LINGUIST List 17.307

Sun Jan 29 2006

All: Some Memories of Peter Ladefoged

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Directory         1.    Daniel Everett, Some Memories of Peter Ladefoged

Message 1: Some Memories of Peter Ladefoged
Date: 26-Jan-2006
From: Daniel Everett <>
Subject: Some Memories of Peter Ladefoged


I have just learned this morning, as many of you will have already have learned, that Peter Ladefoged has died, at the age of 80. Only a few weeks ago he had sent me detailed and extremely useful comments on some recent work of mine.

Peter was one of my best friends. Indirectly, he played a part in my decision to become a linguist. I saw the film 'My Fair Lady' in Hollywood, when I was 11 years old and decided to become a linguist, whatever that was. Years later, I learned that Peter was the consultant on that film. He went with me to the Wari', the Piraha, the Oro Win (a language with only 3 surviving speakers), and the Banawa. We wrote a series of articles together.

I met him for the first time at a Linguistic Society of America meeting (in New Orleans). He listened to a talk of mine and came up afterwards to discuss going to Brazil with me. The first thing he said was 'You talked too fast and made it nearly impossible for anyone to follow what you were saying.' Later, when Peter and I were presenting two papers at the Linguistic Society of America meetings in San Diego, Peter insisted that we go to his room and practice our presentation. So we each read our bits to our audience, Jenny Ladefoged, in Peter's room and she timed us. I was so impressed how seriously Peter took his work and how important it was to him to express the results clearly, without rushing. Publications and presentations were not occasions to burnish one's ego, but to do science and to communicate research effectively.

One morning in the Piraha village, Peter went down to the piranha-infested, anaconda, sting-ray, and alligator-teeming Maici river to brush his teeth. My wife, Keren, told him to be careful not to fall in (he was almost 70 then). His response was to dive in the river, in his pajamas and tennis shoes, swim to the other side (about 75 yards, fast moving water), then swim back. He emerged from the water and said, 'You do not need to worry about me'.

Peter never complained and never bragged. He was motivated by a desire to understand language and to teach others. We were writing a paper together on Banawa and I used the phrase 'tautomorphemic syllables'. Peter refused to allow such a monstrosity of a phrase in our paper. He pressured me to change it to 'syllables in the same morpheme'. 'Use plain English, Dan' he urged me.

When measuring nasal airflow, in order to convince the Pirahas to allow me to insert tubes up their noses, Peter put the tube in his nose and pulled it out of his mouth. 'See', he said, 'there is nothing to it', which I dutifully translated, though both the Piraha and I were a bit queasy after the demonstration.

Peter was never a prima donna. Whenever he ate at my home or we ate together at someone else's home, he insisted on washing the dishes. He was my wife's MA supervisor (one of his last graduate students) and insisted that she spend 3 weeks with him and Jenny at their apartment in Santa Monica, during which time he and Jenny were gracious and generous hosts.

Among the Piraha we talked about Peter's brother, Thegn, who was killed in WWII. Peter rarely opened up about personal things, though he did tell me how once his father, who owned a dairy import business, had told him to go dry off a large amount of butter that had just arrived. While drying and storing the butter, Peter realized that he wanted to do something else besides import dairy products. So, because he was interested in the form (more than the content) of poetry, he followed a friend's advice and went to study phonetics with David Abercrombie in Edinburgh.

This is a historical and very sad day for the entire field of linguistics. One of the greatest linguists to have ever lived, an exemplary human being, a dear friend to many of us, has died. I am just saddened to the core by this news, as many of you will be. But Peter lived a wonderful life, revered and admired for his accomplishments over six decades, active until the very end. Always the example to us.

Dan Everett

Linguistic Field(s): Not Applicable