John Ohala, a major figure in phonetics and phonology of the second half of the 20th century, died at home in Berkeley on August 22. John is survived by his wife Manju, who contributed to many works with him. His contribution to the sciences of speech is immense in several fields: the use of experimental methods which integrate phonetics and phonology, the study of the sources of sound change, the relation of ethological phenomena to speech, and the role of aerodynamics, physiology, and general cognitive abilities in phonetic and phonological explanation. John’s contributions were a direct continuation of the work of Abbé Rousselot, the founder of experimental phonetics, and the model on which John based his own work.
John defended his thesis in 1969 at UCLA under the supervision of Peter Ladefoged. His thesis investigated aspects of the control of speech production in ways that prefigured many of his later contributions in phonetics and phonology. The implementation of original and rigorous experimental procedures to explore the control of the fundamental frequency of the vocal source is a good example. Before being recruited very young, in 1970, by the University of California, Berkeley y, he did a post-doctorate in Japan where he continued to develop methods to investigate the muscles of the larynx, in particular with Hirano. Soon after he arrived at Berkeley, John took over the Phonology Laboratory, and turned it into a site of vibrant research by himself and the many students he supervised.
One of John’s major contributions was demonstrating the importance of perception and the listener in mechanisms of sound change. From this perspective, he advocated methods that sought to reproduce sound change in the laboratory by recreating the circumstances that might have initiated it.
John was a passionate and captivating man for those who were fortunate enough to come close to him. He was known for his sense of humor and his famous jokes, often politically incorrect, which won him more than friends. These jokes actually manifested a shyness that he never waived over the years. True or false, some of his phonetic jokes have become legendary. To students concerned about the doctoral program interview, he recounted that during his audition at UCLA, the doctoral program director asked him to explain what a schwa was. Hesitant on how to answer John started by saying euuu [ə] to which the interviewer, Bob Stockwell, allegedly told him, OK you’re engaged.
A passionate man, he was also a formidable critic, of what he took to be shallow and unfounded claims in research on phonetics and phonology. Many colleagues and sometimes those whom he opposed most violently recognized, however, that he always helped to advance knowledge.
Perhaps of greatest importance, however, was his being the first to state and test many hypotheses about the relationship between speakers’ and listeners’ behavior and sound patterns and changes that recur across languages. He was able to do so because he did not view those patterns and changes as taking place within an enclosed linguistic system, but instead as products of quite general aspects of humans’ behavior and abilities. The hypotheses might not be right or complete in every detail, but they were very seldom fundamentally wrong, because they sought to reduce phenomena that appeared to be specific to language to principles that also governed many other, non-linguistic phenomena.
John had two other great passions, one for photography, which he practiced on hikes or park tours with Manju. Everyone who was close to him surely remembers his beautiful greeting cards illustrated with pictures of birds, when it was not entire albums that summed up a trip or a visit to a laboratory. John’s other passion was for old books and especially for early editions of books on speech. John had arguably one of the finest speech libraries in existence. He hoped to be able to leave it for free consultation by the entire speech science community. John also liked to share his discoveries in this area. Many of us may remember John at the ICPhS Congress in Hong Kong where he took the time to show, to anyone who wanted to see it, one of the few editions of Kratzenstein’s famous work on vowels still in existence. Those lucky enough to be invited to spend a night in his study, while visiting his home off Grizzly Peak in Berkeley, must remember that they did not get much sleep between the first editions of his many books some dating back to the 15th century.
John enjoyed discussing science and phonetics ad libitum with his students and alumni. The famous hikes on Mont Diablo with colleagues, students, friends and sometimes their children remain vivid memories for all those who took part. The bird photos, after feeding the raccoon family he nurtured for a while, the lively discussions about a paper or a project, and the jokes made these meetings special moments for all who participated. John was the representative of a generation of researchers who definitively gave speech sciences their scientific status. We may not see his like again.
Didier Demolin and John Kingston