Daily Telegraph Ladefoged Obituary

From the Daily Telegraph

Peter Ladefoged

(Filed: 07/02/2006)

Peter Ladefoged, who has died aged 80, was a leading scholar of phonetics, and enjoyed a brief encounter with Hollywood as a consultant to Rex Harrison when the actor was preparing for the role of Professor Henry Higgins in the film version of My Fair Lady.

Although British-born, Ladefoged spent most of his career in the United States; from 1965 to 1991 he was Professor of Phonetics in the Department of Linguistics at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

He travelled extensively – in Africa, India, South America, the former Soviet Union, China and Australia – to record as many languages as possible. Although more than 6,000 languages are spoken across the world today, many are dying out. Only a few hundred have been studied and recorded, and some do not exist in written form.

Ladefoged once said: “Every language that dies represents a loss of human culture and a loss of a way of organising life. 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 globalisation. 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. ”

With Ian Maddieson – a former colleague at UCLA – Ladefoged set out to preserve as much knowledge as possible about these dying languages. In the early days he used a portable phonetics lab, weighing more than 100 lbs, which had to be transported by a bearer.

The two men would camp in remote villages for weeks at a time, tape-recording language sounds for acoustic analysis, photographing the speakers as they uttered the sounds, and even recording the air-flow from the mouth and nose to learn how articulations were made.

In India Ladefoged recorded the Toda language, which is spoken by fewer than 1,000 people and makes use of six trills produced by the tip of the tongue. In the Kalahari Desert he studied the click sound native to Africa.

Ladefoged believed that, while endangered languages should be recorded, there should not necessarily be any attempt to save them.

He argued that preserving languages could weaken national unity, encourage tribalism, and absorb scarce resources that might otherwise be used for development. “It’s not our decision to make,” he once remarked. “It’s up to the people themselves.”

As well as preserving records of endangered languages, Ladefoged and Maddieson were interested in how many distinct vowels and consonants languages employ (they estimated that there were some 200 vowels and 900 consonants), and in what combinations of vowels and consonants are possible.

Their book, The Sounds of the World’s Languages (1996), is considered the most comprehensive work on the subject, and their research provided insights into the evolution of languages, as well as the historical relationships between them.

Peter Nielsen Ladefoged was born on September 17 1925 at Sutton, Surrey. His father, Niels, was a successful importer of Danish bacon and cheese.

Peter was educated at Haileybury, then spent a year at Caius College, Cambridge, before joining the Royal Sussex Regiment in 1944.

Three years later he resumed his education at Edinburgh University, where he studied Phonetics with David Abercrombie, eventually emerging with a doctorate on the “nature of vowel quality”.

After completing his thesis, Ladefoged met Donald Broadbent, a psychologist working in Cambridge, and together they conducted experiments on the relative nature of vowel quality using synthetic speech.

This led to their collaborating on other aspects of speech perception, and through Broadbent Ladefoged became interested in perceptual psychology.

In 1953 he was appointed an assistant lecturer in phonetics at Edinburgh, and was promoted to lecturer two years later. In 1959 he was offered the same post at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, and this introduction to Africa provided the opportunity for the fieldwork which culminated in A Phonetic Study of West African Languages.

In recording some 60 languages, he was already using data-collecting techniques (such as casts of the mouth, photographs of the lips) that were new to the discipline.

In 1962 Ladefoged moved from his base at Edinburgh to the English department at UCLA, where he was appointed an assistant professor of phonetics.

It was during his early days in Los Angeles that the director of My Fair Lady, George Cukor, employed him as the film’s chief linguistic consultant.

Ladefoged’s role was to teach Rex Harrison (who won an Oscar for his role as Higgins) to behave like a phonetician, and it is Ladefoged’s voice that is heard producing the vowel sounds in the film.

He advised on equipping Henry Higgins’s phonetics lab, and made all the phonetic transcriptions seen on screen.

Ladefoged later recalled: “I’d never heard of Cukor. It just struck me as the chance to earn a fortune each week. It was just so much more than a professor’s salary. It paid me enough to buy my first car in America.”

He enjoyed the finished film, released in 1964, but lamented that Audrey Hepburn proved incapable of a realistic Cockney accent.

At UCLA Ladefoged established the phonetics laboratory, and in 1966 joined the newly-established linguistics department.

Of his 10 books, several were on the phonetics of African languages. His Course in Phonetics (1975) has run to five editions, and is still the principal introductory text in the subject.

Ladefoged was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1990. He was president of the International Phonetic Association from 1987 to 1991, and editor of its journal. In 2005 he was Leverhulme Professor at Edinburgh University.

A lively and gifted teacher, Ladefoged was a valued mentor to many graduate students and to his younger colleagues; they also warmed to his sense of humour (his e-mail address was oldfogey@ucla). He was an inveterate e-mailer, and remained endlessly enthusiastic about his subject.

Peter Ladefoged died in a London hospital on January 24. He had been on his way back to California from a research trip in India when he was taken ill at Heathrow Airport.

He married Jenny MacDonald in 1953, having told her that, if she became his wife, she would travel to every continent. They had a son and two daughters.