Dan Meyers has collected and put online phonetic alphabets [more properly, as Bathrobe points out, “spelling alphabets”, “radio alphabets”, or “telephone alphabets”] from around the world. There are dozens of English ones (starting with good old “Able, Baker, Charlie…”), but of course what particularly interest me are the foreign ones, from Afrikaans (Andries, Boetie, Christo) to Ukrainian (Andriy, Bogdan, Vasil). For the benefit of our Norwegian correspondent AJP, here’s Telephone Dictionary, Oslo (1965): Anna, Åase, Ærlig, Bernhard, Caesar, David, Edith, Fredrik, Gustav, Harald, Ivar, Johan, Karin, Ludvig, Martin, Nils, Olivia, Østen, Petter, Quintus, Rikard, Sigrid, Teodor, Ulrik, Enkelt-V, Dobbelt-V, Xerxes, Yngling, Zakarias. (Thanks for the link, Michael!)


  1. Paul Clapham says

    Alpha, Baker, Charlie… but there’s an interesting regional variant that I encountered a while ago.
    I was in the Atlanta airport, and like most other people there I was waiting for a connecting flight. And naturally it wasn’t leaving from the same terminal I had arrived at. So I went downstairs to take the train.
    The terminals there are A, B, C, D, and E. The automated voice on the train identified Terminal A as Alpha, Terminal B as Baker, and Terminal C as Charlie.
    Now as you probably know Atlanta is the hub for Delta Airlines, but other airlines fly in there too. So as the train approached Terminal D my curiosity increased: what was its name? until the automated voice identified it as “David”.

  2. B for Bathrobe says

    Meyers calls them “phonetic alphabets”, but that doesn’t sound like the correct name for them. According to Wikipedia, they are called “spelling alphabets”, “radio alphabets”, or “telephone alphabets”.

  3. Who changed Samuel to Siegfried in the German alphabet? Hint: first name starts with an A.
    Where Germans have Österreich, Austrians have Ödipus. Why didn’t they go all the way and change Samuel/Siegfried to Sigmund?

  4. I agree, Bathrobe. When I saw the title “phonetic alphabets” followed by “from around the world”, I was puzzled: a phonetic alphabet is supposed to be (at least theoretically) universal, so you wouldn’t need different ones in different countries. I did not imagine that the term referred to keywords used instead of letters in order to avoid confusion on the telephone or in noisy or muffled environments. These alphabets have nothing to do with the sounds, and everything to do with spelling: the sound of single “A” is not the same as what this letter represents in Alpha, and as for C as in Charlie, that “C” does not have a sound by itself in that word. It’s fun to see the adaptations thought.

  5. When my grandfather served in France in WWI it gave him great pleasure to learn to communicate his name to people radio-alphabet style. It started G pour George, as I recall, though, so either the “alphabet” has changed or he was making up his own.

  6. Telephone Dictionary, Oslo (1965): Anna, Åase, Ærlig, Bernhard,
    That’s odd, because Ø, Æ, and Å come at the end of the Norwegian alphabet, not the beginning. (The Norwegian equivalent of “from A to Z” is “fra A til Å“).

  7. I’m confused by the Chinese–When do I use Yifu and when do I use Yisheng? When do I use Weida and when do I use Wudao or Wuzhuang?

  8. When I worked briefly for an Italian travel agency in 1958, I was taught Tripoli, rather than Torino, for T (though I prefer English Breakfast). I suppose that would be seen as colonialist or pro-Ghaddafi now ….
    I do like rolling out Domodossola for D, much more fun than Dog or Delta, or even Doncaster. And I’ve been there, too :-).

  9. Domodossola, that is. Which was more fun than Doncaster, too.

  10. “Enkelt-V, Dobbelt-V,”
    Norwegians often mix these up in pronunciation. Say they’d used Victor, for example, some people would say Wictor and/or write W.

  11. Michael: it looks to me as if “Yifu” = I, “Yisheng” = Y; similarly, “Weida” = U, “Wudao” = V, “Wuzhuang” = W.
    I’m not sure what they have for “J”, though.

  12. So why does German have a special entry for SCH?

  13. Ø, Æ, and Å come at the end of the Norwegian alphabet
    Yes, Meyers appears to have reordered them according to the English alphabet.
    Hint: first name starts with an A.
    If you’ll give me the URL, I’ll add the missing link.

  14. In Polish I’ve always used any name starting with the appropriate letter that came to mind.

  15. Paul: And I’ve been there, too :-).
    Paul, there’s a fleck of spinach on your lower lip.

  16. It doesn’t seem to be on-line, but somewhere in one of Kingsley Amis’ books he tells about hearing an English officer in World War II shouting into a telephone “No, K as in bloody Knife!”. Silent letters should really be avoided when dealing with non-native speakers.

  17. michael farris says

    “In Polish I’ve always used any name starting with the appropriate letter that came to mind.”
    Same thing here. I usually use “Francja” (France) since f isn’t a core letter in the Polish alphabet and it sometimes gets misheard (or unheard). Beyond that, Polish speakers rarely spell names or words out loud. At most they use a spelling pronunciation and then add clarifying information. I give my last name as [‘faris] and then add at some point ‘dwa razy ry’ (the official name of the letter r is ‘er’ but that just confuses people in spelling).

  18. David Marjanović says

    I was never taught any such thing, and don’t know any by heart. The German ones I’ve read about differ a lot. For instance, I once encountered one (which was, as always, presented as the only existing one) which had Ökonom for O (!!!) and Ökonomie for Ö. What morons, I thought, and I still think.
    (Ökonom is stressed on the long last syllable, so it’s not that crazy, but… <headdesk>)

  19. David Marjanović says

    So why does German have a special entry for SCH?

    Because it’s so common and takes so long to spell out.

    Beyond that, Polish speakers rarely spell names or words out loud. At most they use a spelling pronunciation and then add clarifying information.

    That’s actually the most common approach even in German, which has a less well-behaved orthography.

  20. Has anyone tried to explicitly design the worst possible such alphabet?
    A as in Aye. E as in Eye. I as in I.
    C as in Cue. Q as in Queue.
    K as in Knit. N as in Nit.
    B as in Be. P as in Pea.
    G as in Gaol. J as in Jail.
    H as in Herb.

  21. N as in new. G as in gnu.

  22. S as in sea
    E as in eggs
    W as in why

  23. G as in ghoti.

  24. F as in fill P as in philia
    Z Zenon X Xenon S Synonym

  25. Y as in You.

  26. Reminds me of Robert Benchley’s essay about speaking French, which included instruction in regard to vowels–“‘a’ (pronounced ‘ong’), ‘e'(pronounced ‘ong’), ‘i’ (pronounced ‘ong’)” etc. etc.

  27. Silent p as in surfing….
    Paul, there’s a fleck of spinach on your lower lip.
    Frothing at the mouth over modern art, more likely.

  28. I don’t think we use local variants anymore after it was standardised in the Nato Alphabet. Less confusion that way since everyone knows what to expect. I never served, myself, so I tend to forget it, though. The common Danish practice is to use names and make them up on the spot.
    The silent alphabet has been done, though with a bit of cheating.
    It was a great many years before I realised the g in gnome &c is silent. Not to dwell on my embarrassing exercise into ordering a /sælmɔn/ sandwich.

  29. Since I (as most Dutch people of my age, being mid-thirties) speak shamefully little German, and most Germans don’t speak Dutch at all, I mostly converse in English with Germans. The situation usually gets weird when we try to spell something-it seems automatic to spell in English, but it makes everybody very confused. If we spell in German or even Dutch rightaway we make ourselves much better understood, but then we’re speaking two languages at the time, and that confuses people too. Chaos.

  30. There is a famous skit by Lily Tomlin as a telephone operator or the like, in which she says A as in Aardvark (I think), followed by a number of incongruous equivalences of the order of K as in Knife or worse.

  31. Ernestine, right?
    A as in Aardvark was also used to spell “George Kaplan” in Nichols & May “Telephone” sketch, which I was I believe one of her inspirations.
    And here is one: World’s Least Helpful Phonetic Alphabet.

  32. Bill Walderman says

    When I was in the Army, B was bravo, not baker.

  33. Bob Violence says

    it looks to me as if “Yifu” = I, “Yisheng” = Y; similarly, “Weida” = U, “Wudao” = V, “Wuzhuang” = W.
    But then why are “I”, “U”, “V” and “W” also on the list? It seems counterintuitive to use single letters in a spelling alphabet, but some others on the list do the same thing, so it’s evidently not unheard of.

  34. A as in allusion
    E as in elision
    I as in illusion

    C as in ‘roach
    D as in djinn

    C as in cell
    F as in fillip
    G as in gym
    H as in hour
    J as in Jim
    O as in our
    P as in Phillip
    S as in sell

    H as in hoot
    W as in who

  35. P as in phthisis
    C as in cnidarian

  36. C as in ocean.

  37. I once heard a story about a Japanese speaker spelling out ‘R as in London’ (Rondon in Japanese). Not sure if it was true.

  38. T as in listen
    W as in write
    W as in answer
    These words are always in the exercises for beginning ESL students. A rough life they have, English students.

  39. As far as intentionally bad alphabets go, Bare Naked Ladies has written a children’s song called “Crazy ABC’s using things like “D is for djinn, E for Euphrates.” It goes through the whole alphabet.

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