Language Lens

A blog about life, discovery and culture through the lens of language and linguistics.

Frank’s Dancing the Foxtrot

Learning the alphabet is usually one of the first things you do when you learn a new language, to acquaint yourself with the sounds and to learn to clarify what you mean out loud.  Spelling out loud is critical for phone etiquette, when one can’t benefit from body language or reading lips, which I’ve never been good at.  Having a heavy accent also makes it difficult to communicate in another language, making knowledge of the alphabet even more important.  Besides, how are you going to share your email or Skype name with  someone of a different language if you aren’t in a place to write it down?

In English, we commonly use first names to reference letters out loud.  Usually it’s “B as in Bob”, “C as in Charlie”, “D as in David”, and “F as in…”

You were going to say Frank weren’t you?  Well, I would have said Frank, until I was at the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport and noticed that they in fact say “F as in Foxtrot.”

“F as in Foxtrot…” but that’s a dance and what happened to Frank?

I thought perhaps it was a regional thing, being in the South of the US, and I even wrote a blog post with a brief history of the dance, but a kind and wise reader (you know who you are) informed me that this was in fact because of the “NATO Phonetic Alphabet,” also known as the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet, the Voice Procedure Alphabet, the Radio Alphabet, the Telephone Alphabet, or the simplest version of all, the Spelling Alphabet.  Turns out there are a lot of alphabets and Frank belongs to the US Financial Alphabet (or the First Name Alphabet which was first compiled by the financial firm JSC.)

I wonder how Frank feels about that?  Maybe he works on Wall Street and is thinking of other things.

It’s easy to mistake a [b] for an [e], but in cases where pilots are communicating with air traffic controllers, or the military, misunderstanding a letter could be disastrous.  These alphabets are incredibly important.

So, what’s important about this post, other than learning that there are tons of alphabets to be aware of?  There’s always some reason behind why certain aspects of language are the way they are, which is what linguists strive to understand.

For any English students reading this, when spelling a name/word in English, I’d recommend using “F as in Frank” instead of “F as in Foxtrot” unless you’re in the military or fly a plane.  Frank is a better choice and this gives you a chance to learn to dance the Foxtrot instead!

http://pinterest.com/pin/250653535482103876/

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