LINGUIST List 17.353

Wed Feb 01 2006

All: Obituary: Peter Ladefoged

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Directory         1.    Sean Fulop, Obituary: Peter Ladefoged

Message 1: Obituary: Peter Ladefoged
Date: 01-Feb-2006
From: Sean Fulop <">>>
Subject: Obituary: Peter Ladefoged

Peter Ladefoged, the world's leading phonetician, died of a stroke on January 24, 2006 in London, England while en route to his Los Angeles home. He had been in India conducting phonetics research, and thus fulfilled his goal of pursuing his work until his final day.

Peter was born on September 17, 1925 in Sutton, Surrey, England. He attended Haileybury from 1938 - 1943, and Caius College Cambridge from 1943 - 1944. As a college student he at first studied physics, but his education was interrupted by wartime military service. As a result of this service, he was given credit for college attendance, and thereby earned his M.A. at the University of Edinburgh in 1951. It was there that Peter worked with his most influential teacher, phonetician David Abercrombie. Abercrombie was a practitioner in the tradition of descriptive British phonetics, a tradition that traces its scholarly lineage back at least to Henry Sweet. There Peter acquired such arcane arts as the proper pronunciation of Daniel Jones's cardinal vowels.

In 1953, Peter became an Assistant Lecturer in Phonetics at Edinburgh, and his research career soon took off. He also married Jenny Ladefoged (MacDonald) that same year, to whom he was still married upon his death.

His first journal articles appeared in 1956, and already he began to have some influence. He decided to pursue a teaching career in the United States, but in order to do that he had to have a Ph.D. So in the pragmatic fashion that was his nature, he lined up all his bureaucratic ducks and found the only thing he lacked was a dissertation - so he promptly assembled one under the supervision of Prof. Abercrombie and was awarded the Ph.D. by the University of Edinburgh in 1959.

After a one-year position (1959 - 60) at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, Peter returned to Edinburgh and obtained a grant to conduct a large-scale phonetic survey of West African languages. It turned out to be the largest phonetic survey ever conducted at once (and so it remains), and covered sounds of 61 languages, complete with a wide variety of instrumental phonetic analyses that required an absurd amount of heavy laboratory equipment to be dragged into the field.

In 1962, Peter obtained a position as Assistant Professor of phonetics at the UCLA English Department. His early textbook Elements of Acoustic Phonetics (1962) made the fundamentals of acoustics accessible to linguistics students, and its effect was to make the acoustic analysis of speech a basic skill to be expected of the budding phonetician. Shortly thereafter, he was awarded tenure and took part in the creation of the UCLA Linguistics Department with a number of linguist colleagues.

His first seminal monograph was A Phonetic Study of West African Languages (1964), which documented his 1961 - 62 survey in Nigeria. One of many repercussions of its publication was the subsequent recognition of the Advanced Tongue Root contrast underlying the vowel harmony systems of numerous African languages, based on X-rays of Igbo speakers presented by Ladefoged in the book. The work also presented to the world one of Peter's most important scholarly principles - that we should not be satisfied to contemplate what we have heard as linguists, before we have traveled the world to hear what there is to be heard.

Though amazing for its time, Peter was true to his ideals of constantly improving standards, and he would come to disavow much of the work as "flawed" owing to the great number of languages for which he had relied on the speech of just one person. Still, the book established the central position of his fieldwork within his research - he was frequently successful at recording a large amount of material from as many speakers as possible, and he traveled all over the world many times over to do it. Other following monographs include Three Areas of Experimental Phonetics (1967) and Preliminaries to Linguistic Phonetics (1971).

Peter's most well-remembered consulting job came to him shortly after his arrival at UCLA, when he was hired by a Hollywood studio to give advice for the film "My Fair Lady," a musical adaptation of Shaw's play about phonetics professor Henry Higgins, a fictionalization of the 19th century founder of modern British phonetics, Henry Sweet. As a student of Abercrombie, Peter was uniquely qualified to serve in this capacity, and he did his best to show lead actor Rex Harrison how to act like a phonetics professor. He also wrote phonetic symbol charts for the set, and his voice producing cardinal vowels appears to come from an old phonograph during one scene of the movie.

If you knew Peter Ladefoged, you would eventually be treated to a lesson on the proper Danish pronunciation of his surname, and to his accompanying explanation of its meaning, "barn steward." As creator and long-time director of the Phonetics Laboratory in the UCLA Linguistics Department, and subsequently as the resident elder statesman of the lab under Pat Keating's direction, Peter truly was the steward of his favorite "barn," which remains as a very important legacy.

Though the Chancellor of UCLA has called him a "top-flight researcher," this normally superlative remark can only be understood as a profound understatement. The list of Peter's accomplishments in phonetic research is too long to enumerate, and though the raw number of publications he amassed is staggering, the true value of his work lies with its constant and continuing impact on the field.

In 1975 there appeared Peter's most famous textbook A Course in Phonetics, now published in its 5th edition (2006), and still bearing the standard for how to conduct a general phonetics course. Peter once said to me "if you want to get really famous, you've got to do a textbook," forgetting to add that it helps if your textbook is the best one, the one every teacher wants to use.

Peter was named President of the Linguistic Society of America for 1978. Also in the 1970s his work with lab assistants and graduate students Richard Harshman, Louis Goldstein, and Lloyd Rice yielded an impressive new set of results from factor analysis of tongue shapes during vowels, which used a novel approach to factor analysis and provided evidence for one of Peter's long-running projects, an auditory theory of speech production. Another of Peter's long-running projects that he published on during this period was his descriptive feature system for phonetics, for which he made a point of rejecting the more commonly accepted feature systems such as that of Chomsky and Halle's Sound Pattern of English, and he always held that both articulatory and auditory features were necessary for a theory of linguistic phonetics. The latest complete statement of his phonetic feature system (always a work in progress) was published as a chapter "Linguistic phonetic descriptions" in The Handbook of Phonetic Sciences (W. Hardcastle and J. Laver, eds., 1997), and in my opinion his views on this have been given short shrift in linguistics and deserve more posterity.

During the 1980s, his work with a number of colleagues led to a greatly increased understanding of the acoustic correlates of phonation quality. He also contributed much to the nascent field of forensic phonetics. He was named President of the Permanent Council for the Organization of International Congresses of Phonetic Sciences in 1983 (serving until 1991), and President of the International Phonetic Association in 1987 (serving until 1991). He worked to continually promote and improve the International Phonetic Alphabet, convening the Kiel Convention of the IPA in 1989 to begin revamping the alphabet in the light of recent discoveries (many of which were his own).

In all his work, Peter's approach was informed by his teacher Abercrombie in that he never supported the common separation between phonetics and phonology which treats the former as the data and the latter as the theory. He called his chief subject "linguistic phonetics," and enjoyed promoting its own special theory and its multi-faceted connection to phonology.

Following his retirement from his position at UCLA in 1991, Peter actually stepped up the pace of his research work and in particular his book writing activities. One fruit of this period was his magnum opus with long-time friend and collaborator Ian Maddieson, The Sounds of the World's Languages (1996). Ten years after its appearance, it is no exaggeration to say that this book is perhaps the single most important publication in the history of phonetics. Other books which emerged from Peter's later years are a long-awaited updating of his first book Elements of Acoustic Phonetics (2nd edn. 1996), a phonetics book for the general public entitled Vowels and Consonants (2001, 2nd edn. 2004), and finally the experimental phonetics textbook every professor needed, Phonetic Data Analysis (2003).

It is apparent today that future work in phonetics for many decades will refer to Peter's work for foundation and direction. This is the highest achievement for any scholar, and Peter rightly joins the highest ranks of scientists in any field. Chief among his accolades, he received the Gold Medal of the International Congress of Phonetic Sciences in 1991, and the Silver Medal of the Acoustical Society of America in 1994.

In addition to being a great research scientist, Peter was also a great teacher of both undergraduate and graduate students, and received the UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award in 1972. His guidance of graduate students was kind and generous, but also firm and helpful. Once you started to work with Peter as a student, you would be told how and when you were going astray, or if you were simply not working hard enough. He sometimes gave peculiar advice at odd little moments, but they were usually the most important lessons of all. At one of our first official meetings in his office, shortly after I became a Ph.D. student in the UCLA Linguistics Department in 1994, he noticed me taking notes on loose sheets of paper I had scattered around. He launched into a serious diatribe about how important it was for me to keep notebooks, saying "Here's what you do: you buy a nice notebook, the most expensive one you can afford, and you write everything in it. Don't ever put your notes in anything else." I was somewhat taken aback by what seemed like a picayune quibble with my personal habits, but the lecture concluded with his giving me a rather pricey hardbound notebook from his collection, to get me started on my new habit. Confronted with such a kind gesture, I began using the notebook he gave me; it is now the first (and still the most expensive) of my many notebooks that contain every word of my notes - I never put any notes in anything else from that day forward, and the new practice changed my life tangibly because of course he wasn't quibbling over nothing, he was showing me a powerful strategy for long-term academic development.

Peter (together with his wife Jenny) was always sensitive to the social needs and affairs of the UCLA Linguistics Department and in particular its graduate students. The linguistics parties the Ladefogeds hosted were the stuff of legend by the time I arrived, in time for one or two of the last at their home in the Hollywood Hills. Peter was always one to reach out to students and their families personally. He refused to be called "Professor Ladefoged" or anything of the sort by students - he wanted to be "Peter" to everybody. He seemed quite at ease with life at all times, but he was also driven by his destiny to pursue phonetic knowledge. It should not be forgotten that he obtained most of that knowledge with assistance from various colleagues and native speakers in the field, and that his genial personality was the reason everyone wanted to help him so much.

Peter had a distinctive cultured English baritone voice that traveled a long way down the hall, and his contribution to linguistics will still be resonating for many generations of scholars who will never have had the privilege of working with him, or of hearing his voice. He is survived, in addition to his wife Jenny, by daughters Katie Weiss and Lise Friedman, a son Thegn, and five grandchildren. He is also survived by a rich legacy of scholarly work, a most important contribution to the future of humanity.

-Sean A. Fulop

Linguistic Field(s): Not Applicable