Phonetic Data Analysis [Peter Ladefoged]

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So, I mentioned briefly in my very first post that I was a Linguist, and it’s time for me to elaborate a bit. I graduated from Edinburgh University last year having finished a degree in Linguistics, and within this very broad field one of my sort of ‘specialist subjects’ (such a Mastermind wannabe) was phonetics. Today’s book: ‘Phonetic Data Analysis’ by Peter Ladefoged is sort of a double-whammy of goodness for me because not only is it about one of my favourite subjects, but Peter Ladefoged is also an Edinburgh alum (as well as being, you know, probably the most famous phonetician that has ever lived). And, as I’m about to show you, he was a super cool guy – he even worked with Rex Harrison on ‘My Fair Lady’ to show him how to behave like a real phonetician!

Now I understand that this all might lead you to expect a really dry post about a really niche textbook, but please bear with me because I promise I’m not going to go into depth about vowel characteristics and aerodynamics. I wanted to use this book as an example of how much of a difference it makes to non-fiction books, and particularly textbooks, when the authors make an effort to connect with you, and make their writing accessible – rather than using their book as a 300-page showcase of how brainy they are. A good example is Richard Feynman, who makes mind-bogglingly complex topics come alive no matter whether you have a PhD in Physics or you left school at 16 and are just a bit curious. But, as I said, I’m a Linguist, and so I’m here to champion Peter Ladefoged.

Ladefoged blends his wealth of knowledge and relaxed writing style so harmoniously that you almost forget that you’re actually reading about some pretty complex stuff. And one of the most brilliant things of all is that he includes little “side-notes” – anecdotes about relevant moments in his career, in which he comes across as a really normal guy, who occasionally embarrassed himself and who loved meeting and getting to know people. This gives the reader such a huge boost towards feeling as though they’re level with Ladefoged, especially for students of the subject. Instead of placing the author up on a pedestal, you’re reminded that even experts had to learn all this stuff once too – at one stage they were exactly where you are now. Let me give you one of my favourite examples, in which he performs some ad-hoc static palatography (this is where the roof of a subject’s mouth is coated in a dark substance, and then once they have articulated a speech sound it becomes clear which parts of the tongue and roof of the mouth were involved):


“At a party I once met a speaker of Basque… I wanted to observe. I borrowed a small hand mirror, and made some charcoal by burning a piece of toast and scraping the black parts onto a flat surface. I ground them into a fine powder using a beer bottle as a rolling-pin. There was some olive oil in the kitchen to mix with the powder, and a cotton swab served as a paintbrush. Lacking a camera, I looked into his mouth and sketched what I could see. An interesting evening’s work. The beer was good too.”


At the same time, Ladefoged’s style in the main body of text never falls into the realm of  being silly. It is still a textbook, and you never forget that. But those little sidebars act in much the same way as the grave-digger scene in Hamlet does; both that scene and these anecdotes are there to break things up –  to make the mentally challenging or draining stuff a bit more bearable. They’re essentially forms of comic relief, and they show that while the writers are gifted in their respective fields, they never lose sight of the fact that their audience doesn’t have all this in their head – that their audience is being challenged by their writing, and that this is a tiring process to go through. I think that some expert academics have been so engrossed in their area of interest for so long that they forget that the things they now consider to be ‘basic’ are often really quite tough for laymen, or even undergraduate students (heck, postgrads, too), to wrap their heads around. And that is a completely understandable thing. But it is the ability to recognise that in themselves, and to accommodate this in their writing, that sets the Ladefogeds and the Feynmans of the world apart from the rest.

I’ve finished this and want something similar:

‘Phonetic Data Analysis’ is a great example of Ladefoged’s writing, but it is by no means the only one I would recommend. Sitting in front of me on my bookshelf is the very excellent ‘Elements of Acoustic Phonetics’, which I almost blogged about instead of PDA (tee hee). ‘Phonetic Data Analysis’ will tell you lots about field work, and might interest those of you who like sociology. ‘Elements’ is definitely much more of a physics-based book and is equally fascinating.

Also check out Richard Feynman, who has written an awful lot of stuff. I might do a blog post on something specific of his in the future – so let me know in the comments if there is one you’d be really keen for me to write about. He has also done a famous series called ‘Fun To Imagine’ which is available in several episodes on Youtube and is extremely watchable. Highly recommended.

What do you think?

As always I would love to hear any of your opinions on this book, or on the author, in the comments.

Until next time, thanks for reading! x




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