Obituary: Peter Ladefoged, UCLA Linguistics Professor

Professor Peter Ladefoged

Peter Ladefoged, the world's foremost linguistic phonetician and one of the most important figures in linguistics in the 20th century, died Tuesday, Jan. 24, at a London hospital after an illness on his way home from a research trip to India. He was 80 years old. Ladefoged published 10 books and 130 scholarly articles on various aspects of the theory and practice of phonetics and the phonetic properties of specific languages. He also documented the speech sounds of more than 50 of the world's "endangered languages."

After earning his Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh in 1959, Ladefoged taught in Nigeria and Edinburgh before becoming an assistant professor of phonetics at UCLA in 1962.  He established and directed, until 1991, the UCLA Phonetics Laboratory, which became the world's most prominent linguistic phonetics laboratory. He served as chair of UCLA's linguistics department from 1977 to 1980, and was widely regarded as the world's foremost scholar of phonetics. He also served as the linguistic consultant to the movie "My Fair Lady."

Ladefoged will be remembered for his distinguished contributions to phonetics and linguistics, his lively and impassioned teaching, his service as mentor to many graduate students and to his younger colleagues, and his sense of humor (his e-mail address was oldfogey@ucla). He melded pioneering linguistic fieldwork with linguistic theory and a desire to explore how the sounds of human language can be presented within a unified framework of classification.

He was also a pioneer in modeling the relationship between speech acoustics and the positions of the tongue, lips and other articulators responsible for producing speech sounds. In early work on vowels, he showed how traditional "articulatory" phonetic descriptions corresponded more closely with their acoustic properties than with the supposed position of the tongue in their production, and he continued to insist on the importance of acoustic and perceptual factors in classifying sounds.

In his phonetics courses at UCLA, Ladefoged emphasized learning to distinguish the sounds of other languages. His introductory course included a requirement to make a recording and write a paper describing the sounds of another language. Students used their friends, aunts, uncles and roommates to provide a wide range of data, some of which joined Ladefoged's field recordings in the UCLA phonetic archive.

"Peter Ladefoged was a top-flight researcher who worked tirelessly to document the world's languages," UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale said. "We owe him a debt of gratitude and mourn his passing."

"The thousands of UCLA students who took Linguistics 1 from Peter Ladefoged probably had no idea that their professor was the president of the Linguistic Society of America or the International Phonetic Association, but they knew why he had won the UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award," said Patricia Keating, UCLA professor of linguistics.

Ladefoged began his phonetic field studies while teaching in Nigeria in 1959; within a few years he had traveled not only in West Africa, but in Mexico, India and Uganda as well.  Later trips took him to Australia, Papua New Guinea, China, Brazil and many other countries.

"Every language that dies represents a loss of human culture and a loss of a way of organizing life," Ladefoged once said. "In a few decades, or sooner, the opportunity to study many of these languages will no longer be available. By the time the next millennium comes around, probably all but a handful of the world's languages will have disappeared. This is the price of globalization. Linguists view language as a window into the way that the mind works, and every language that disappears means the shutting of another window with a slightly different view. We can only scrape the surface of recording dying languages. There is no earthly way we can record several thousand of them, but we will do what we can.

"As one young Apache put it to me, 'We can no longer speak to our ancestors,' a tragedy that violated his soul."

More than 6,000 languages are spoken across the globe today, but the number is dwindling at an unprecedented rate. Not more than a few hundred languages have been studied or recorded extensively, and because many do not exist in written form, they will be lost forever.  Ladefoged and Ian Maddieson — a former colleague at UCLA — salvaged as much knowledge as possible about dying languages, research that was federally funded by the National Science Foundation.

Ladefoged and Maddieson documented dramatically different types of languages that are each illustrative of the many ways that linguistic sounds can differ; for many of these languages, no prior phonetic record existed. Their research took them to remote villages and isolated towns in Africa, India, South America, the former Soviet Union, China and Australia. They recalled with good humor the time they drove a Jeep through an East African river to record speakers of an endangered language, and the time their Jeep ran out of gas miles from the village where they were staying. They never regretted a day of it.

Ladefoged and Maddieson studied, among other questions, how many distinct vowels and consonants languages employ and what combinations of vowels and consonants are possible.  In addition to preserving records of endangered languages, their research provides insights into the development and evolution of languages, as well as the historical relationships between languages.

For the study of each language, the scholars stayed in villages for weeks at a time, often camping in a tent or staying in a nearby mission. They typically located at least half-a-dozen speakers, male and female, and made calibrated tape recordings of the language's sounds for acoustic analysis, photographed the speakers as they produced the sounds, and even recorded the flow of air out of the mouth and nose to learn how articulations are made.

Speaking about his field research, Ladefoged said, "Throughout my years at UCLA, I spent much of my time wandering around the world trying to hear and analyze all the sounds that could distinguish words in some language or other. To begin with I had a portable phonetics lab, which required a porter. It weighed more than 100 pounds, and included a Nagra tape recorder, a battery-powered oscilloscope, and an ultraviolet recorder, plus all the paraphernalia required for palatography and pressure and flow recording.

"I have enjoyed wandering to many corners of the earth, though fieldwork has not always been comfortable. I remember once sitting in a small boat in the Niger Delta, made for perhaps 12 people. The 24 of us crammed in there were huddled under a ground sheet as torrential rain was pouring down. I had my expensive tape recorder and microphones in a theoretically waterproof bag in the bottom of the boat, with the water slowly rising. Wet and worried, I wondered whether our insurance really covered the thousands of dollars of equipment. But later we sat in the village chief's hut, poured a libation of some strange potent liquor and recorded a dozen speakers of Defaka, a dying language spoken by only a few hundred people on one of the islands in the Niger Delta. When the skies had cleared, we went back in an old dugout canoe. Warm and dry, I watched the sun setting, thinking how lucky I was to have these opportunities.

"Another delight of fieldwork is the charm of the people one meets. The !Xóõ, who were willing to have tubes put through their noses; the Hadza who have fewer possessions than anyone I know, except perhaps the Pirahã, who live with little thought for the morrow; the Toda whose courtesy and helpfulness were unparalleled; the Tsou, who could not understand why anyone would come to their mountain to record their sounds; and all manner of peoples from the Aleutian Islands to the Australian outback."

The world's languages collectively contain more than a thousand sounds, including at least 200 vowels. Ladefoged and Maddieson's 1996 book, "The Sounds of the World's Languages," remains the most comprehensive and definitive book on the subject. Ladefoged's other books include "A Course in Phonetics," the standard in the field and one of the most successful textbooks in the entire field of linguistics, which has trained generations of linguists; and his 2003 "Phonetic Data Analysis: An Introduction to Phonetic Fieldwork and Instrumental Techniques," which teaches other linguists how to carry out field studies like his.

Married for more than 50 years, Ladefoged is survived by his wife and colleague Jenny ("a much more talented and wonderful woman than any I had ever known before," he said); their daughters Lise Friedman and Katie Weiss; son Thegn; and five grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions be sent to the Endangered Language Fund: http://www.ling.yale.edu/~elf/.

-UCLA-                                                          

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