Peter Arthur Desmond MacCarthy (1912-1979)

(Adapted from English Language Teaching Journal Vol. XXXIV No 3 April 1980 pp 230-31)

Peter MacCarthy died on 12 September 1979. Educated at Rugby, he read modern languages at Cambridge. His remarkable gifts were recognised by Daniel Jones, who appointed him to an assistant lectureship at University College London in 1939. In the early years of the war he worked for the British Council successively in Bucharest, Athens, and Cairo. Then he helped to train BBC announcers for a while before joining J. R. Firth at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies. In 1948 he moved to the University of Leeds to take charge of the Department of Phonetics then being set up.

He led a very busy life, much of it devoted to language teaching. He produced ten books, all doing with excellence what they set out to do. Six of them were contributions to EFL teaching. His first, English Pronunciation (1944), avowedly inspired by the Daniel Jones Outline of English Phonetics, presented the essentials with supreme competence and clarity. He followed it with a companion English Pronouncing Vocabulary (1945) of 13,000 words and also, much later, A Practice Book of English Speech (1965). Between these he produced his most characteristic work, An English Conversation Reader, in which he demonstrated at length, and before its originator himself did so, the great effectiveness of Roger Kingdon's then relatively new notation for English intonation. He himself alone recorded every single one of the 8,000 original words of dialogue in a virtuoso performance of remarkable liveliness and accuracy. (This gift was later called upon by Kingdon and by Schubiger for the recordings made to accompany their books.) The result may have sounded like the phonetic equivalent of cloning but it remains a most valuable text for auditory study.

All five of these books used a new kind of extremely simple phonetic transcription which followed Henry Sweet's practice of doubling letters for vowels, in a way not sanctioned by the International Phonetic Association. It had great typographical merits but it failed to avoid, unlike Sweet's own, the least happy products of the procedure, /ii, uu/ and /oo/, the last in antagonism to its orthographical value by having its /food/ stand for the word ford rather than for the word food. This unpopular feature no doubt largely accounted for the fact that none of the books that incorporated that feature survived long in print. His last EFL book, a lucid, simple introduction to The Teaching of Pronunciation, used a more complex notation for inter-language comparisons. This contained another unfortunate transcriptional feature in that it represented the high and how diphthongs with initial /ʌ/. This was motivated by a determination to minimise the number of different vowel symbols the transcription used. It was of dou'tful value and taken up by no-one except in so far as that Clive Upton took the very ill-advised step of adopting /ʌɪ/ for high while substituting /aʊ/ for how with the dire result that the Oxford dictionaries have been persuaded to accept this gross misapplication of IPA principles.

For English Language Teaching (Journal) he wrote several articles in its first decade and then, from 1957 until his last contribution in July 1978, regularly supplied answers to all the Question Box queries on phonetic topics, always with admirable clarity and good sense. All of the articles and many of the questions-and-answers were fortunately reprinted in Talking of Speaking (1972), his collection of "Papers in Applied Phonetics" as its subtitle read.

Much of his other writing arose from his devotion to the cause of spelling reform. It included two books (a version of Hamlet in New Spelling and one of Androcles and the Lion in the Shaw Alphabet) and several articles. Two fine short books on The Pronunciation of French (1975) and The Pronunciation of German (1975) are well worth the attention of EFL teachers whose native languages they deal with for their phonetic comparisons with English.

Peter MacCarthy was a complex personality. He was in some ways more reserved than most people, but he thoroughly enjoyed social gatherings and was a courteous and delightfully stimulating companion. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of various associations, being a familiar figure at IATEFL conferences. He had many interests. He liked travel and lived abroad at various times, notably in Iran, Pakistan (where he had British Council secondment to a University-of-the-Punjab chair), and Italy. Motoring was one of his great enthusiasms: he was proud of having begun it a long while back. He played the cello. He was a keen photographer and painter. He had excelled at tennis. He enjoyed acting, being the possessor of a voice quality remarkably similar to Sir John Gielgud's. He especially enjoyed exercising his brilliant gifts as a practical linguist, and French phoneticians were known to express astonished admiration for his French accent. But perhaps his greatest gifts were as a practical teacher. Generations of participants in his tutorials, particularly at Leeds University's Oxley Hall Summer Schools for the British Council, tutorials into which he entered so happily, will long remember him. So will his colleagues.