LINGUIST List 15.839

Thu Mar 11 2004

Review: Phonetics: Ladefoged (2003)

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  1. Peter Unseth, Phonetic Data Analysis

Message 1: Phonetic Data Analysis

Date: Wed, 10 Mar 2004 20:47:09 -0500 (EST)
From: Peter Unseth <>
Subject: Phonetic Data Analysis

AUTHOR: Ladefoged, Peter 
TITLE: Phonetic Data Analysis
SUBTITLE: An Introduction to Fieldwork and Instrumental Techniques
PUBLISHER: Blackwell Publishing
YEAR: 2003

Announced at

Peter Unseth, Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics and SIL, Intl.


Ladefoged is uniquely qualified to write such a book on collecting and
analyzing phonetic data. He is rightfully famous as a phonetician,
known both for his laboratory work and for doing fieldwork on site in
dozens of minority languages around the world. The book will be
useful for both those who work in highly equipped laboratories and
those who travel to remote parts of the world, as he gives suggestions
ranging from the use of MRI technology to old-fashioned palatography
done by painting powdered charcoal on the tongue.

The book has chapters that address how to study different types of
phonetic problems, with an introductory chapter on how to record data
and a coda chapter on equipping a phonetics laboratory and what to do
with our data after field work. At the end of each chapter (for
chapters 2-7) is a short list of sources for additional reading on the

As a special added bonus, at intervals Ladefoged includes a couple
dozen amusing anecdotes from his career, placed in boxes to separate
them from the text. These cover everything from cultural blunders &
successes to his role as a consultant for the production of the film
''My Fair Lady''. These entertain and subtly inform the reader, but
also show how widely Ladefoged has traveled and worked.

Chapter 1- Recording the sounds of a language

The first chapter is a general introduction on how to do phonetic
field work: selecting what sounds to record, choosing speakers to
record, how to use microphones (results can often be improved by
careful techniques), taking written notes, and a final section which
reminds readers about statistics, such as gathering enough utterances
from enough speakers.

Chapter 2- Finding the places of articulation.

This chapter deals with a fairly straightforward phonetic problem. As
with all of his chapters, he begins with the simplest techniques and
proceeds to the more complex. He starts with photography and basic
palatography, then proceeds to ''advanced palatography'', involving
making a plaster cast of the speaker's palate. The chapter concludes
with dynamic electropalatography, something that can only be done in a

Chapter 3- Aerodynamic investigation

Ladefoged explains how to measure nasal and oral airflow and even
subglottal airflow, the latter requiring qualified medical assistance.
Again, his practical explanations of the techniques, photographs of
each apparatus in use, and discussion of the results give most readers
a clear sense of understanding and a feeling that they could go out
and begin practicing the technique (''practice'' in the sense of learn
by doing).

Chapter 4- Pitch, loudness and length

This chapter, like those that follow, focuses on discussing the
measurements of the data that has been gathered, since they are
concerned with the analysis of digitized sound, data that can be
gathered with a microphone.

He begins by discussing the measurement of pitch, a topic that we
naively assume a computer can do for us flawlessly, ''no room for
human error here.'' However, Ladefoged brings us back to reality by
explaining the potential errors made by computer software in measuring
pitch, even showing how manual manipulation can sometimes be used to
overcome certain software problems. He then steps out of the
''phonetic'' mode briefly and gives some welcome ''phonological

Chapter 5- Characterizing vowels

Readers are introduced to some of the problems of measuring and
analyzing formants, a topic with great depths of complexity. He
stresses the importance of carefully choosing criteria to be used in
measuring and following these consistently, these steps are
particularly important for languages which are new to the
investigator. The discussion of vowel formants is the most extended
technical part of the book and Ladefoged even suggests outside
reading, making suggestions both in the text and at the end of the
chapter. However, even if readers have only this chapter, and no
additional information on analyzing vowels, they will be able to
perform some useful measurements of the acoustic characteristics of

Chapter 6- Acoustic analysis of consonants

Again, as he did for chapter 5 about measuring vowels, Ladefoged
reminds readers to develop and use a consistent set of criteria in
measuring sounds, e.g. whether to include the time of aspiration with
the consonant: ''devise a plan, write it down, keep to it.'' There
are sections on different types of consonants, e.g. ''nasals,
laterals, approximants, and trills'', a section on ''spectrograms and
places of articulation'', etc. I would have liked to see some mention
of the specific issues related to affricates, implosives, and

Chapter 7- Acoustic analysis of phonation types

In his chapter on phonation types, he shows the acoustic
characteristics of breathy, creaky, and modal voice, consistently
distinguishing these being a challenge for many phoneticians' ears.
He stresses the importance of comparing utterances with comparable
pitch, vowel quality, and stress, a point that has been overlooked by

Chapter 8- Coda

This last chapter is a mix of different practical matters: remember to
pack plenty of cleaning supplies for palatography, a reminder to boil
drinking water, encouragement to try exotic meats, a suggestion to
take duct tape and a spare flashlight, etc. He also discusses more
innovative methods for viewing the speech mechanism: EMA
(Electromagnetic Midsagittal Articulography, MRI (Magnetic Resonance
Imaging) and ultrasound. He concludes by giving a list of suggested
equipment for a basic phonetics laboratory.


The book is substantive enough for experienced phoneticians, but
accessible enough for students. I expect to use the book to guide me
in my own phonetic research plus plan to assign readings to my
phonetics students.

Ladefoged warns those who are too fascinated by computers that
acoustic analyses of consonants are often not as helpful for many
studies as palatography. I heartily agree, having recently read a
detailed and exclusively acoustic study of the possible change of the
point of articulation for historical palatal stops across dialects of
a language. Some simple palatograms would have shed important light
on the topic.

The chapters are uneven in their level of technical detail, related to
the complexity of the topic (though not uneven in their quality). The
earlier chapters, e.g. chapter 2 ''Finding the places of
articulation'' contain relatively more discussion of the techniques
used to gather the data. The later chapters, e.g. chapter 5
''Characterizing vowels'', focus on the complexity of measuring and
interpreting the data. This difference in complexity is generally
appropriate for each topic, but I noticed some abrupt changes from an
almost conversational style of writing to a dense technical style.

The book is meant to be a manual for phoneticians, not a discussion of
theoretical issues in phonetics. Therefore, Ladefoged makes almost no
references to the literature, eliminating the need for a bibliography
at the end.


The reviewer is a member of the faculty of the Graduate Institute of
Applied Linguistics, teaching phonetics. He has done fieldwork in a
dozen languages of Ethiopia.
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