A New Phonetic System for Digits


If you're trying to spell out a word to someone over a noisy phone connection, there are many phonetic alphabets that you can use to improve your chance of success. For example, there's the familiar NATO phonetic alphabet, which uses alfa to represent the letter A, bravo to represent B, and so on.

But what if you are trying to communicate a number? For instance, you might be trying to tell someone your work phone number, or your street address.

The NATO phonetic alphabet does have a system for digits, too; you pronounce the digits in a slightly modified way — fower for “four”, fife for “five”, and so on — but that may not help too much if the connection is really bad. The International Telecommunication Union also has a standard, in which the digits are represented by codewords like nadazero and unaone, but this is not well-known outside of the small maritime communications subculture.

Here we present a new proposal. To each digit we associate a codeword consisting of two halves, the first of which is the name of the digit. The second half is a word that is strongly associated with the corresponding digit, so that the two halves make a familiar phrase. The idea is that if you hear either the first or the second half of a codeword, you should be able to figure out which digit is being referred to — and if you hear both halves, you have confirmation that you heard correctly. Also, even if someone is not familiar with the system, we expect that they will be able to figure it out quickly when someone else communicates with it.

The new phonetic system

The following table gives the codewords for our new phonetic digit system. For comparison we also include the NATO pronunciation of the digit, as well as the ITU codeword.

Digit New system NATO pronunciation ITU
0 zero-sum ZEE-RO nadazero
1 one-off WUN unaone
2 two-faced TOO bissotwo
3 three-ring TREE terrathree
4 four-square FOW-ER kartefour
5 five-fingered FIFE pantafive
6 six-pack SIX soxisix
7 seven-up SEV-EN setteseven
8 eight-ball AIT oktoeight
9 nine-lives NIN-ER novanine

Acknowledgments and additional comments

The new phonetic digit system was created at the instigation of — and with the help of — the author Uri Bram.

Useful and/or humorous critiques of a draft version of this system were provided by a number of people on Facebook, including Kenny Bell, Brad Brock, Noam Elkies, Joanne Ell Williams, James Ferguson, Nancy Fisk, Paula Fleming, Isaac Gantwerk Mayer, Scott GrantSmith, Trevor Green, Patricia Howe, Cindy Landrum, Tera Little, Andrea N., Brian Rosenberg, and Sharon Wylie.

The only reason Uri contacted me to discuss phonetic systems in the first place was because of the Nearly Anacrophonic Phonetic Alphabet, which presents a completely different take on the idea of a phonetic alphabet.

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