Sunday, October 13, 2013

Can't Everyone Just Learn the Radio Alphabet?

When you work with the radio alphabet every day, the "letters" become just letters. When I hear "Juliet" on the radio I don't have to remove the association with Shakespeare, or my grade two classmate before I can extract the J and picture it painted on the side of a helicopter or written on a chart as part of a VOR identifier. Pilots never say "J as in Juliet". It's just Juliet.

I understand that if you don't have this set of words attached to letters, that when I spell "Foxtrot Lima India Golf Hotel Tango" you can't untangle the mental images of ballroom dancing, beans, llamas, Sikhs, Gandhi, putting greens and room reservations from the letters fast enough to write down the word. And I understand that you have to search for words that match each letter if you're spelling to me. I got "Walrus" and "Nectar" in a phone readback from someone recently, and I thought it was sweet. Such readbacks are always slow enough that I can picture a tusked walrus and a honeybee perched on a flower, and still have plenty of time to write down W and N.

Recently I had to make a train reservation that resulted in my making a phone call to Germany. It's some special train that doesn't let me book online. Or that's what Google translate says the website told me. After I somehow managed to navigate a German phone menu, and heard a lot of recorded messages in German on hold, I got to talk to a person who greeted me with what was probably "Thank you for calling the big Germany train company, how may I help you." I don't speak German. I offered "Sprechen zie Inglish bitte?" I don't write German, either. The answer was "Nein." If you speak even less German than I do, that means I asked if she spoke English and she said no. Fair enough. Ball's in my court. I did, after all, call her, after navigating a website in German and getting them to send me a quote. In German. I'm not going to give up now.

Often Europeans say they don't speak a language when they mean they aren't qualified to conduct customer service in it. I offer French and perhaps should have tried every other language in which I was capable of performing the transaction, because you don't get through school in most European countries without a foreign language, but she doesn't offer anything to negotiate in counter to my French, so we're going to try this in German.

I have a file number and I know the numbers in German. If I can get her to find my file, containing my itinerary and then I say "Ja. Das is gut." I can probably give her my credit card number and be done with this. But my file number has letters in it. The radio alphabet is international, right? And trains are like planes, so they, like cops, maybe can do this. I try boldly with "mine nomer ist Sieben Romeo..." I think she figured out the Romeo, but there's a Z and a Y and she's not getting them at all. In retrospect I might have been able to come up with Fffff - Volkswagen, Zzzzz - zee, but I don't know any German words that start with Y. I'm a little disappointed in myself for not solving this problem, 'cause you've got to know how proud I would be to have conducted a transaction on the phone in German. Fortunately the operator managed to find me someone who spoke English and I got my ticket.

I could also have got a German-speaking friend to make the call for me. I even have a German friend who is a train expert and suspect he would have enjoyed finding me a better ticket price and finishing the transaction for me. Lots of things I could have done. Crashing and burning in a telephone call is so much less hazardous than doing so in an airplane that I don't spend nearly as much time planning for unexpected situations, but contingency planning is still a grand thing. And so is the radio alphabet.

It turns out that most of the letters sound just like English, with just enough sounding like something completely different that we could have had massive confusion. I'm guessing from the video that NO German words start with Y, and I don't think I would have guessed Ypsilon. Maybe "Inglisch Yes" would have worked, but then how many English speakers know to spell ja with a J?


Anonymous said...

Hi, where exactly are you going to in Germany? Which train is so special you have to book it by phone? Is it some old steam train? I'm just curious being from Germany... :-)

Thanks for your nice and interesting blog.

Best regards from Germany!

amulbunny's random thoughts said...

I spell and say Ja with a J. Grandparents emigrated to Wisconsin in 1884. Grandma didn't know if she could Sprechen sie Deutsch on the new fangled telephone her boys got them.

The sad thing is my Dad wouldn't teach me German. My stepdad insisted I learn French (which I did) and I live in southern Ca where I should learn to speak Spanish.

I hope your German adventure is free time and not work!

Dave W said...

The problem I found as a youngster deciding to learn a foreign language is that for any non-english speaker it's almost a no brainer to pick English as the language to learn (I say almost as I accept some may pick Mandarin for example), but as a native English speaker which language do you pick - French, German, Spanish, Mandarin etc etc...

Anyway I did my research and discovered that German was the most spoken European Language so I duly learnt it - I figured with English and German I would have Europe covered. Trouble is, every other European country seems to hate the Germans and as a result no-one else knows the language!

Oh well, Gute Reisen!!

Dave from the UK :)

World'sMostAnxiousPerson said...

it is one of the quirks of growing up in Europe that even the Brits speak a smattering of phrases in a variety of languages

Since moving to Canada I've noticed that no one outside the pilot community uses the radio alphabet. I'm used to spelling out my name and at least postal code using this.

Once, in Canada , I ended up with six tables reservations in a restaurant one in the name of Charlie, one in India

you get the picture!

Scoon said...

I'm not even a pilot and I find it frustrating that the phonetic alphabet isn't common knowledge.

Therefore, as a soon-to-be high school English and Drama teacher, I will definitely work it in to the curriculum in all of my 8th grade classes :) (No middle school in Australia)

Paul B said...

Of course Ypsilon is the letter "y" itself (same as we would call "z" either "zed" or "zee")... and there can't be many other common German words out there that start with a "Y"

majroj said...

Had the NATO , I mean "radio", alphabet drilled into me looking at it 8 hrs/day for ten months as a dispatcher.

Some people inescapably experience mental- visual or other cross-association with a number or letter. NOW we're talking problems.

Sarah said...

Yes... P as in "Pterodactyl" and F as in ghotI’

Or, in English, "ghoti":

Anonymous said...

Of all the languages to have to navigate without experience, I'd say German is my least favorite. It's so, harsh, and not intuitive at all.

Case in Point

zb said...

Bwa-ha, ha. I love this post. Have you tried: "Checkensie my-ensie reservationsie or I willensie killensie youensie?"

Like, youensie in itself is probably the most funny word ever and as such excuses the arrogance that may be brought along by the rest of the phrase.

Once you're here in Germany, at some Hauptbahnhof, please don't forget to order "Ein Latte Macchiato to go zum Mitnehmen, bitte". Three languages messing up one single phrase. Awesome, right? Even if you don't like coffee, it's worth the money you spend.

Aviatrix said...

So, Germans didn't have things "to go" before stealing the English? Or the native word is eight syllables long?

And I've no idea what is special about the ticket, maybe because it's international travel.

zb said...

Oh, they did have those things. A roast sausage in a kaiser roll is probably the old classic zum Mitnehmen - literal translation: to take with (you). But now, with everything to go and no time for a Kaffeehaus, they probably want to make sure and order something to go to take away. It's a bit like: "I always double-click, just to be sure."

BTW: E-mail me if your trip takes you to you-know-where, ok?

Steve at the Pub said...

"The radio alphabet is international, right?"

No it isn't. The concept is though. And in English we at least have worldwide consistency.
Try this:
Anton, Aerger, Berta, Ceasar, Charlotte, Dora, Emil, Friedrich, Gustav, Heinrich, Ida, Julius, Kaufmann, Ludwig, Marta, Nordpol, Otto, Oekonom, Paula, Quelle, Richard, Siegfried, Schule, Eszett, Theodor, Ulrich, Uebermut, Viktor, Wilhelm, Xanthippe, Ypsilon, Zeppelin.

That is Germany (from memory, I think I've got a couple mixed around). Austrian & Swiss German each have something like a dozen deviations from Germany type German.

Alfred Ayache said...

I've just launched a a little flash card game to help people learn the radio alphabet. You can find it at

I'm still tweaking it, and plan on adding a few alternate alphabets to choose from. Not planning on adding the German version yet, though. ;)