I'm looking for terms that describe easily recognizable spoken words. I think this could be in phonology/phonetics but I'm unsure where in particular as I have no formal background.

I apologize if this isn't the right stack-exchange for the following question. Just let me know which might be better and I'll migrate it there.

If a field of study exists that looks into this, I would be grateful for its name and a short layman summary of it.

For example, I believe that the NATO phonetic alphabet was intended to be a list of easily auditorily recognizable spoken words when created. Even if it was not, I would be interested in what auditory/phonetic principles would guide the creation of a list similar to the NATO phonetic alphabet.

While researching this concept I found auditory phonetics in linguistics, but I'm fairly particular to the English language and I lack a linguistics background so I'm unsure if investing time there would be economical. Similarly, I've also browsed the English phonology wiki article but didn't see the area I was looking for. If this falls into auditory phonetics or another technical field, a quick survey level explanation for the layman would be much appreciated.

I would also be interested in the layman reasoning behind the particular words choices for the NATO alphabet or other similar alphabets. As an example, the wikipedia article cites football as a recognizable word in isolation but not as recognizable as foxtrot when in a group of words. An explanation of why this is or what study was conducted to conclude this would be great.

Are there other list of words that are easily recognized or understood auditorily? I'm specifically looking for lists that have an explanation as to why the composition of their words are recognizable or follow some well known principle/algorithm if it exists. If possible, a general list of such words or some algorithm to determine whether a word would belong to such a list (via phonetics/phonology or some other field) would be great.

The big idea is that I want to understand what makes a list like NATO phonetically good. The fact that both parties know the alphabet provides context, but I'm more interested in the phonetics/sounds that make the words less ambiguous when spoken. In weasel words: What words are "fairly" recognizable in "most" contexts. I'm hoping that the related field quantifies these weasel words in some way.

I would be particularly interested in a principle or a set of principles for forming lists of words that are more likely to be clearly distinguishable in noisy conditions.

EDIT: Perhaps a better phrasing of what I mean: In general, what makes an English word easier to recognize/hear/pick out of the background when spoken aloud when compared with other English words? I was hoping a "field" exists (or a set of vocabulary terms) that would list the components to this answer: say the hardness of the pronunciation, the tone of the word spoken, the consonants used, or some other characteristic that fits within the domain of written English and its associated phonetics. If I defined a set of such words, how would I choose what goes into this set? An example of a made up term and its made up definition:

widgety -- this expresses a word that has a hard consonant followed by nasal inflection that can be recognized over a large range of audible frequencies...

The question I'm asking is whether such a field exists, what are its terms/vocabulary or its jargon, and how do I apply it? Lacking a firm answer, what are examples of list of words that were seemingly chosen for their ability to be used in noisy environments? Of course if the field does exist an answer to this might be too long for a stack exchange post, so some reference material to the theory behind "easily recognizable spoken words" would be just fine.

Perhaps a final edit: I'm guessing that if the field I'm looking for exists then it's very niche from the English language perspective. My guess is that the concepts I'm describing are studied more closely in other fields like computational linguistics, voice recognition, audiology, acoustics, information theory and/or signal processing. If you happen to have a great reference into that field for the English language then please post, otherwise I'll accept the answer with the most up-votes.

  • Do you want to create an alternative to the NATO alphabet, or understand some principles for judging how good a set is?
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 21:05
  • I wish to understand some principles for judging how good a set is.
    – James C.
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 21:06
  • I've updated the post to hopefully be more informative. Let me know if I'm unclear or the question is opaque.
    – James C.
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 21:25
  • 2
    This is probably also relevant: Consonant And Vowel Confusion Patterns By American English Listeners.
    – Laurel
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 21:49
  • 2
    @ JamesC. I've tried to find out how they came about, and can't find anything good. A nice phrase appears in the references of the paper @Laurel cited: "perceptual distinctiveness"
    – Chris H
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 22:01

4 Answers 4


I suspect that there isn't a perfect term for you. The US FAA publish a glossary in which they refer to things like those terms which are intended for pilot/controller communications. In their Aeronautical Information Manual they refer frequently to phraseology but this includes the sequencing of words and not just the words themselves.

You appear to be trying to define a set (in something close to the mathematical sense), the members of which are easily distinguished in a noisy channel. That gets you close to information theory, but information theory generally doesn't deal with speech (although there is work on the intersection of linguistics and information theory).

Much of the background to aviation (and nautical) communications was developed in military conditions and little appears to be online about the history.

  • Thanks for the response and the links! You may be correct that an accurate term/vocabulary may not exist. I do wonder if this has been studied recently. A knee jerk thought was to look into voice recognition literature, but my guess is that the majority of it is done via machine learning (thus humans aren't really involved in the intricacies of the word classifier). Perhaps literature exists on difficult to understand words for voice recognition and what classifies such words, similar to what Laurel posted.
    – James C.
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 22:17
  • It's not my best answer, but it's a little more than a comment or two. Your point about voice recognition is good - in thinking of machine learning you're too recent but the computational linguistics of 20 years ago may have something to offer.
    – Chris H
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 22:24
  • Computational linguistics might be the ticket. I'll take a look around and if I see something nifty I'll update my question/post here.
    – James C.
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 23:00

The wiki article covering the NATO phonetic alphabet only mention criteria about the choice of an individual word, not about who to choose one in relation to the other words.

The only indication about how distinguishable the words are is in the mention:

"To identify the deficiencies of the new alphabet, testing was conducted ..."

which is a good thing to do however the alphabet is devised.

If one were to devise principles in an expert manner before testing, the principles might be:

  • choose words that start with the alphabet letter however it sounds, e.g 'CHARLIE' for 'C'
  • choose words that start with the alphabet letter where the sound of that letter sounds like the name of the letter, e.g. 'X-ray' for 'X'
  • if the letter sounds similar to another letter, like 'P' and 'B', then make the vowels sound different 'PA PA' vs 'BRA VO'. One can use a phonetics chart like the consonant table or the vowel table to see which sounds are nearby and therefore easily confusable.
  • try to make the syllables and stress different. 'M' and 'N' are nearly identical, but 'MIKE' and 'NOVEMBER' have different stress patterns (also number of syllables)

These are only a handful of hints on how to create such a table, and there's no guarantee they were consciously considered for creating the different versions for NATO.

  • Thank you for the response! I agree with these principles when creating a phonetic alphabet. I think that the syllable stress and phonetics of the consonants are more "powerful" principles that could be applied to the creation of other sets as they don't rely on a bijection with the alphabet. For example, a set of words representing a simplified English.
    – James C.
    Commented Feb 2, 2018 at 22:48

There is a curious convergence in the creation of an efficient spelling alphabet and, of all things, choosing a name for a dog or cat. Suggestions include two syllables, long vowels and stops (p, t, k, b, d, g), or perhaps a sibilant instead, ending in a long "ee" sound, any long vowel or a short "a." While there's no consensus on the ideal consonants, dog and cat fanciers are in greater agreement on two syllables and ending on an open vowel.

Of the words chosen for the NATO phonetic alphabet and using the suggested IPA, non-rhotic pronunciation,

  • 18 of 26 words end in a long vowel.
  • Golf (pronounced "gulf") and Mike are single syllables. India, Juliette, November, Sierra, Uniform are three syllables. All the rest are two.

In the "Able-Baker-Charlie" alphabet in use during World War II, only five words ended in a vowel.

This means that the creators of the NATO alphabet unwittingly produced a number of great names for pets.

  • Pet naming is a great observation. From the article on selecting dog names: "Harder sounds also activate more audio receptors in a canine’s brain" where's the research behind that claim? They link to nextgendog.com/service-dog-certification but it's not obvious where the claim comes from.
    – James C.
    Commented Feb 3, 2018 at 0:29

For anyone else that might come across this question: I kept looking and found a satisfactory set of fields and terms, but not a universal vocabulary. The closest general field was audiology as pointed out by Lambie in the comments on my original question. I found that what I was probably looking for originally was the articulation index (in the field of medical hearing loss). That article also mentions the Speech Intelligibility Index (SII) for aeronautics which probably fits my actual area of interest a bit better.

  • 1
    Yes, interesting those two finds. What they have in common are impediments to hearing: the loss of hearing is an impediment to word recognition (also phrases) and the transmission noise on a communication channel is also an impediment. That said, this brings me back to my originally point, I don't think that there is a term for an easily recognizable spoken word. That said, some phonemes are easier to hear than others even without channel disturbances.
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 16, 2018 at 20:01
  • You appear to be correct Lambie :-] I wonder if there will be a time/reason for such a word to exist... Thanks again for the guidance Lambie
    – James C.
    Commented Mar 16, 2018 at 21:08
  • 1
    I would like to thank you for your interaction and patience. I find that it is often impossible under these skies to have such a productive discussion.
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 17, 2018 at 0:11

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