Obituary: Peter Ladefoged, UCLA Linguistics Professor

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Peter Ladefoged, the world's foremost linguistic phonetician andone of the most important figures in linguistics in the 20th century, died Tuesday, Jan. 24, at a Londonhospital 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 onvarious aspects of the theory and practice of phonetics and the phoneticproperties of specific languages. He also documented the speech sounds of morethan 50 of the world's "endangered languages."

After earninghis Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh in 1959, Ladefoged taught in Nigeria and Edinburgh before becoming an assistantprofessor of phonetics at UCLA in 1962.He established and directed, until1991, the UCLA Phonetics Laboratory, which became the world's most prominentlinguistic phonetics laboratory. He served as chair of UCLA's linguisticsdepartment from 1977 to 1980, and was widely regarded as the world's foremostscholar of phonetics. He also served as the linguistic consultant to the movie"My Fair Lady."

Ladefoged will be remembered for his distinguished contributions tophonetics and linguistics, his lively and impassioned teaching, his service asmentor to many graduate students and to his younger colleagues, and his senseof humor (his e-mail address was oldfogey@ucla). He melded pioneeringlinguistic fieldwork with linguistic theory and a desire to explore how thesounds of human language can be presented within a unified framework ofclassification.

He was also a pioneerin modeling the relationship between speech acoustics and the positions of thetongue, lips and other articulators responsible for producing speech sounds. Inearly work on vowels, he showed how traditional "articulatory" phoneticdescriptions corresponded more closely with their acoustic properties than withthe supposed position of the tongue in their production, and he continued toinsist on the importance of acoustic and perceptual factors in classifyingsounds.

Inhis phonetics courses atUCLA, Ladefoged emphasized learning to distinguish the sounds of otherlanguages. His introductory course included a requirement to make a recordingand write a paper describing the sounds of another language. Students usedtheir 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 Ladefogedwas a top-flight researcher who worked tirelessly to document the world'slanguages," UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale said. "We owe him a debt ofgratitude and mourn his passing."

"The thousandsof UCLA students who took Linguistics 1 from Peter Ladefoged probably had noidea that their professor was the president of the Linguistic Society ofAmerica or the International Phonetic Association, but they knew why he had wonthe UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award," said Patricia Keating, UCLA professorof linguistics.

Ladefoged beganhis phonetic field studies while teaching in Nigeriain 1959; within a few years he had traveled not only in West Africa, but in Mexico, Indiaand Ugandaas well. Later trips took him to Australia, Papua New Guinea, China,Braziland many other countries.

"Every language that dies represents aloss of human culture and a loss of a way of organizing life," Ladefoged oncesaid. "In a few decades, or sooner, the opportunity to study many of theselanguages will no longer be available. By the time the next millennium comesaround, 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 intothe way that the mind works, and every language that disappears means theshutting of another window with a slightly different view. We can only scrapethe surface of recording dying languages. There is no earthly way we can recordseveral thousand of them, but we will do what we can.

"As one youngApache put it to me, 'We can no longer speak to our ancestors,' a tragedy thatviolated his soul."

More than 6,000languages are spoken across the globe today, but the number is dwindling at anunprecedented rate. Not more than a few hundred languages have been studied orrecorded extensively, and because many do not exist in written form, they willbe lost forever. Ladefoged and IanMaddieson — a former colleague at UCLA — salvaged as much knowledge as possibleabout dying languages, research that was federally funded by the NationalScience Foundation.

Ladefoged andMaddieson documented dramatically different types of languages that are eachillustrative of the many ways that linguistic sounds can differ; for many ofthese languages, no prior phonetic record existed. Their research took them toremote villages and isolated towns in Africa, India,South America, the former Soviet Union, China and Australia. They recalled with goodhumor the time they drove a Jeep through an East African river to recordspeakers of an endangered language, and the time their Jeep ran out of gasmiles from the village where they were staying. They never regretted a day ofit.

Ladefoged andMaddieson studied, among other questions, how many distinct vowels andconsonants languages employ and what combinations of vowels and consonants arepossible. In addition to preservingrecords of endangered languages, their research provides insights into thedevelopment and evolution of languages, as well as the historical relationshipsbetween languages.

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

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

"I have enjoyedwandering to many corners of the earth, though fieldwork has not always beencomfortable. I remember once sitting in a small boat in the Niger Delta, madefor perhaps 12 people. The 24 of us crammed in there were huddled under aground sheet as torrential rain was pouring down. I had my expensive taperecorder and microphones in a theoretically waterproof bag in the bottom of theboat, with the water slowly rising. Wet and worried, I wondered whether ourinsurance really covered the thousands of dollars of equipment. But later wesat in the village chief's hut, poured a libation of some strange potent liquorand recorded a dozen speakers of Defaka, a dying language spoken by only a fewhundred people on one of the islands in the Niger Delta. When the skies hadcleared, we went back in an old dugout canoe. Warm and dry, I watched the sunsetting, thinking how lucky I was to have these opportunities.

"Another delightof fieldwork is the charm of the people one meets. The !X, who were willingto have tubes put through their noses; the Hadza who have fewer possessionsthan anyone I know, except perhaps the Pirah, who live with little thought forthe morrow; the Toda whose courtesy and helpfulness were unparalleled; theTsou, who could not understand why anyone would come to their mountain torecord their sounds; and all manner of peoples from the Aleutian Islands to theAustralian outback."

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

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

In lieu offlowers, the family requests contributions be sent to the Endangered LanguageFund: http://www.ling.yale.edu/~elf/.

-UCLA-

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