New York Times Ladefoged Obituary

From the New York Times

Peter Ladefoged, 80, Linguist Who Was Immersed in Speech, Is Dead


Published: February 8, 2006

Peter Ladefoged, an internationally renowned linguist who spent his life blissfully awash in the whistles, murmurs, pops, clicks and trills that make up the world’s spoken languages, died on Jan. 24 in London. Professor Ladefoged, who was returning to his home in Aliso Viejo, Calif., from fieldwork in India, was 80.

Photo by Carl David Labianca, 1996

The cause was a stroke, said a spokesman for the University of California at Los Angeles, where he was distinguished professor emeritus of phonetics.

Professor Ladefoged was widely regarded as the world’s foremost phonetician, a scholar who studies the acoustics and physiology of speech — the precise interplay of tongue, lung and larynx that creates the inventory of noises we use in the everyday business of talking.

His job recalled that of a modern-day Henry Higgins, and in fact, Professor Ladefoged, who was born in England and to the end of his life retained its plummy tones, was the resident phonetics expert on the set of the movie version of “My Fair Lady,” released in 1964.

In more scholarly work, he made significant contributions to forensic phonetics, the science of speech as used by the police and in courts of law. (His work included studies demonstrating the unreliability of voice identification by ear alone.) He also documented endangered languages around the world.

Professor Ladefoged was known in particular for his widely used textbook “A Course in Phonetics” (Thomson/Wadsworth), published in its fifth edition this year. With Ian Maddieson, he wrote “The Sounds of the World’s Languages” (Blackwell, 1996), considered the definitive catalog of the consonants and vowels of the world’s 6,000 tongues. His family name, Danish in origin, is pronounced “LAD-uh-foe-gid.”

Language is a symbolic code, designed to convey meaning from one human mind to another. In spoken language, the code is realized as sound waves, produced when air is forced from a speaker’s lungs past the vocal cords and out of the mouth.

The ear converts these vibrations into electrical impulses, which are relayed to the speech-processing centers of the brain.

These little disturbances of air were Professor Ladefoged’s lifework. How many speech sounds, he wondered, are humanly possible? What parts of the anatomy — tongue, teeth, lips and hard and soft palates — can be used to make them? Which noises are deployed as linguistic code in a particular language, which are not, and what accounts for the difference?

Armed with tape recorder, oscilloscope and equipment for measuring air flow, he traveled to remote villages around the globe, recording what he found there in all its noisy variety.

He liked to paint speakers’ palates with a concoction of olive oil and powdered charcoal, which let him photograph the precise spot at which the tongue made contact with the roof of the mouth (thereby wiping away some charcoal) as a particular sound was made.

In an autobiographical essay on his Web site, Professor Ladefoged recounted the singular pleasures of the phonetician’s life. (The passage describes communities in Botswana, Tanzania, Brazil, India and Taiwan, respectively):

“Another delight of fieldwork is the charm of the people one meets,” he wrote. “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.”

Peter Nielsen Ladefoged was born in Sutton, England, on Sept. 17, 1925. His undergraduate work was interrupted by World War II, in which he served in Italy with the Royal Sussex Regiment.

Resuming his studies, he earned a master’s degree from the University of Edinburgh in 1951 and a doctorate in 1959. After teaching at Edinburgh and in Nigeria, he joined the U.C.L.A. faculty in 1962.

Professor Ladefoged is survived by his wife, the former Jenny Macdonald, whom he married in 1953; two daughters, Lise Friedman, of Culver City, Calif., and Katie Bottom, of Nashville; a son, Thegn, of Auckland, New Zealand; and five grandchildren.

Not long after he went to California, Professor Ladefoged was hired by the director George Cukor to teach Rex Harrison how to behave like an Edwardian-era phonetician.

“He had been playing the role of Professor Higgins on stage for a while but nobody could see if he was pointing to the right phonetic symbols on charts, or using equipment correctly,” Professor Ladefoged told The Express of London in 2004. “But on screen he knew there was nowhere to hide and wanted to get it right.”

Despite his efforts, he told The Express, the result was “a very entertaining film — but a poor piece of science.”