We’ll Always Have ‘Charlie’
Speaker's Corner: In the spirit of global misunderstanding, Jerry V. Haines reveals the worst phonetic alphabet ever
06.20.07 | 9:13 PM ET
As if the English language weren’t distressing enough with its irregular verbs and perverse spellings, several letters of our alphabet sound confusingly similar. That’s why we struggle to find ways that might clarify spelling of easily misheard words: “B… that’s B as in boy, not D as in dog….’”
The problem for travelers is that not everyone recognizes “boy” or “dog,” and some people may have trouble pronouncing them. The U.S. military grappled with this problem in the 1950s. Our armed forces had developed a uniform phonetic alphabet using simple, direct words they thought everyone could recognize, even on a noisy radio circuit: “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy….”
But foreign pilots—people from exotic lands where they pronounce Q’s like K’s and where they don’t even have W’s or J’s—complained that these words were difficult. So we sacrificed stalwart Able and Baker in the interests of global understanding—and got the International Phonetic Alphabet. Now we say, “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie (at least they didn’t fire good old Charlie), Delta, Echo….” The supreme indignity was giving up “Roger” for the effete “Romeo.”
But consider the mischief had other words been chosen. Here, for your consideration, is the World’s Least Helpful Phonetic Alphabet (a work still in progress):
D) Django (helpful only to jazz guitar aficionados).
L) Llama (you’d use the authentic Spanish “y” pronunciation, of course)
R) I don’t have a good example of a confusing “R.” Maybe you could roll it, as in “Rrroberrrt Burrrns.”
V) Apparently a V is always a V, although my dictionary says that Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein, is pronounced “fah-DOOTS.” And any excuse to say “fah-DOOTS” can’t be a bad thing.
Nominations are still being accepted.
This list is offered not only as an excuse to sow confusion, but as an example of how we come to take for granted that everyone knows what we know. How hard can learning English be, we wonder—we’ve never had any problem with it.
But foreign travel can explode our assumptions, particularly when the shoe (scarpa/chaussure/zapato) is on the other foot (piede/pied/pie). In Italian, for example, the audible difference between a baby’s cradle (culla) and an insult that will get you punched in the nose (culo) is slight. To American ears, cavolo and cavallo sound remarkably similar, and both may be found on Italian menus: One is cabbage; the other, horse meat.
In Italy a casino is a gambling house only if you emphasize the final syllable. Pronounce it the way we do in America, and it’s a bordello. If you get caught in a raid on the latter, you can always blame the hearing of the cab driver who brought you there.
Travel makes you smarter because travel makes you humble.