Peter Ladefoged

( Accepted for publication in The Phonetician)

John Peter Nielsen Ladefoged, always known simply as Peter, was born on September the 17th 1925. He passed away suddenly from a stroke on January the 24th 2006 in London on his way home to Los Angeles from a trip to India to do more research on the Dravidian language Toda – thus dying as he had wished "in harness". Youngest son of a Danish businessman, an importer of Danish food products, who lived in the county of Surrey at Sutton, then 20 kilometres south of London but now a south London borough, he attended Haileybury College 1938-43. This distinguished public school (where post-war prime minister Clement Attlee was educated) was founded by the East India Company in 1806 forty kilometres north of London. From there Ladefoged went on to Caius /ki:z/ College Cambridge to study physics but within a year or so was caught up in the last stages of the 1939-45 War and in 1944-47 saw service with the British Army in the Royal Sussex infantry regiment partly in Italy. On demobilisation, he enrolled at the University of Edinburgh. There he was especially inspired by his course in David Abercrombie's Department of Phonetics. He also took courses in British History, Moral Philosophy, and English Language and Literature. From the time of his graduation in 1951 he did research in the Abercrombie department. He was appointed to an assistant lectureship in 1953 the year in which he married fellow phonetics student Jenny MacDonald.

With his earlier background in physics, Ladefoged was ready to take advantage of the increasingly diverse and sophisticated equipment available for the acoustic examination of speech. He also engaged in co-operation with scholars in communications engineering, physiology and psychology. During the fifties he began his attention to a wide variety of languages when he took leave of absence from Edinburgh to spend 1959-60 in Nigeria on the staff of the University of Ibadan. At that time and when he returned there in 1961-62 he carried out an auditory and instrumental survey recording speakers of 61 languages, undertaking palatographic, aerodynamic etc studies of many of them, leading to his book A Phonetic Study of West African Languages (1964). It was in that work, incidentally, that he introduced into phonetic literature the now indispensable term "approximant".

His passion for investigating the whole range of human speech articulations was to take him on fieldwork in numerous remote corners all over the world. This culminated in his description of "the segments that distinguish lexical items" in over 300 languages The Sounds of the World's Languages (1996), written in collaboration with his former Ph.D. student and UCLA colleague Ian Maddieson. He decided during the fifties that to attempt to fulfil his "ambition to hear and describe all the distinct sounds of the world's languages" it was advisable for him to seek a post in the USA. Thus he assembled materials to submit for a Ph.D. on the nature of vowel quality. Much of its content appeared in 1967 as parts of his book Three areas of experimental phonetics. This included a searching critique of the "cardinal" vowels system devised by Daniel Jones.

In 1962 he and Jenny moved to Los Angeles where he took up an assistant professorship in phonetics at the UCLA Department of English. In that year he published his widely used textbook Elements of acoustic phonetics and set up the UCLA Phonetics Laboratory which began amassing recordings and acoustic data on hundreds of languages worldwide. He investigated speech, "from more people speaking more languages than any other phonetician has ever done" as Victoria Fromkin remarked in 1985. He formally directed the laboratory until 1991 when he "retired to become UCLA Research Linguist and Distinguished Professor of Phonetics Emeritus".

He listed his publications as ten books and 130 scholarly papers. These last appeared during half a century in a bewildering profusion of journals, conference proceedings, festschrifts etc. Three of his books and half of his articles were produced with co-authors among whom were elder statesmen of phonetics including Morris Halle and Gunnar Fant, various close colleagues and some of his field informants. The ascriptions of over forty of the articles led with other names than his own. Among his books were Preliminaries to linguistic phonetics (1971), which proposed a new distinctive features system challenging that of Chomsky and Halle, and the recent Phonetic Data Analysis: An introduction to phonetic fieldwork and instrumental techniques (2003). In 1975 he published the highly successful introductory textbook A course in phonetics which has gone through several editions. He followed that up in 2001 with an especially accessible elementary volume (well adapted to computer users) called simply Vowels and consonants: An introduction to the sounds of languages. He contributed the entry on Phonetics to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Up to the point when he died he was at work on a book Representing linguistic phonetic structure a substantial amount of which (two chapters) had already been written and posted on his personal website.

An important book which with characteristic modesty he made no claim to have contributed to in his listing of his publications but to which he was in fact the most important of all its contributors as its originator and organising editor was the Handbook of the International Phonetic Association (1999). Ladefoged had joined the IPA as a student in 1952 and in 1972 was voted onto its governing Council on which he stayed for the rest of his life becoming one of its longest-serving members. When in 1985 A. C. Gimson died suddenly after only a year as IPA President, Ladefoged was his natural successor. Previous presidents had held the post indefinitely but he had the IPA Constitution re-written so that the honour could be handed on to others every four years. He at once set about planning to replace the IPA's outdated and inadequate Principles booklet. Of the IPA's International Phonetic Alphabet he said, "By the mid 1980's it was apparent that the existing chart was out of date, and the International Phonetic Association needed to catch up with the times. As president, I was able to help by convening the 1989 Kiel Convention, which led to major revisions of the IPA chart". He led not only the revision of the chart but the production of the IPA Handbook of over 200 pages. Another item he didn't list among his publications was an illustrated Dissection Manual for Students of Speech of eighty or so pages posted on his website and referred to as "current activity".

In the years before Ladefoged became President of the IPA its Journal (JIPA) had been experiencing a variety of difficulties with its printers. He set about solving these problems initially by transferring its production to UCLA. It had various ups and downs editorially in spite of his frequent injections of editorial help until in 1999, when it was seriously faltering, he took over as senior editor. He was an exacting, meticulous but a good-humoured editor, once privately commenting idiosyncratically "I hate two sentence paragraphs". Also, for example, he wouldn't let one get away with failing to indicate which OUP books were published from Oxford and which from London. In 2001 he arranged for JIPA to be published by Cambridge University Press and in 2004 handed it over to its current senior editor John Esling. His legacy was such that it is now superior in every way to what it has ever been before.

Ladefoged was positively revered for his teaching as was recognised by a Distinguished Teaching Award from UCLA in 1972. He was the recipient of many other honours including various fellowships of learned societies, honorary doctorates etc. From 1983 he was President of the Permanent Council for the Organization of International Congresses of Phonetic Sciences up to his formal retirement in 1991 on which occasion the Council presented him with a gold medal.

His gathering data on the many languages which he warned were likely soon to disappear led in 1996 to his being appointed to the Board of Directors of the Endangered Language Fund. His attitude was not sentimental: he recognised that most such languages had to go as an inevitable concomitant of improvements in the welfare of those who spoke them. Another interest of his was speaker identification which involved him in various forensic cases but figured in his publications only in the odd article and review.

Not only was huge admiration for his scholarship universal but all those who came into however slight contact with him will remember him also for his personal human qualities. He was completely free of any pomposity. His characteristic garb was a t-shirt. He always pressed even his most junior contacts to address him as "Peter". He was outstanding for his friendliness, humour and accessibility. Those who corresponded with him will know of his jokey choice of email address as "oldfogey". It no doubt gently amused him at p. 144 of the 1996 book to give as an example of the voiced alveolar fricative allophone of the Danish alveolar stop /d/ "phrases such as [ˈlæðə foɣɪð] (lade foged) 'barn keeper' ". An activity he was quite dismissive of was his involvement with the "musical" film My Fair Lady with its egregious representations of phoneticians. He provided for it bits of period transcription in Bell's Visible Speech said to have included "Honour to David Abercrombie". In giving personal information he lightheartedly referred to Jenny as a "notorious Episcopal Church Woman" and himself as a "member of Atheists for Jesus". However serious he might have been about membership of that last sect he no doubt relished the drollness of its title. He liked to close some of their recent correspondence with the witticism "The International Phonetic Association is like the Episcopal church. One can hold almost any theoretical position as long as one gets the symbols right."

Ladefoged began the Preface to his 1967 book with the remark: "A phonetician has to have more talents than I have". On the contrary it's pretty hard to think of any phonetician who has ever had as many talents as he had!