes an interference that makes some unlearning necessary later. Let me tell you about the interference.

In the ABCs, the letters' most common sounds don't equate well to the letter names and the letter names don't evoke the most common letter sounds (phonemes). In the Alpha, Bravo, Charlie names, however, the letter names do serve as good cues to the sounds represented.

An example serves to illustrate the difference. Consider the letter "A" as in page, cave, and name. Contrast that with "Alpha" as in apple, ax, and ant. Other letter names in the ABC alphabet have equivalent problems. The Alpha, Bravo, Charlie alphabet has far fewer problems of this nature.

This article was adapted from one that appeared in the February 2004 issue of Buyer's Quarterly. Used by permission. For additional informational materials, please go to abc2z.com.

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