What is the phonetic alphabet?

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    What is the phonetic alphabet? What is the difference between the IPA and NATO phonetic alphabets? Read on to find out.

    What is the phonetic alphabet?

    English pronunciation isn’t always straightforward, even if you’re a native speaker. As a result, it can lead to miscommunication, especially when native speakers talk to non-native speakers.

    The phonetic alphabet can solve this problem.

    Two meanings of the phonetic alphabet

    The term phonetic alphabet can have two meanings: the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and the widespread NATO phonetic alphabet. Let’s take a look at the differences between the two.

    The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)

    The IPA is an alphabet that represents the pronunciation system of languages. Created in the 1800s, its goal is to ensure unique symbols for each sounds in a particular language. It provides certain phonemes (sounds) that let you distinguish words from each other.

    The developers of the IPA wanted to standardize how spoken language is represented. They aimed to eliminate the confusion associated with inconsistent spelling conventions in English, Spanish, and other languages.

    Additionally, the purpose of the IPA was to serve as an umbrella transcription system that would replace all other systems. Just as morse code users rely on code communication, IPA users rely on symbols to indicate spoken sounds.

    The IPA mainly features Roman characters and borrows other symbols from an array of scripts, such as Greek. The organization modifies the borrowed units to harmonize them with the Roman style.

    You can use the IPA for narrow and broad transcription. For instance, native English speakers can only distinguish one “t” sound. As a result, they use just one symbol to indicate the “t” sound.

    When performing narrow English transcription, you can add diacritical marks to emphasize that certain t’s in words like stem, pat, and tap differ in pronunciation.

    NATO phonetic alphabet

    The other term is the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) phonetic alphabet.

    Contrary to what the name suggests, it’s not actually a phonetic alphabet. It’s a spelling alphabet that features a set of words you use instead of letters in communication over a military radio or phone.

    Each word represents its initial letter (alphabet symbol). There are 26 NATO code words that correspond to the 26 letters of the English alphabet.

    The original reason for creating this spelling alphabet was to help people communicate via radio more easily and prevent miscommunication. Many mistook similarly sounding letters for each other, which caused a world of trouble.

    To facilitate communication, the developers of the NATO alphabet came up with a convenient system in which words correspond to certain letters:

    • A – Alpha/Alfa (al-fah)

    • B – Bravo (brah-voh) (A and B were originally used for Able and Baker, which is why the alphabet was known as Able Baker after World War II)

    • C – Charlie (char-lee)

    • D – Delta (dell-tah)

    • E – Echo (eck-oh)

    • F – Foxtrot (foks-trot)

    • G – Golf (golf)

    • H- Hotel (hoh-tell)

    • I – India (in-dee-ah)

    • J – Juliett (Juliet) (jew-lee-ett)

    • K – Kilo (key-loh)

    • L – Lima (lee-mah)

    • M – Mike (mike)

    • N – November (no-vember)

    • O – Oscar (oss-cah)

    • P – Papa (pah-pah)

    • Q – Quebeck (keh-beck)

    • R – Romeo (row-me-oh)

    • S – Sierra (see-airrah)

    • T – Tango (tang-oh)

    • U – Uniform (you-nee-form)

    • V- Victor (vik-tah)

    • W- Whiskey (wiss-key)

    • X – X-ray (ecks-ray)

    • Y- Yankee (yang-key)

    • Z – Zulu (zoo-loo)

    The official name of the NATO alphabet is the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet (IRSA). You may also come across three other names, including:

    • International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)

    • International Telecommunication Union (ITU)

    • Radio alphabet

    The ITU even had its own alphabet at one point. They used names of countries and cities to denote each letter, such as Amsterdam, Baltimore, and Casablanca.

    The benefits of learning IPA

    The advantages of learning the IPA can be tremendous.

    Correct pronunciation

    Most English dictionaries use IPA spellings to indicate the IPA sounds in words and proper stress. Apostrophes highlight the beginning of stressed syllables, which are slightly louder and longer than others.

    Therefore, learning the IPA allows you to understand the pronunciation and prevents you from being misled by the spelling.

    Many apps make IPA symbols come to life

    Audio-visual platforms come with interactive versions of the IPA. You need only tap sounds to hear how the phoneme sounds. This is an excellent way to compare and isolate similar sounds. For instance, you can use the method to learn the differences between vowels in “work” and “walk.”

    Some apps have more than 35,000 words in their glossary. You can click, tap, and listen to the sounds that make up individual words. This way, you can understand the correct sounds in every word and their right order.

    On top of that, most audio-visual apps allow you to record yourself when pronouncing words. You can then compare yourself to model speakers. Slowing down recordings is another option, enabling you to hear how sounds combine and focus on tricky parts of a word.

    It’s simple

    There’s no need to learn all IPA symbols as a beginner. Instead, zero in on the most difficult or relevant sounds and practice them. For example, you could start by pronouncing lists of 10-15 words every week. These can be the words you often see on YouTube, fiction books, and course books.

    Master English pronunciation and phonetics with Speechify

    If you’re struggling to understand English pronunciation, you could use robust technology to solve the issue. Text to speech (TTS) platforms are a perfect patch and you’ll find no better TTS solution than Speechify.

    Speechify is an app that reads any digital text aloud. Whether you use Google Docs or PDFs as the source material, the software uses AI-generated voices to narrate your content.

    The result is a crisp audio recording that can help you learn the differences between certain sounds. You can slow down and speed up the narration to follow the content more easily, and there’s a convenient auto-highlight feature to help you stay on track.

    Speechify can be a great TTS platform for learning English, with many human-like narrators to choose from to ensure you’re learning the proper pronunciation. Try Speechify for free today!

    FAQ

    What is Z in the phonetic alphabet?

    The symbol “Z” in the phonetic alphabet stands for Zulu.

    What is the difference between the phonetic alphabet and the alphabet?

    The phonetic alphabet lists the phonemes of the English language, whereas the standard version provides a list of the letters of the alphabet.

    Is the NATO phonetic alphabet used everywhere in the world?

    Yes. The NATO phonetic alphabet is a universal alphabet used by numerous organizations across the globe. It helps the air force, air traffic control, navy, and amateur radio users to communicate with fewer interruptions.

    Cliff Weitzman

    Cliff Weitzman

    Cliff Weitzman is a dyslexia advocate and the CEO and founder of Speechify, the #1 text-to-speech app in the world, totaling over 100,000 5-star reviews and ranking first place in the App Store for the News & Magazines category. In 2017, Weitzman was named to the Forbes 30 under 30 list for his work making the internet more accessible to people with learning disabilities. Cliff Weitzman has been featured in EdSurge, Inc., PC Mag, Entrepreneur, Mashable, among other leading outlets.

    Dyslexia & Accessibility Advocate, CEO/Founder of Speechify Dyslexia & Accessibility Advocate, CEO/Founder of Speechify

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