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.

Why 'Run' Is The Most Complex Word in the English Language

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iStock.com/VectorStory

English can be hard for other language speakers to learn. To use just one example, there are at least eight different ways of expressing events in the future, and conditional tenses are another matter entirely. For evidence of the many nuances and inconsistencies of the English tongue, look no further than this tricky poem penned in 1920. (For a sample: “Hiccough has the sound of cup. My advice is to give up!”)

As author Simon Winchester wrote for The New York Times, there’s one English word in particular that’s deceptively simple: run. As a verb, it boasts a record-setting 645 definitions. Peter Gilliver, a lexicographer and associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, spent nine months sussing out its many shades of meaning.

“You might think this word simply means ‘to go with quick steps on alternate feet, never having both or (in the case of many animals) all feet on the ground at the same time,’” Winchester writes. “But no such luck: that is merely sense I.1a, and there are miles to go before the reader of this particular entry may sleep.”

This wasn’t always the case, though. When the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928, the word with the most definitions was set. However, the word put later outpaced it, and run eventually overtook them both as the English language's most complex word. Winchester thinks this evolution is partly due to advancements in technology (for instance, “a train runs on tracks” and “an iPad runs apps”).

He believes the widespread use of run—and its intricate web of meanings—is also a reflection of our times. “It is a feature of our more sort of energetic and frantic times that set and put seem, in a peculiar way, sort of rather stodgy, rather conservative,” Gilliver told NPR in an interview.

So the next time you tell your boss you "want to run an idea" by them, know that you’re unconsciously expressing your enthusiasm—as well as all the other subtleties wrapped up in run that previous words like set failed to capture.

[h/t The New York Times]

Scholar Claims the Voynich Manuscript Is Written in a 'Proto-Romance' Language

Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, Wikimedia Commons

Various theories have attributed the Voynich manuscript to cryptographers, aliens, and pranksters. The book, written in an unknown text and dating back to the 15th century, has stumped codebreakers since it was rediscovered by a rare book dealer named Wilfred Voynich in 1912. Now, a scholar from the UK claims that the Voynich code isn't a code at all, but one of the only surviving examples of a proto-romance language, Artnet News reports. If true, it would have huge implications on the study of linguistics as a whole, but experts are hesitant to endorse the findings.

Gerard Cheshire, a research associate at the University of Bristol in England, describes his alleged breakthrough in a study published in the journal Romance Studies. He claims that the Voynich manuscript was written in a fully formed language Europeans spoke centuries ago. Proto-romance laid the foundation for modern languages like French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. Hardly any known examples of it survived in writing because it was mainly a spoken language. Most important texts from the time were written in Latin, the official language of royalty, the church, and the government.

After identifying the Voynich script, Cheshire claims it took him just to weeks to translate the text. One passage next to an illustration of women struggling to give children a bath lists adjectives like noisy, slippery, and well-behaved, according to Cheshire. Another section, written beside pictures of volcanoes, describes islands being born out of volcanic eruptions. The scholar believes that Dominican nuns compiled the manuscript as a reference book for Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon—Catherine of Aragon's great-aunt.

Many people have claimed to have cracked the Voynich code in the past, and experts are hesitant believe that this time is any different. After academics expressed concerns over the study, Bristol University where Cheshire works released a statement distancing itself from the research. It reads: "We take such concerns very seriously and have therefore removed the story regarding this research from our website to seek further validation and allow further discussions both internally and with the journal concerned."

If Cheshire's research does prove to be valid, that means he's accomplished something the greatest code-breaking minds in modern history could not. Not even cryptographer Alan Turing could crack the cipher.

[h/t Artnet News]

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