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4 Phonetic Alphabets That Didn't Survive

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If you have a tricky name that needs spelling out every now and then, or you ever need to clarify something like a password or an address over the phone, you might find yourself resorting to the NATO phonetic alphabet:

Alfa, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliett, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, Zulu

Notice anything unusual? Yes, in the official version of that alphabet it's alfa with an F, not alpha with a P (so as to avoid any confusion among non-English speakers who might not be aware that "ph" should be pronounced "f"). And yes, Juliett really is spelled with two Ts here (for the benefit of French speakers who might otherwise consider it a silent letter).

Although this system is generally called a phonetic alphabet, strictly speaking it's nothing of the sort: Alpha (as English speakers generally spell it), Bravo, Charlie is a spelling alphabet, entirely different from the International Phonetic Alphabet that's used to transcribe the pronunciation of words. And despite arguably being best known as the NATO phonetic alphabet, this isn't the work of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Instead, it was the International Civil Aviation Organization, an agency of the United Nations, that developed the Alpha, Bravo, Charlie alphabet in the 1950s in an attempt to standardize all the various letter-by-letter spelling systems in use around the world. It was only after it was adopted by NATO that its association with the ICAO drifted into relative obscurity.

But despite being arguably the most famous and most used spelling alphabet, the Alpha, Bravo, Charlie system isn't the oldest, nor is it the only communications alphabet to have been used by military and international organizations.

1. AMSTERDAM, BALTIMORE, CASABLANCA

What is credited with being the first spelling alphabet adopted and used internationally was developed by the predecessor of the International Telecommunication Union in 1927 and further revised in 1932. Comprising a mixture of world famous city names and place names alongside a handful of instantly recognizable names and surnames (and, for some reason, the random word kilogramme), it remained in use until the 1960s when the NATO system all but replaced it:

Amsterdam, Baltimore, Casablanca, Denmark, Edison, Florida, Gallipoli, Havana, Italia, Jerusalem, Kilogramme, Liverpool, Madagascar, New York, Oslo, Paris, Quebec, Roma, Santiago, Tripoli, Uppsala, Valencia, Washington, Xanthippe, Yokohama, Zurich

2. APPLES, BUTTER, CHARLIE

Amsterdam, Baltimore, Casablanca might have been the first internationally recognized alphabet, but phonetic spelling alphabets in one form or another (though not always complete) have been in use in various industries and armed forces since the late 19th century.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), some words and syllables like Ack, Beer, Emma (for the letter M), Pip, Esses (for S), Toc and Vic or Vay are known to have been in use since 1898 at the latest to avoid confusion between soundalike letters like M and N, and B, D, P, and V. But no full, standardized system that catered for the entire alphabet grew out of these early examples until the turn of the century: In 1917, at the height of the First World War, the British Royal Navy introduced its first complete—and quintessentially British sounding—phonetic alphabet:

Apples, Butter, Charlie, Duff, Edward, Freddy, George, Harry, Ink, Johnnie, King, London, Monkey, Nuts, Orange, Pudding, Queenie, Robert, Sugar, Tommy, Uncle, Vinegar, Willie, Xerxes, Yellow, Zebra

…which was followed in the 1920s by this slightly modified version introduced to standardize the alphabets out there:

Ac, Beer, Charlie, Don, Edward, Freddie, George, Harry, Ink, Johnnie, King, London, Monkey, Nuts, Orange, Pip, Queen, Robert, Sugar, Too, Uncle, Vic, William, X-ray, Yorker, Zebra

The origins of both the Navy and RAF's phonetic alphabets are debatable, but it's thought that both developed from this earlier alphabet, devised in 1914 and promoted by the British Post Office:

Apple, Brother, Charlie, Dover, Eastern, Father, George, Harry, India, Jack, King, London, Mother, November, October, Peter, Queen, Robert, Sugar, Thomas, Uncle, Victoria, Wednesday, Xmas, Yellow, Zebra

But even this system isn't the earliest.

3. AUTHORITY, BILLS, CAPTURE

Listed in an early edition of Brown’s Signalling, a long-running guide to telegraph communication, one of the earliest recorded spelling alphabets was in use among telegraph operators in Tasmania as far back as 1908. It read:

Authority, Bills, Capture, Destroy, Englishmen, Fractious, Galloping, High, Invariably, Juggling, Knights, Loose, Managing, Never, Owners, Play, Queen, Remarks, Support, The, Unless, Vindictive, When, Xpeditiously, Your, Zigzag

If that doesn't seem like the most straightforward system, or if it seems that some of those words—like fractious and expeditiously—are unnecessarily complicated, there's good reason. This alphabet was not intended to be memorized as an A to Z of random words, but rather in a strict order that served as a mnemonic to make memorizing the words easier:

Englishmen Invariably Support High Authority Unless Vindictive.

The Managing Owners Never Destroy Bills.

Remarks When Loose Play Jangling.

Fractious Galloping Zigzag Knights Xpeditely Capture Your Queen.

4. AGAINST, BARBARIAN, CONTINENTAL

The Authority, Bills, Capture system wasn't the only mnemonic alphabet in use in the early days of telecommunications. Perhaps as early as the American Civil War, an alphabet was brought into use that helped telegraph operators recall the combinations of dots and dashes employed in the Morse Code alphabet:

Against, Barbarian, Continental, Dahlia, Egg, Furiously, Gallantly, Humility, Ivy, Jurisdiction, Kangaroo, Legislator, Mountain, Noble, Offensive, Photographer, Queen Katherine, Rebecca, Several, Tea, Uniform, Very Varied, Waterloo, Exhibition, Youthful and fair, 2-long 2-short

If this alphabet seems even more complicated than the Tasmanian one, again there's good reason. The words here are not random, and need to be divided up into their constituent syllables in order to make sense:

Ag-ainst, Bar-ba-ri-an, Cont-in-ent-al, Dah-li-a, Egg, Fu-ri-ous-ly,

Gal-lant-ly, Hu-mi-li-ty, I-vy, Ju-ris-dic-tion, Kan-ga-roo, Le-gis-la-tor,

Moun-tain, Nob-le, Off-ens-ive, Pho-tog-raph-er, Queen-Ka-tha-rine,

Re-bec-ca, Se-ver-al, Tea, Un-i-form, Ve-ry-Va-ried, Wa-ter-loo,

Ex-hi-bi-tion, Youth-ful-and-Fair, 2-long 2-short

Wherever there's a one- or two-letter syllable in that list, it corresponds to a Morse code dot; three-letter syllables and longer correspond to dashes. So ag-ainst becomes the Morse code A, •–. Bar-ba-ri-an becomes –•••. Cont-in-ent-al gives –•-•, and so on.

But there's a problem: Not only does this system run out of steam by the time it gets to Z (2-long 2-short is just a description of the Morse code Z, --••), but according to 19th century pronunciation guides, the word continental was divided up into the syllables "con-tin-nent-al" rather than "cont-in-ent-al." And even despite inconsistencies like that, not all of the words above correctly match their Morse code equivalents: le-gis-la-tor, for instance, would correspond to •–•–, but the Morse code L is actually •–••. Youth-ful-and-Fair likewise would give ––––, but Y in Morse code is –•––.

For that reason, it's debatable precisely how widely used this system was (and given its inconsistencies, it's unlikely it was ever given the backing of the military). Nevertheless, the Against, Barbarian, Continental alphabet at least represents perhaps the earliest attempt to create a standardized communications alphabet—and in that sense is the earliest ancestor of our Alpha, Bravo, Charlie.

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8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words
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Readers tend to think of a translated novel as having just one author. While that’s technically true, each work contains two voices: that of the author and the translator. Translators must ensure that their interpretation remains faithful to the style and intent of the author, but this doesn't mean that nothing is added in the process. Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once famously said that the English version of his novel was, in some ways, better than his original work in Spanish.

“A good translation is itself a work of art,” translator Nicky Harman writes. Put differently, translator Daniel Hahn believes translation is literally impossible. “I don’t just mean it’s really, really difficult, but really, it’s not actually possible,” he says. “There’s not a single word in any of the languages I translate that can map perfectly onto a word in English. So it’s always interpretative, approximate, creative.”

In a show of appreciation for this challenging craft, the Man Booker International Prize was created to annually recognize one outstanding work of literature that has been translated from its original language into English and published in the UK. Ahead of the winner being announced on May 22, the translators of eight Man Booker International Prize nominees have shared their favorite "untranslatable" words from the original language of the novels they translated into English.

1. BREF

Sam Taylor, who translated The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet from French to English, said the best definition of bref is “Well, you get the idea.” It’s typically used to punctuate the end of a long, rambling speech, and is sometimes used for comedic effect. “It’s such a concise (and intrinsically sardonic) way of cutting a long story short,” Taylor says.

2. SANTIGUADORA

Unsatisfied with any of the English words at their disposal, translators Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff left this word in Spanish in Die, My Love, a psychological novel by Ariana Harwicz. The word, which describes a female healer who uses prayer to break hexes and cure ailments, was explained in the text itself. The translated version reads: “If only there were santiguadoras living in these parts, those village women who for a fee will pray away your guy’s indigestion and your toddler’s tantrums, simple as that.”

3. HELLHÖRIG

The German word Hellhörig "literally means 'bright-hearing' and is used, for example, to describe walls so thin you can hear every noise in the next room," says Simon Pare, who translated The Flying Mountain, a novel by Christoph Ransmayr. Pare notes that while English equivalents like "paper-thin" and “flimsy” carry the same negative connotation, they don’t have the same poetic quality that hellhörig has. "'The walls have ears,' while expressive, is not the same thing,” Pare laments.

4. VORSTELLUNG

Vorstellung (another German word) can be defined as an idea or notion, but when its etymology is broken down, it suddenly doesn’t seem so simple. It stems from the verb vorstellen, meaning “to place in front of—in this case, in front of the mind’s eye,” according to Susan Bernofsky, who translated Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. “The Vorstellung is the object of that act of mental conjuring-up," Bernofsky adds. (Fun fact: All nouns are capitalized in German.)

5. 눈치 (NUNCH'I)

Literally translating to “eye measure,” the Korean word nunch’i describes “an awareness of how those around you are currently feeling, plus their general character, and therefore the appropriate response,” says Deborah Smith, the translator of Han Kang’s The White Book. Korean culture stresses the importance of harmony, and thus it’s important to avoid doing or saying anything that could hurt another person’s pride, according to CultureShock! Korea: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

6. ON

Anyone who has survived French 101 has seen this word, but it’s a difficult concept to fully grasp. It’s also one that crops up regularly in novels, making it “the greatest headache for a translator,” according to Frank Wynne, who translated Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes. On is often translated as “one” (as in “one shouldn’t ask such questions”), but in general conversation it can come off as “preposterously disdainful,” Wynne notes. Furthermore, the word is used in different ways to express very different things in French, and can be taken to mean “we,” “people,” “they,” and more, according to French Today.

7. TERTULIA

Store this one away for your next cocktail party. The Spanish word tertulia can be defined as “an enjoyable conversation about political or literary topics at a social gathering,” according to Camilo A. Ramirez, who translated Like a Fading Shadow by Antonio Munoz Molina. Although tertulia is tricky to translate, it's one of Ramirez's favorite Spanish words because it invokes a specific atmosphere and paints a scene in the reader’s mind. For instance, the first chapter of The Hobbit, “An Unexpected Party,” becomes “Una Tertulia Inesperada” when translated into Spanish.

8. PAN/PANI

Like the French on, the Polish words pan (an honorific address for men) and pani (an address for women) are challenging to explain in English. While many European languages have both a formal and informal “you,” pan and pani are a different animal. “[It's] believed to derive from the days of a Polish noble class called the szlachta—another tradition unique to Poland,” says Jennifer Croft, who translated Flights by Olga Tokarczuk into English. This form of address was originally used for Polish gentry and was often contrasted with the word cham, meaning peasants, according to Culture.pl, a Polish culture site. Now, it’s used to address all people, except for children or friends.

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What Is Foreign Accent Syndrome?
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One night in 2016, Michelle Myers—an Arizona mom with a history of migraines—went to sleep with a splitting headache. When she awoke, her speech was marked with what sounded like an British accent, despite having never left the U.S. Myers is one of about 100 people worldwide who have been diagnosed with Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS), a condition in which people spontaneously speak with a non-native accent.

In most cases, FAS occurs following a head injury or stroke that damages parts of the brain associated with speech. A number of recent incidences of FAS have been well documented: A Tasmanian woman named Leanne Rowe began speaking with a French-sounding accent after recovering from a serious car accident, while Kath Lockett, a British woman, underwent treatment for a brain tumor and ended up speaking with an accent that sounds somewhere between French and Italian.

The first case of the then-unnamed syndrome was reported in 1907 when a Paris-born-and-raised man who suffered a brain hemorrhage woke up speaking with an Alsatian accent. During World War II, neurologist Georg Herman Monrad-Krohn compiled the first comprehensive case study of the syndrome in a Norwegian woman named Astrid L., who had been hit on the head with shrapnel and subsequently spoke with a pronounced German-sounding accent. Monrad-Krohn called her speech disorder dysprosody: her choice of words and sentence construction, and even her singing ability, were all normal, but her intonation, pronunciation, and stress on syllables (known as prosody) had changed.

In a 1982 paper, neurolinguist Harry Whitaker coined the term "foreign accent syndrome" for acquired accent deviation after a brain injury. Based on Monrad-Kohn's and other case studies, Whitaker suggested four criteria for diagnosing FAS [PDF]:

"The accent is considered by the patient, by acquaintances, and by the investigator to sound foreign.
It is unlike the patient’s native dialect before the cerebral insult.
It is clearly related to central nervous system damage (as opposed to a hysteric reaction, if such exist).
There is no evidence in the patient’s background of being a speaker of a foreign language (i.e., this is not like cases of polyglot aphasia)."

Not every person with FAS meets all four criteria. In the last decade, researchers have also found patients with psychogenic FAS, which likely stems from psychological conditions such as schizophrenia rather than a physical brain injury. This form comprises fewer than 10 percent of known FAS cases and is usually temporary, whereas neurogenic FAS is typically permanent.

WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING?

While scientists are not sure why certain brain injuries or psychiatric problems give rise to FAS, they believe that people with FAS are not actually speaking in a foreign accent. Instead, their neurological damage impairs their ability to make subtle muscle movements in the jaw, tongue, lips, and larynx, which results in pronunciation that mimics the sound of a recognizable accent.

"Vowels are particularly susceptible: Which vowel you say depends on where your tongue is in your mouth," Lyndsey Nickels, a professor of cognitive science at Australia's Macquarie University, wrote in The Conversation. "There may be too much or too little muscle tension and therefore they may 'undershoot' or 'overshoot' their target. This leads to the vowels sounding different, and sometimes they may sound like a different accent."

In Foreign Accent Syndromes: The Stories People Have to Tell, authors Nick Miller and Jack Ryalls suggest that FAS could be one stage in a multi-phase recovery from a more severe speech disorder, such as aphasia—an inability to speak or understand speech that results from brain damage.

People with FAS also show wide variability in their ability to pronounce sounds, choose words, or stress the right syllables. The accent can be strong or mild. Different listeners may hear different accents from the speaker with FAS (Lockett has said people have asked her if she's Polish, Russian, or French).

According to Miller and Ryalls, few studies have been published about speech therapy for treating FAS, and there's no real evidence that speech therapy makes a difference for people with the syndrome. More research is needed to determine if advanced techniques like electromagnetic articulography—visual feedback showing tiny movements of the tongue—could help those with FAS regain their original speaking manner.

Today, one of the pressing questions for neurologists is understanding how the brain recovers after injury. For that purpose, Miller and Ryalls write that "FAS offers a fascinating and potentially fruitful forum for gaining greater insights into understanding the human brain and the speech processes that define our species."

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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