Not too many years after I conquered the memorization of the alphabet — and no, it wasn’t in the sixth grade — I was forced to learn a different version. I am referring here to a phonetic alphabet.
This came to my attention recently when I responded to an invitation for our regular tennis with “Roger that.”
I was asked if Roger Federer was joining our play that evening. No, he was busy, might catch us later was the flippant response, but it brought the use of “Roger” to our attention. It led to a post-play conversation topic.
“Roger” was a World War II response in radio-telephone communications meaning “your message has been received and understood.” So, my response to my tennis notification was appropriate for an ex-Army officer but was dated.
Let me explain in the context of my opening statement. The US military phonetic alphabet in use during my first years in Army Reserve Officers Training (ROTC) was the one used by the allied forces during the Second World War.
Why, you ask, was that necessary? Well, the communications vehicles available at the time — and even today — did not always provide clear audible transmission.
Thus, to an individual faced with background noise (gunfire, explosions, etc.) the letters “B,” “C,” “D” and “E” can easily be mistaken one for another. To clarify understanding, the phonetic alphabet was created and A, B, C, etc. became Able, Baker, Charlie all the way down to Yoke (Y) and Zebra (Z). And “R” was Roger for the first year or two of ROTC.
All right, memorized that alphabet but it changed for my fellow cadets and myself midway to commissioning and “Roger” became “Romeo” amongst the changes. This was not a transition to be taken lightly.
The allied militaries, primarily the US and UK, had their own radiotelephone spelling alphabets dating back to World War I but they needed to be common for communications during World War II. So, the Combined Communications Board (CCB) was created in 1941.
The CCB created a spelling alphabet mandated for use for inter-service communications.
This was not done haphazardly. The military conducted significant research — military intelligence is not an oxymoron, most of the time — and enlisted the assistance of Harvard University’s Psycho Acoustic Lab (not to be confused with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”).
The result was the “Able Baker” alphabet that I learned. After the war, things became more complicated with the creation of NATO. It seemed every country had a suggestion before they were to say “Roger” to a final result.
A NATO-approved version was published in 1956 and it was gradually adapted by the NATO countries. The criteria used were rigorous: 1. Be a live word in each of the three working languages 2. Be easily pronounced and recognized by airmen of all languages 3. Have good radio transmission and readability characteristics 4. Have a similar spelling in at least English , French and Spanish, and the initial letter must be the letter the word identifies 5. Be free from any association with objectionable meanings.
You can imagine the arguments and discussions surrounding word choices such as Romeo and Whiskey coupled with Juliett. I won’t go into the possibilities.
Two deviations occurred from common English spellings as “Alfa” with an “F” instead of “PH” as in most European languages because the English and French spelling Alpha would not be pronounced properly by native speakers of some other languages who might not know” PH” is pronounced as “F.”
The second “T” is added to “Juliett” because the French speakers might treat the single “T” as silent. However, some English versions of the alphabet (not alfabet) may use the English spellings “Alpha” and “Juliet” because of spellchecker software — I find the numbering insert annoying scheme.
A recent movie on the war in Afghanistan chose to use the military alphabet as a title for its real meaning. Thus, after reading this explanation you need simply respond “Roger that, Jim.”