English letter name rant
Posted: 28 April 2014 12:55 AM   [ Ignore ]
Total Posts:  4055
Joined  2007-02-26

I hereby renew my objection to the practice of giving names to letters that are most likely to lead to mishearing.

M and N represent similar sounds. On a bad phone line or radio link, there’s a pretty good chance of /m/ being taken for /n/ or vice versa.

So what to we do? We call one /em/ and the other /en/. There’s no situation so bad that it can’t be worsened, I always say.

Vowel sounds are easily distinguished even in bad conditions. If you called them /om/ and /en/, there’d be no problem.

Other similar sets:

F S X (in poor sound conditions, it’s the sibilants that become less distinct as they rely on high frequency harmonics)



D G (not so much, but a bit)

B V (sometimes)

The vowels themselves are well enough named. I’ve got no problem with the rhyming set J K because the sounds are pretty distinct. W of course is as distinct as you could want a letter to be. No other letters sound enough like R, Q, L, H, Y to cause problems.

I used to work in a job where I was forever having to copy streams of letters, either product serial keys of spellings of foreign names. Inviting people whose first language isn’t English to use a “spelling alphabet” (Delta Tango Lima etc) usually just led to further confusion, and in any case the use of such spelling alphabets slows down the transmission rate of the information greatly. So you end up saying “was that B for Bob?” etc.

We’ve got a score of vowel sounds in English. Whoever named the letters must have thought it was more frugal to use the vowel /i:/ for nine of the letters and /e/ for six others and never considered the trouble this would cause in poor hearing conditions…