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UCLA creates digital archive of unique languages

The late UCLA professor Peter Ladefoged was the Indiana Jones of spoken language. For almost 50 years, the phonetics researcher traveled the globe with recording equipment, in search of obscure and disappearing languages. This month, his colleagues at UCLA completed a four-year effort to create a digital public archive of his abundant field recordings. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez has the story.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: On one notable trip to the Niger delta, Peter Ladefoged wrote, a torrential rain fell on 24 people cramped in a dugout canoe built to carry half as many.

As water rose in the moving canoe, Ladefoged wondered whether insurance would cover his thousands of dollars in recording equipment. He and the equipment made it to shore intact.

Peter Ladefoged: OK, it's the 15th of August, 1994, this is Peter Ladefoged. Could you say your name for me please?
Miller Ibiapuowuma: Miller Ibiapuowuma.
Ladefoged: Again.
Ibiapuowuma: Miller Ibiapuowuma.
Ladefoged: Yes, speak up sort of fairly well if you would.

Guzman-Lopez: Ladefoged found himself in the village chief's hut, downing a potent liquor his hosts had offered, ready to document the dying Defaka language.

Ladefoged: We'll begin with your word for wing. What's your word for wing?
Ibiapuowuma: Para.
Ladefoged: Again. Oh no, you gave me the word for leg.
Ibiapuowuma: Oh, the wing, yes. Apa.
Ladefoged: Again.
Ibiapuowuma: Apa.
Ladefoged: The word for leg.
Ibiapuowuma: Para.

Guzman-Lopez: Ladefoged studied in minute detail the interplay between the mouth, larynx, and lungs to create sounds unique to Defeka – and the sounds it shared with other languages.

Ladefoged was the top phonetician of his time. He also helped to immortalize one of the few phoneticians to star in a screenplay, Professor Henry Higgins in the 1964 movie musical "My Fair Lady."

Henry Higgins: Now go ahead Eliza.
Eliza: Cup of tea.
Higgins: Oh, no. Can't you hear the difference? Put your tongue forward. That it squeezes on the top of your lower teeth and then say cup.
Eliza: Cup.
Higgins: Then say of.
Eliza: Of.
Higgins: Then say cup, cup, cup, cup, of, of, of, of.

Guzman-Lopez: The creative team behind the big-budget film hired Peter Ladefoged to re-create Higgins' phonetics lab – and to help lead actor Rex Harrison believably portray a 19th century phonetician.

Eliza: The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.
Higgins: I think she's got it, I think she's got it.

Guzman-Lopez: Ladefoged told a newspaper that movie was as enjoyable a piece of entertainment as it was a poor piece of science. Almost three years after he died returning from field work in India, a black-and-white glossy of Ladefoged working on "My Fair Lady" remains tacked to a wall at UCLA's Phonetics Lab.

Pat Keating: Peter is showing Colonel Pickering how to point to the phonetic symbols.

Guzman-Lopez: UCLA linguist Pat Keating worked with Ladefoged. She said her mentor joked that as an impoverished assistant professor newly arrived in California from England, he couldn't offer Rex Harrison much advice on 19th century poise.

Keating: But he did arrange all the phonetic equipment that you see and he brought from Edinburgh the knowledge of what a turn of the century phonetics lab would have looked like. And as he said, he made enough money to buy his first car.

Guzman-Lopez: As founder and head of UCLA's phonetics lab, Ladefoged nurtured generations of researchers. Several years before he died, Ladefoged and the other professors concluded it was imperative to convert decades of analog field recordings into a permanent digital archive. It made sense, Pat Keating said, given Ladefoged's goal to capture a snapshot of spoken languages in constant flux.

Keating: He was concerned that a language might disappear, a language that had an unusual sound, it might disappear before we had recorded that sound, and then we would never know that this particular, unusual sound had ever occurred in a human language.

Guzman-Lopez: Such as the !Xóõ language spoken by bushmen in Southern Africa.

[!Xóõ speaker]

Keli Vaughan: When he was in Africa, India.

Guzman-Lopez: Linguistics student Keli Vaughan opened a filing cabinet full of field notes and audio recordings. The lab has documented about 200 languages.

Ladefoged made about half the recordings. His students and colleagues did the rest. In the last four years, Vaughan's been one of the students paid to do the grunt work of organizing the phonetics lab archives.

Vaughan: I found this word, and I'll cry if I think about it too hard, but it's a little word like uwu, which means to feel discriminated against.

Guzman-Lopez: She never got to meet the phonetician behind this lab. But through hours of logging, transcribing, and reviewing his notes, Vaughan said she's grown to understand Ladefoged's passion for speech.

Vaughan: And our languages reflect the same feelings and concerns, and so when I'm going through all this data from these places which are very exotic and remote to me – people are feeling the same things, experiencing the same things.

Guzman-Lopez: Here's how Peter Ladefoged began one of his phonetics texts:

"...sounds are so fleeting and transient. As each word is uttered it ceases to exist." Now that his life's field work is digitized, it's nearly certain that his spoken words – and the ones he studied – will endure.