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Aviation Words—Pronunciation of Numbers
August 2015 - According to Nav Canada there are specific ways to pronounce numbers, which we probably all learned as student pilots but then noticed that not many people use them. Have you ever wondered why they’re so specific? Well think of this—we’re dealing with multiple versions of English. There are dozens of accents in the United Kingdom alone, several variations in the United States, Canada, South Africa, and Australia/New Zealand, and many other Anglophone places around the world.
It is important to disambiguate (to use one of my favourite highfalutin’ words). The sound of five and nine can be very similar if you don’t pronounce the ends of the words well. They become Fi and Ni. Try saying them! Now try with a French, German, or Chinese accent. In England, nine might be pronounced noin if you come from London, but at least niner would be pronounced noin-uh, which helps distinguish it from fife. In North America the rolled up tongue when pronouncing “r” is very like the Irish pronunciation and that’s probably where it came from—early immigration into the United States from Ireland—and that’s typically what you will hear from controllers.
Tousand is recommended instead of thousand, tree instead of three, and day-see-mal instead of dessimal. All of these acknowledge our French, Spanish, and international pilot friends who find the “th” sound difficult and would also use day-see-mal normally.
You will notice at the end of the section on how to pronounce numbers in the Nav Canada guide to VFR Phraseology, ATS will be more consistent in its use of niner and fife, but pilots are not required to do so. Many agree that it’s worth doing anyway. It helps make clearer communications.
One last thing: On the way back from Oshkosh, my flying friend, Serge Desilets, who flies a beautiful Mustang II out of Trois-Rivières, confided that he had trouble understanding ATC because they speak so fast. It’s natural when controllers are talking to the same folks every day to speak really quickly, so how do you slow them down? Well, apart from the phrase “say again,” there is also another handy phrase in the guide—“speak slower.” I’ve never used it, but I’m expecting to try someday soon. How about you?