Peter Nielsen Ladefoged (pronounced /ˈlædɪfoʊɡɪd/; September 17, 1925 – January 24, 2006) was an English-American linguist and phonetician who traveled the world to document the distinct sounds of endangered languages and pioneered ways to collect and study data. He was active at the universities of Edinburgh, Scotland and Ibadan, Nigeria 1953–61. At Edinburgh he studied phonetics with David Abercrombie, who himself had studied with Daniel Jones and was thus connected to Henry Sweet.
At the time of his death, he was Professor of Phonetics Emeritus at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he taught from 1962 to 1991. His book A Course in Phonetics is a common introductory text in phonetics, and The Sounds of the World's Languages (co-authored with Ian Maddieson) is widely regarded as a standard phonetics reference. Ladefoged also wrote several books on the phonetics of African languages.
Peter Ladefoged was born on September 17, 1925, in Sutton (then in Surrey, now in Greater London), England to Niels, an importer of Danish bacon and cheese, and his wife, Marie Frances. He attended Haileybury College from 1938–43, and Caius College, a constituent college of Cambridge University from 1943–44. His university education was then interrupted by service in the Royal Sussex Regiment during World War II from 1944–47. He resumed his education at the University of Edinburgh, intending to study English literature but soon became fascinated by the sounds of speech. He received an M.A. (1951) and a Ph.D. (1959) in Phonetics.
He was able to receive a first degree after only two years as an undergraduate at Edinburgh because returning World War II servicemen were allowed a year off from the usual three year requirement for an Ordinary degree. After receiving an M.A. (ordinary) (war emergency) in 1951, he went on to do a year's postgraduate work in phonetics. At the end of that year he got his first job, as a lab assistant cutting vinyl recordings. On January 1, 1953, he was promoted to Assistant Lecturer in Phonetics
In the late 1950s, Ladefoged decided to work in the United States, but this required a Ph.D. degree. The university registrar allowed him to count the three years that he was a member of the faculty. All he needed was to complete a thesis. Ladefoged's dissertation was on the "nature of vowel quality," specifically on the cardinal vowels and their articulatory vs. auditory basis. After consultation with and advice from David Abercrombie, the head of the Phonetics Department, Ladefoged took three papers that he had already published on aspects of vowel quality, and added an introductory survey. He also appended some work that he had been doing on cardinal vowels with Daniel Jones, who had recently retired from the chair of phonetics at University College London. Abercrombie arranged a grant enabling Jones to be a consultant on Ladefoged's project to study the acoustic quality of cardinal vowels, which enabled him an opportunity to work with the leading phonetician of the time. The sets of vowels recorded under Jones’s supervision were made by his former pupils. Although not very noteworthy, this part of his project provided an early example of the problems of analyzing vowels spectrographically.
After completing his thesis, Ladefoged received his Ph.D. upon completion of an oral exam that included Walter Lawrence – the inventor of PAT, the first parametric speech synthesizer – as an outside examiner. It was through Lawrence that Ladefoged met Donald Broadbent, who was a psychologist working in Cambridge at the time. They teamed together to conduct experiments using synthetic speech, about the relative nature of vowel quality. This led to their working together on other aspects of speech perception, and through Broadbent he learned how to do work in perceptual psychology.
Another person whom Ladefoged was able to work with through David Abercrombie was David Whitteridge, the Professor of Physiology, who was interested in the control of the respiratory system in speech. Ladefoged started working in Whitteridge's lab, at first every Saturday morning, then for days at a time, and then longer and longer as they realized that the control of the respiratory muscles was no simple matter. Said Ladefoged, "It was really Whitteridge who taught me to be a scientist."
At the same time, he began important research projects with Donald Broadbent, Walter Lawrence, Morris H. Draper, and David Whitteridge, with his first publications appearing in 1956. His 1957 paper with Donald Broadbent, "Information conveyed by vowels", was particularly influential.
Soon after moving to Los Angeles from Scotland to become an assistant professor at UCLA in 1962, Ladefoged had a brief career in Hollywood as the chief linguistic consultant on the 1964 film My Fair Lady. Director George Cukor wanted him to teach the film's star, Rex Harrison — who would win an Oscar for the role of Professor Henry Higgins — to behave like a phonetician. It is Ladefoged's voice that is heard producing the vowel sounds in the film.
Ladefoged was involved with the phonetics laboratory at UCLA, which he established in 1962. He also was interested in listening to and describing every sound used in spoken human language, which he estimated at 900 consonants and 200 vowels. This research formed the basis of much of The Sounds of the World's Languages. In 1966 Ladefoged moved from the UCLA English Department to join the newly established Linguistics Department.
Ladefoged's opinion on studying endangered languages was that linguists should record languages but not necessarily try to save them, even though he predicted that all but a handful of the world's 6,500 languages would disappear over the next thousand years. He argued that preserving languages could weaken national unity, encourage tribalism, and absorb scarce resources that might otherwise be used for development.
Ladefoged was also a member of the International Phonetic Association for a long time, and was involved in maintaining its International Phonetic Alphabet. He was also editor of the Journal of the International Phonetic Association. Ladefoged served on the board of directors of the Endangered Language Fund since its inception.
Ladefoged married Jenny MacDonald in 1953, a marriage which lasted over 50 years. They had three children, Lise Friedman, a bookseller, Thegn Ladefoged , archaeologist, University of Auckland and Katie Weiss, attorney and public defender, Nashville, Tennessee. He also had five grandchildren.
Ladefoged died on January 24, 2006 at the age of 80 in hospital. After a research trip to India, he had a safe flight from Bombay to London, England, but suffered a small stroke at Heathrow Airport. He was then taken to hospital, where he suffered a second, massive, stroke and died soon after.
During his academic career, Ladefoged was a worldwide field linguist, as he visited Nigeria, Botswana, Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Senegal, India, Yemen, Papua New Guinea, Nepal, Thailand, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Korea, Scotland, the Aleutians, and China. Much of his fieldwork remains unique to this day and he originated or refined many data collection and analytic techniques in the field. His classic 1996 Sounds of the World's Languages (with Ian Maddieson) summarized his knowledge of all the sounds he had studied and remains the definitive reference work. His 20 PhD students include such influential figures as Vicki Fromkin, John Ohala, Ian Maddieson, Louis Goldstein, and Cathe Browman. His textbook A Course in Phonetics, which is in its fifth edition, is the standard in phonetics.
Ladefoged also pioneered the use of state-of-the-art equipment in the field. His first portable phonetics lab that included a tape recorder and various scientific instruments weighed 100 pounds and required a porter but enabled him to do more than listen: He could take quantitative measurements, such as gauging how much air escaped from the nose or throat when a sound was made.
In an earlier trip to India, he recorded the Toda language, which is spoken by fewer than 1,000 people, as he documented its six trills produced by the tip of the tongue. In the Kalahari Desert, he studied the click sounds native to that part of Africa. In America, an Indian tribe, whose members knew their language was vanishing, refused to cooperate because they did not want to reveal their culture to outsiders.
I wanted to find out why Shelley could write better-sounding poetry than I.
– Los Angeles Times, 1970
It was really [David] Whitteridge who taught me to be a scientist.
– informal CV, Peter Ladefoged
I'd never heard of [director George] 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.
My immediate answer was, 'I don't have a singing butler and three maids who sing, but I will tell you what I can as an assistant professor.'
– Los Angeles Times, 2004
[It's] not our decision to make. It's up to the people themselves.
– National Public Radio, 1999
He did extensive linguistic fieldwork on a scale it had not been done before, and when he brought it back from the field he found ways to use sophisticated laboratory equipment to analyze his recordings.
– Pat Keating, UCLA