Daily Bruin Ladefoged Obituary

Obituary from the UCLA Daily Bruin

Renowned linguist, professor dies at 80

By Josh Blitstein



Peter Ladefoged, UCLA professor emeritus of linguistics and the foremost linguistic phonetician in the world, died in London on Tuesday, Jan. 24, at the age of 80. Ladefoged was on his way home from a research trip to India.

Ladefoged earned his doctorate from the University of Edinburgh in 1959, and taught in Nigeria and Edinburgh before coming to UCLA as an assistant professor of phonetics in 1962. He served as chairman of the linguistics department from 1977 to 1980, and most notably created and directed the UCLA Phonetics Laboratory until his retirement in 1991.

His contributions to linguistics and phonetics are extensive – he wrote 10 books and 130 scholarly articles on the theory and practice of phonetics. He also merged pioneering linguistic fieldwork with linguistic theory to explore the classification of human language sounds in an organized framework.

When Ladefoged entered the field in the late 1950s, he combined linguistic fieldwork and phonetics in a new way, said UCLA linguistics Professor Pat Keating in a press release.

“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,” she said.

Ladefoged’s impact even extended into the realm of Hollywood motion pictures. Director George Cukor recruited Ladefoged as a consultant for the 1964 film “My Fair Lady,” and to teach actor Rex Harrison to behave like a phonetician. Harrison went on to win an Oscar for the role of Professor Henry Higgins.

Ladefoged and Ian Maddieson – a former colleague of Ladefoged’s at UCLA – worked to salvage as much information as possible from dying languages. Ladefoged once described the loss of a language as “a loss of human culture and a loss of a way of organizing life,” according to a press release.

In order to study each language, the two researchers stayed in villages all over the world for weeks at a time, living in tents or sometimes in nearby missions. They recorded at least a half-dozen speakers of both genders, made calibrated recordings of the language’s sounds for analysis, photographed the speakers, and even recorded oral and nasal airflow to document how sounds were made.

The duo’s 1996 book, “The Sounds of the World’s Languages,” remains the most comprehensive work on the subject. Ladefoged’s other books are extremely successful, and his “A Course in Phonetics” is one of the most successful in the field of linguistics. His writings have shaped the educations of generations of linguists.

Ladefoged is survived by his wife and colleague Jenny, to whom he was married for over 50 years; their daughters Lise Friedman and Katie Weiss; son Thegn; and five grandchildren.


With reports from Bruin wire services.