Aeroese: The universal language of airline pilots and air-traffic controllers. Pronounced arrow-ease. Also (and more commonly) known as Aviation English.
In an essay published last month in the online magazine Aeon, Mark Vanhoenacker – a licensed commercial pilot and the author of Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot – writes admiringly of the “clipped, technical majesty” of “the language of the sky”:
I like how different the language of the sky is from everyday English – indeed, we might give it its own name, Aeroese (though it’s also sometimes, and less aspirationally, called Aviation English). Above all, I love how Aeroese can somehow manage, in its technical, obscuring precision, to capture the high romance of flight – an aspect of my job, no matter how much I love it, that in the cockpit we rarely have reason to consider directly.
(Aeroese may be Vanhoenacker’s coinage: all the citations I found led back to his Aeon essay.)
And yet Aeroese is firmly rooted in the English lexicon, Vanhoenacker writes – for very practical reasons:
It’s hard to imagine a system more in need of a common language. And that language is English (or English-derived Aeroese). When a Venezuelan pilot speaks to a New York air-traffic controller, or when a pilot from Brooklyn speaks to a controller in Caracas, they speak in English. It’s something to marvel at, the first time you fly to Tokyo, say, and you hear an exchange between a Japanese pilot and a Japanese air-traffic controller, both speaking carefully in Japanese-accented English. It’s standardisation and globalisation by force of bare necessity, by force of speed.
Aeroese has its own rules of pronunciation: three is tree, nine is niner, and 25,000 is too-fife-tousand, “because experience has shown that these modified pronunciations are less likely to be misunderstood.” Aeroese is distinguished by “its warm embrace of acronyms and abbreviations”:
ASDA is Accelerate Stop Distance Available, an important measure of runway length (but by no means the only one). BKN is Broken (as in clouds, not airplanes). BOBCAT is a good one – Bay of Bengal Cooperative Air Traffic Flow Management System (more or less), which regulates flights from Singapore to Europe, for example. CM, blessedly, is just centimetres. LTGCW is Lightning Cloud-to-Water (as opposed to Cloud-to-Ground, Cloud-to-Air or Cloud-to-Cloud, among other varietals of lightning).
There is poetry in many of these acronyms:
If you ever have a chance to listen to air-traffic controllers, you might enjoy the five-letter waypoint names that they and pilots use to identify geographic positions in the sky. There are thousands of these, and their format reflects the familiar limitations of Aeroese. So each is designed to be pronounceable, at least once you get the hang of the format – such as ZAMAN, near Omaha; SUTKO, near Newfoundland; KOMOR, near the Senegal and Guinea-Bissau border. But also, in case there’s any ambiguity, these names are rapidly spellable using the phonetic alphabet – Alpha, Bravo, etc.
Then there are the delightfully whimsical waypoints -- BARBQ near Kansas City, WHALE in Massachusetts, DRAKE (for Sir Francis) over the English Channel – invented “for no reason other than that it might be fun for pilots to fly to and from them.”
Hat tip: Mike Pope.