Last week we talked about writing Spanish words phonetically and the difficulty of doing so. By the term “phonetic” I meant a way of writing out an equivalent sound as though we were reading it in English, which gives us a rough indication of how the word should sound. However, there is another common meaning to the word “phonetic” as used in the term “phonetic alphabet”. This means the code words that represent letters of the alphabet used mainly when speaking by radio or telephone rather than face to face. The best known system is called the NATO phonetic alphabet and is the official international code used by speakers of all languages. As we all learnt from Z-Cars (showing my age again) the alphabet starts with “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta …”.
Apart from this international alphabet, the Spanish also have their own version of the phonetic alphabet, which is commonly used in more informal circumstances, especially on the phone. Although it is true that in general spelling is less of an issue in Spanish as words are written as they are pronounced, there is always that moment when you have to spell out a name and some confusion arises between “b” and “p” (be, pe) or “m” and “n” (eme, ene).
So, here are the most commonly used words in the unofficial Spanish phonetic alphabet, with thanks to my fellow CB News columnist Graham Shelton for passing them on to me.
Alicante, Barcelona, Cádiz, Dinamarca, España, Francia, Granada, Huelva, Italia, Jaén, Kilo, León, Madrid, Navarra, Oviedo (Orihuela is a local alternative) Pamplona, Queso, Roma, Sevilla, Tarragona, Uva, Valencia, Washington, Xilófono, Yeso, Zaragoza.
You will notice that most of the words are place names, either provincial capitals in Spain or the word for Spain itself. Especially difficult for the Spanish are the letters K and W, which have very limited usage in the Spanish language, and are never found in place names. “Kilo”, is one of the few words that start with a “k” and for “w” they have resorted to an American city. A notable absence from this list is the “ñ”. You are highly unlikely to ever need to spell this out in the phonetic alphabet, but if you do, I recommend the word “ñoño” which means “wimp, crybaby” or “´ñu” which means gnu, as in wildebeest. They’re just two words I happen to like!
As I’ve already mentioned, this system is unofficial, but widely used. If you look up “alfabeto fonético” on the internet you will only find the official NATO version. There is also a lot of help with pronunciation for non-English speakers. It’s typical of us to assume that words like “Charlie” and “uniform” are going to be completely straightforward for everyone to pronounce! However, the presence of “bravo” “sierra” and “tango” are helpful for the Spanish. I have a feeling that Foxtrot is likely to be the hardest of the lot!