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Alpha Bravo Yankee Zulu

Friday 7 April 2006 11:00-11:30 (Radio 4 FM)


It is now 50 years since the NATO alphabet, in common use by aviators, the police, airline booking clerks, etc, was devised. The original intent was to have a system of linguistic purity which would avoid some of the catastrophic misunderstandings arising from communications during the Great War. Is it perhaps the only vestige of an internationally unifying dream which still has some use?

The alphabet approved by international aviation and telecommunications bodies now has some strangely dated sounds, but is nonetheless immediately recognisable across the globe. How and where it is still used is almost impossible to calculate, and yet any radio wave at any time of day will contain part of it.

This programme tells the story of this phonetic alphabet. Alongside historical evidence and linguistic analysis (the syllable-count and stress pattern are supposed to make this alphabet error-proof), there are also snatches of eavesdropped sound from air-control conversations with aircraft, interviews with police officers - remember Zed Victor One? and secrets of Army signals operatives working in code.

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