alpha charlie tango … cockiness

August 28, 2010 § Leave a comment

many of you readers will be familiar with the International civil aviation organisation alphabet from the movies. These are words representing the letter names used to spell out words over the air designed to distinguish sounds in contexts where there is a lot of static or interference. It is used in all international air to tower communications where speakers do not share the same language.

The full alphabet currently stands as follows:

A - Alfa
B - Bravo
C - Charlie
D - Delta
E - Echo
F - Foxtrot
G - Golf
H - Hotel
I - India
J - Juliett
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 - X-ray
Y - Yankee
Z - Zulu

 

The origins of such alphabets are in the military. Note the non-standard spelling of alpha and Juliett. Presumably, this is to accommodate non=native speakers of English who may not be aware of the pronunciation of the diagraph <ph>. The ‘extra’ <t> is to ensure that French speakers produce a word final consonant. Various branches of the armed services in the English speaking world had developed their own system of rendering the alphabet and it is interesting to see some of the letter names in these precursors. The Royal Navy, for example system, devised during WW1, employed a number of first names of which only Charlie survives … Juliett interestingly, replacing Johnny, and her paramour, Romeo steps in for Robert. Also gone are Edward, Freddy, George, Harry, Tommy, Willie.  Surprisingly in some of these precursors, some nonsense forms are found, Ack and Negat for example.

Given that these letter names are designed to survive the presence of static ensuring the ability to disambiguate perceptually similar sounds, lets have a look at a few sets where the sounds they represent may be hard to distinguish over noise:

The voiceless stops have to be distinguished from each other and their voice pairs.

  • B - Bravo
    D - Delta
    G - Golf

  • P - Papa
    T - Tango
  • K - Kilo

<G> stands out as having a totally different word shape to the others, a single closed syllable. Three forms end in the same diphthong represented by <o>, but the preceding consonants are different enough to aid in the disambiguating the intended letter names. Bravo and papa seem at first glance uncomfortably close, given the same number of syllables, the finals both being open.  The interovocalic consonants /v/ and /p/ are rather similar, in being labials, and follow the same vowel, /a/. Perhaps the disambiguation is saved by the presence of the liquitd /r/ in bravo. However, this segment can form clusters with any one of the English stops.  It would be interesting to know if this does produces problems in actual usage. It is intesting also to see the this cluster in bravo  is the only one where the target letter is inserted in a cluster. I wonder too, if the replacement of Royal NAvy zebra with zulu for <z> was because of the matching of the the two syllables in bravo and zebra.

Systems based on this idea are also in use with other languages. New letter names had to be developed for graphemes unknown in English representing sounds not distinguished in this languages. Here we see names re-enter the alphabet, Õnne and Ärni in Estonian, Åse in Danish. But my personal favourite is the representation of Übermut meaning ‘cockiness’ for the umlauted <u>.

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