My personal history


The Philological Society recently (May 2002) published Linguistics in Britain: Personal Histories, a collection of personal histories edited by Keith Brown and Vivien Law and written by some of the people responsible for establishing linguistics as an academic discipline in the United Kingdom. This is the article I contributed.

In this web version I have added a few pictures and also, in smaller type, some further autobiographical material not relevant to phonetics and linguistics.

Names marked with an asterisk (*) are those of other contributors to the volume in which the article appeared.

The text includes a few Unicode characters (Polish letters and IPA symbols) that not all browsers/fonts can display. To see the Polish letters you need IE 4/Netscape 4 or later and a WGL4 font (supplied as standard with Windows 98+). To see the IPA symbols too you need to install a Unicode font that covers them. For Windows this means either Lucida Sans Unicode (download) or the vast Arial Unicode MS (download). -- JCW, December 2000/May 2002

contemporary photo of JCW
WELLS, John Christopher, FBA 1996; Professor of Phonetics, University Coll. London, since 1988; b. 11 March 1939; Educ: St John's Sch., Leatherhead; Trinity Coll. Cambridge (BA 1960; MA 1964); University Coll. London (MA 1962; PhD 1971); Asst. Lecturer in Phonetics, UCL 1962-65, Lecturer 1965-82, Reader 1982-88, (Head of Department of Phonetics and Linguistics 1990-2000). Member, Council of the IPA 1970- (Secretary 1973-86; Editor, JIPA 1971-87); Member, Council of the Phil. Soc. 1989-1995. Member, Academy of Esperanto 1971-. President, World Esperanto Assn. 1989-95. Major publications: Longman Pronunciation Dictionary 1990, 2000; Accents of English (three vols. and cassette) 1982; Lingvistikaj Aspektoj de Esperanto, 1978, 1989; Jamaican Pronunciation in London, 1973; (with G. Colson) Practical Phonetics 1971; Concise Esperanto and English Dictionary, 1969.

For the purposes of my future career, I think I chose my parents well. My father was an Anglican clergyman, my mother a teacher of physical education and mathematics. Both were university graduates, both read widely, and both were accustomed to speaking in public and to putting across difficult topics in accessible terms.    family group c. 1945
1944 or 1945, when I was five or six, on holiday in Yorkshire. L. to r.: my brother Tony, me, my brother Roger, my mother.

family group, c. 1955
L to r: Tony, my mother, me, my father, Roger. About 1955, when I was 16.

My father, Philip Wells, was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 1909, the youngest of three brothers. His father, Edward, my grandfather, died quite shortly after his birth, and his mother, Eva, née DeAth, my grandmother, then brought the family to England. His mother and brothers later returned to South Africa, but he remained in England all his life, going abroad only for two brief holidays, one in Germany and one in Ireland, both before I was born. He died in 1974, on the verge of retirement.

My mother, Winifred, born 1910, was from Leeds in Yorkshire. Her father, William Peaker, was a schoolteacher, and her mother, née Fawcett, was from the small village of Dent in the Yorkshire Dales. I was taken to visit my Dent relatives when I was six, and particularly remember my great-aunt addressing me using the old second-person-singular pronoun thou, now only dialectal, as Wouldsta like a cup of milk? (see also Hedevind, 1967). My mother died in 1997.

My parents met as undergraduates at the University of Leeds. After graduating, my father entered theological college at Mirfield. Upon ordination he served as curate first in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, and then in Walton, a suburb of Liverpool. Meanwhile my mother had qualified as a teacher, and held her first post in Bebington on the Wirral, across the Mersey from Liverpool. They were married in 1937. In that year my father was appointed Vicar of the parish of Upholland, near Wigan, Lancashire (now part of Greater Manchester). In accordance with the law as it then was, my mother had to give up her job upon marriage; but she was allowed to return to teaching in 1948.

I was the eldest of their three children. My middle brother Tony, born 1940, went into the insurance business. My youngest brother Roger, born 1942, became a schoolteacher. They have both remained in the north of England -- Tony in the outskirts of Birmingham, Roger near Bury north of Manchester. I am the only member of the family to live in the south.

Between the ages of five and nine I attended Notre Dame Roman Catholic primary school in Wigan, my father demonstrating a remarkably ecumenical attitude for the period. From 1948 onwards I attended boarding schools, first Broadwater Manor House preparatory school in Worthing, Sussex, and then, from 1951, the (minor) public school St John's Leatherhead, Surrey.

We lived in Upholland until I was fifteen, when we moved to Derbyshire, my father having been appointed Rector of Walton-upon-Trent and Rural Dean of Repton. My mother thereupon became a teacher at Burton-on-Trent Girls' High School. After my father's death she went to live in a cottage in the Yorkshire Dales, near Bainbridge.

I had a happy though impecunious childhood. My parents could not have afforded from their own resources to educate me at independent schools, but I was supported from the age of nine onwards by scholarships. I am grateful to the long-dead benefactors who made this possible.

I have always been interested in languages. I started French in primary school and then Latin at prep school. There I also came across an old copy of Hugo's Learn Italian in Three Months, and for my twelfth birthday asked for, and received, an Italian-English dictionary. By then my Latin teacher was giving me Virgil to read in the original. I started Ancient Greek the same year, when I moved to St John's Leatherhead. At the age of fourteen I passed my O levels (equivalent of today's GCSEs) in French, Latin, Greek and English Language; my other subjects included English Literature, Maths and Additional Maths.

Like several other contributors to this volume, I started out as a classicist. My choice of classics flowed really from a decision I had to make on arrival at St John's, where I was required to choose between Science, Spanish, and Greek: I chose Greek. When I came to enter the sixth form, my best two subjects (French and Maths) could not be combined, whereas my two next best (Greek and Latin) could. I went on to do classics at A and S levels and then at university.

At age 16 I decided to teach myself Esperanto. I quickly attained fluency, and read widely: not only original works of literature (yes, they do exist) but also translations which gave me a nodding acquaintance at least, via Esperanto, with some of the masterpieces of the literatures of Italian, Polish, Hungarian, Finnish, and Japanese. By the time I went up to Cambridge I had read Mickiewicz and Madách and knew what a haiku was.   cover of Madach's epic
Madách's Tragedy of Man

I also taught myself shorthand: not the Pitman shorthand commonly used in Britain, but Gregg shorthand, as used in the USA. I achieved a respectable speed in writing it. The snag was that in class I tended to write down everything the teacher said, instead of producing a précis as the longhand user has to. This made my notes too prolix. Once I realized the problem I decided to use shorthand only on the rare occasions when a verbatim note is required.

Yet another thing I did in my teenage years was to teach myself to play the melodeon, a kind of button accordion. Later, as a student at Cambridge and at UCL I regularly took part in square dancing, Scottish dancing, and English country dancing. (I had learnt English folk dancing as a boy, in classes run by my mother in the village.) The melodeon is a traditional folk dance instrument, and in my thirties and forties I used to play semi-professionally in a folk dance band on Saturday nights. Now I have given up both dancing and playing. [added 2011: At the end of 2009 I started playing again, and have now regained my former competence. Here's a clip of me playing.]   playing the  melodeon
As a melodeon player with a student folk dance group, c. 1962.

As a teenager I borrowed several books a week from the public library, including some on phonetics and linguistics. I remember puzzling over Daniel Jones's description of the articulation of English /r/ and concluding that he and I articulated it in different ways.

Leaving school in 1957, I had a few months to spare before going up to university. Given that I was interested in languages and anxious to travel, my parents very sensibly arranged an exchange with a German family. I spent six weeks in Kiel with the von Briskorns, and then their son Klaus spent six weeks with us in England. This was my first trip abroad, and I was determined to put it to good use. It offered ideal conditions for ab initio language learning -- total immersion. Both Klaus and I took the task of my learning German very seriously. While he was at school during the day, I was left at home with Frau v. Briskorn, who knew no English but took me shopping with her and kept up a constant flow of conversation. In this way I acquired a fluency in German which has been useful to me ever since. On re-establishing contact with Klaus thirty years later, I was interested to observe that I had based my German pronunciation exactly on his, not on that of his siblings or parents. For example, I still tend to pronounce Zug as [tsʊx] rather than the standard [tsuːk].

It was at Cambridge that I first came seriously into contact with phonetics and linguistics. For the third year of the Classical Tripos we had to choose between philosophy, archaeology, history, literature, and language. I chose language. This mainly meant comparative philology, under the guidance of Sidney Allen, who like me was at Trinity. He introduced us to linguistics. Latin and Greek had hitherto been purely written languages for me, and it was a revelation to be taught that they had phonemic systems and allophones. I remember constructing vowel diagrams for him of the vowel systems of both languages. We were also taught Italic dialects by Oswald Szemerenyi and some Sanskrit by Sir Harold Bailey. I found Gleason's Introduction (1955) in the library, and read it with fascination. I even purchased a copy of Bloomfield's Language.

All six of us who were in the 1959-60 language group became academics; among us were Jean Aitchison*, Eleanor Higginbottom (who was briefly to become Lecturer in Phonetics at Cambridge; her surname was subsequently Young and then Jackson) and Wyn Roberts (the first native speaker of Welsh I had met; now professor of Linguistics at Simon Fraser). John Lyons* and Peter Matthews* were postgraduates ahead of us, and seemed to know an awful lot more than I did.   as a student
As a student at Cambridge

Meanwhile John Trim* was in his second year as a lecturer in the Department of Other Languages. I attended his course on phonetics, and found the subject enthralling. It is to Trim that I owe all my basic phonetic training. He not only taught us phonetic theory but also provided ample practice in ear-training and sound production in accordance with the Daniel Jones tradition. When, due to graduate, I expressed a wish to study phonetics further, he recommended me to Dennis Fry and A.C. Gimson at University College London, who accepted me for the two-year MA (as it then was) in General Linguistics and Phonetics. I was lucky enough to win a state scholarship to finance me for these two years, so that both my undergraduate and my taught-postgraduate study were financed by the government. I had to live very frugally as a student, but at least I did not emerge with a burden of debt such as today's students typically incur.

photo, 1960
Photo from my YHA membership card, 1960, which bears the stamp of youth hostels in Athens and Delphi
   At the end of my final undergraduate year I won a travel scholarship that enabled me to visit Greece. I studied Pring's phonetics-based grammar of Modern Greek (1950) and tried to acquire as much knowledge of the modern language as I could, building on the extensive knowledge of Ancient Greek that I already had. This was before the days of mass tourism in Greece, and I was able to explore the Parthenon in Athens and to sit on the supposed throne of King Minos in Crete in a way that would be quite impossible today.

At the Cambridge University Esperanto Club I had got to know Victor Sadler, reading psychology one year ahead of me. He preceded me to the UCL Phonetics Department as a postgraduate to work on psychoacoustics, so that when I arrived there was already someone in the Department that I knew. (In later life, after a spell running the World Esperanto Association office in Rotterdam, he was to become a software engineer working on machine translation and the millennium bug.) Eleanor Higginbottom also transferred from Cambridge to UCL Phonetics at the same time as I did. David Crystal*, then an undergraduate in the UCL English Department, used to be waiting outside O'Connor's room for his hour of supervision as I came out from mine.

As postgraduates at UCL Eleanor and I were taught linguistic phonetics by Gimson and O'Connor, and experimental phonetics by Fry and Fourcin. We were sent to Robins* at the School of Oriental and African Studies for linguistics supervision. (I was however warned not to take too seriously everything I might come across at SOAS, because "they have some very strange ideas there".) I also attended Jack Carnochan's course on the phonetics of Ibo. Firth died three months after I reached UCL, and I never met him.

Back at UCL, Gimson set Eleanor and me the tutorial assignment of describing the phonetics of our own idiolects. He was so pleased with the results that he published both our essays in Le Maître Phonétique. Anyone who seeks out this, my first published article (Wells, 1962), will be struck by my choice of phonemicization: American-style structuralist, demonstrating the striking extent to which I was under the influence of the now deeply unfashionable neo-Bloomfieldians (see for example Trager and Smith, 1951, and Hockett, 1958). In fact I exchanged letters with both Gleason and Henry Lee Smith Jr. at this time.

Dennis Fry rightly insisted that if I wanted to make a career as a phonetician I must get to grips with laboratory phonetics. Coming as I did from an arts background, I did not find this easy. With Adrian Fourcin's help I nevertheless managed to complete a spectrographic project measuring the formants of the English monophthongs (read it here). Having once demonstrated that I could carry out an experimental-phonetic project, though, I have since steered clear of laboratory work.

Upon my completion of the MA, Fry offered me a post as Assistant Lecturer in Phonetics at UCL. Clearly I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time. I have remained on the academic staff at UCL ever since.

Shortly after my appointment I was summoned to meet Daniel Jones at his home. I found him sitting at a desk in his study, a somewhat shrunken old man surrounded by electric fires. There was no small talk: he got straight down to business. "Ah, Wells, good of you to come. Now sit down here, will you, and read to me from this." It was a passage of Hindi in phonetic transcription: Jones was putting me through my paces. But Trim, Fry, Gimson and O'Connor had trained me well. I was able to produce satisfactory monophthongal [eː] and [oː], to control aspiration at will, to distinguish retroflex stops from dental, to articulate a retroflex flap [ɽ] and a nasalized [ĩ]. I realized with relief that I had passed the test. We moved on to an animated discussion about his English Pronouncing Dictionary.

I remain a great admirer of the Daniel Jones tradition in phonetics (see Collins and Mees, 1999: 421-424). I continue to regard it as important for budding phoneticians to learn not only to recognize but also to perform all the sound-types of the world's languages.

In 1963 Michael Halliday* set up a linguistics department at UCL. Like Dick Hudson* and Neil Smith*, I attended his course on the grammar of English, and found much to admire in his approach, particularly in the way he was able to integrate intonation into the description of clause structure.

From 1958 onwards I had attended a number of international Esperanto conferences. By 1963 these meetings had taken me not only to France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark, but also to Poland, Czechoslovakia, Jugoslavia and Bulgaria, which in those days were pretty exotic destinations for a young Englishman. In each of these countries I took the opportunity to acquaint myself with the phonetics of the local language. The 1959 World Esperanto Youth Congress was held in a suburb of Gdańsk called Wrzeszcz, and I vividly remember getting Polish friends to demonstrate the differences between its final consonant cluster and that of Brześć, the Polish name of Brest-Litovsk. Few non-Polish participants could perceive and make the difference.

The TY Esperanto Dictionary   By 1963, then, I had become thoroughly proficient in Esperanto (which remains the only language beside English in which I can lecture absolutely fluently and confidently). I had also come to realize how out-of-touch with current international usage the English-Esperanto dictionaries then available were. So when the publishers of the Teach Yourself series approached me with the suggestion that I should compile a two-way Esperanto dictionary, I leapt at the opportunity. In its compilation I made extensive use of monolingual Esperanto and English dictionaries and of bilingual dictionaries of these languages and French, German, Spanish and Russian, checking forms and senses through chains of languages. The grammatical preamble I wrote for my dictionary reveals Halliday's influence in the use of such terms as 'nominal group' (for which one would nowadays say 'noun phrase'). It was published in early 1969, and remains in print to this day. Its success led to my being elected to the Academy of Esperanto shortly afterwards.

But if the Esperanto dictionary forced me into a crash course of self-taught lexicology and improved my knowledge of modern languages, it was not very relevant to my career in phonetics. Only after I had finished work on it did I get round to completing my PhD.

The topic of my doctoral dissertation reveals a further influence on my academic development, namely my sexuality. Shortly after my appointment to the staff at UCL the Home Office (or was it MI6?) approached me with the suggestion that I should do some work for them on speaker identification. I would need to sign the Official Secrets Act. This was a time when the Burgess and Maclean scandals were fresh in people's minds, and when being homosexual (or gay, as we were just beginning to call ourselves) was seen as not only criminal but tantamount to being of suspect loyalty. I had realized while at Cambridge that my sexual interests were indeed directed only towards other men. If I accepted the spooks' invitation they would surely run a security check on me and I might face the same fate as Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing. Self-preservation meant that I had little hesitation in turning them down.

   My first serious boyfriend, Pagro, was a Jamaican who had come to the UK as a teenager a few years earlier. His education had been pretty limited, and his language was definitely in the lower-mesolectal part of the creole continuum. I acquired some knowledge of Jamaican Creole, helped in this task by spending a good deal of time not only with him but also with his friends and extended family. (I had no relatives in London. He seemed to have hundreds.)

I had for some time been thinking about questions of bidialectalism and of the extent to which people can and do change their accent. For my doctoral work I decided to focus on the pronunciation of Jamaicans who had, like Pagro, come to London as adolescents or young adults. How would they adjust their phonetics to their new situation? First, I had to understand their point of departure. With the help of a grant from the University of London I spent two months in Jamaica in 1966, taking Pagro with me. Through the entree he afforded me, I was able to live close to the common people, partly in a slum in Kingston and partly in the rural poverty of Westmoreland where he had grown up. I found the best informants to help me get a grasp of JC were children of 11 or 12, old enough to know their language thoroughly but young enough not to be affected by the sense of linguistic shame and embarrassment that characterized adult speakers.

Jamaican Pronunciation in London   It was not till 1969-70 that I got round to organizing my survey of Jamaicans in London, for which I recruited respondents largely among people I had met through Pagro (though by then he and I were no longer together). I found that they readily made superficial realizational adjustments to their original pronunciation, but had great difficulty in acquiring new phonological contrasts. I recorded plenty of hypercorrections such as [fʊθ] for foot, as well as interesting forms such as [bʌʊʔ ə dem] both of them, which can result only from the intersection of Jamaican and London phonology. Bob Le Page both advised me before I set off for Jamaica and acted as my external examiner. The dissertation was subsequently published by the Society (Wells, 1973).

An interesting spin-off from this was a series commissioned by BBC English, The University of Brixton (1970). Its purpose was to point up differences between Jamaican Creole and English English, with a view to helping people avoid common misunderstandings based on such differences. I was teamed up with a talented Jamaican writer then living in London, Louis Marriott. I acted as linguistic advisor and Louis wrote the scripts.

I have maintained an interest in Caribbean English. My life partner [update 2006: now my civil partner], Gabriel, comes from Montserrat. We have been together since 1968. Remarkably, he moved in with me within three weeks of our first meeting. To begin with, this meant a tiny rented flat in Peckham, SE15. Within a few months, though, we pooled our savings to buy a two-up-two-down terrace house in the centre of Wimbledon, SW19. In 1973 we traded up to a larger semi-detached house in Merton Park, SW19, where we have lived ever since. (More pictures)   Gabriel

garden at Spanish Point; Tony, JCW, Gabriel
In the garden of our house at Spanish Point, Montserrat: Tony, me, Gabriel
   It was not until 1978 that we were financially secure enough to travel to the West Indies. In that year we flew to his island, Montserrat, and stayed with his relatives in his home village of Tuitts. Ten years later we visited the island again, taking his mother, brother and sisters with us, and thereafter became regular visitors to the island. In 1992 we bought a house in the Spanish Point development near Tuitts, where we spent several marvellous holidays, some of them along with my brother Tony and sister-in-law Norma. Indeed, we had hopes of semi-retiring there. These hopes were dashed by the volcano that sprang unexpectedly to life in 1995 and destroyed our house, together with the whole southern half of the island, in 1997 (Pattullo, 2000).

We have now (2001) bought another house in Montserrat, in the safe north of the island at Woodlands.

Practical Phonetics   In the late sixties Greta Colson, a teacher of speech and drama, persuaded me to teach a phonetics course at Ivy House (now part of the University of Middlesex). I found drama students very different from the speech therapy students who formed the bulk of my teaching at UCL: intellectually weaker, but fired with boundless and exhausting enthusiasm. Greta sat in on my classes and wrote the content up. Our collaboration resulted in the textbook Practical Phonetics, which strangely enough has proved to be popular particularly among students of speech therapy.

In 1975-76 I attended an introductory Zulu course taught by David Rycroft at SOAS. I was impressed by his analysis of depressor consonants and tone, which had the effect of reducing Doke's incoherent 9-tone-level analysis to a simple High versus Low with rather complicated realization rules. I satisfied myself that the output of Rycroft's rules agreed exactly with what the native speaker pronounced. This convinced me of the virtues of a phonological analysis more abstract than allowed in Jonesian or structuralist phonemics.

Every summer vacation since my postgraduate days I have taught on summer courses of English for overseas students, first in Cambridge and Leeds, latterly in London. For many years John Trim ran an excellent linguistic summer course in Cambridge, where Neil Smith, Erik Fudge, Ken Albrow, and Bernard Comrie were among my fellow tutors. One year Trim asked me to do some sessions on English local accents, a challenge I accepted. I realized that there was no published comprehensive introduction to this topic, and put together an article summarizing such knowledge as I had. It helped that I was a northerner educated in the south. David Crystal* accepted this article for the Journal of Linguistics (Wells, 1970).

Shortly after it was published two things happened: Peter Trudgill*, someone I had not then heard of, wrote to me about my neglect of East Anglian speech, and Cambridge University Press approached me to expand the article into a book. I am grateful to both. The book was twelve years in gestation, years during which I published very little - which under today's circumstances would probably mean losing my job. What I attempted to do in Accents of English (Wells, 1982) was to bring together all the information I could find on the pronunciation of English as a first language and present it in a unified framework. American scholars had struck me as knowing very little about British accents other than RP, while the British seemed equally ignorant of American phonetics. Neither seemed to know anything at all about everyday Irish or West Indian pronunciation. In this work I found it necessary to introduce a number of new terms, many of which have since been generally adopted by colleagues in the field: rhotic, yod dropping, smoothing, TH Fronting, glottalling, diphthong shift.    Accents of English

From time to time I had encountered British students whose native language was not English but Welsh. I came to feel that I really ought to learn something of that language. I started attending evening classes, and progressed as far as the A level examination.

Here's a Welsh poem from one of the set books I studied -- one that I found really moving, about a poet killed in the First World War when on the verge of being crowned bard at the eisteddfod.

In 1985 the British Esperanto Association was due to hold a conference in Llandudno, and I took the opportunity to produce a small two-way Welsh-Esperanto dictionary (Wells, 1985), with the help, needless to say, of a number of native Welsh speakers. It includes a structural sketch of Welsh in Esperanto and one of Esperanto in Welsh. The peak of my attainment in spoken Welsh came when I was interviewed live in that language by BBC Radio Cymru.

    Geiriadur Esperanto/Kimra Vortaro

I had also done a fair amount of broadcasting in English by this time. René Quinault, an English specialist working as a producer with BBC English by Radio (as it then was) had attended a lunchtime lecture I had given at UCL, and recruited me for a radio series on EFL phonetics. Latterly, like my mentor Gimson in his day, I have become something of a regular radio commentator on linguistic topics, no doubt helped by the fact that I work only ten minutes' walk from Broadcasting House. I hate writing scripts but am happy to launch into unscripted discussion.

Another work of popularization was my linguistic account of Esperanto, written in that language (Wells, 1978). It has since been translated into German, Danish, and Korean. One of the issues I discuss is the nature of the neutral, international pronunciation standard and the sociolinguistic question of how it might have arisen. I take the view, by the way, that Esperanto is no more 'artificial' than EFL; for the small group of its native speakers it is of course not artificial at all. The linguist's task is to describe it as an interesting linguistic phenomenon (see Wells, 1994).   Lingvistikaj Aspektoj de Esperanto

Ever since I came to UCL I had known Randolph Quirk* (now Lord Quirk), the Quain Professor of English Language and Literature and always a lively commentator on linguistic affairs. In the early eighties Della Summers, at the publishers Longman, had the idea of commissioning a pronunciation dictionary, and I believe it was Randolph who suggested to her that I might be the person to compile it. I had long been in the habit of suggesting amendments and improvements to Daniel Jones's English Pronouncing Dictionary, sending them first to Jones himself and then to Gimson, who succeeded him as its editor. When Gimson died in 1985 the publishers of EPD, Dent, approached me to take it over; but they were not prepared to make the major changes that I considered necessary, and I decided instead to accept Longman's invitation. (Subsequently my colleague Susan Ramsaran took over as editor of EPD. When she left academic life to enter the Anglican ministry, Dent sold the title to Cambridge University Press, who with Peter Roach and James Hartman as the new editors did introduce the long-needed changes.)

My Longman Pronunciation Dictionary appeared in 1990, with a second edition in 2000 [and a third edition in 2008]. It differs from the Jones-Gimson EPD in various ways, in particular by covering American as well as British pronunciation, in not restricting the British pronunciation to Received Pronunciation, and in redefining RP to include a wider range of possibilities (such a tenser final vowel in happy, [ə] in the final syllable of careless and kindness, and the potentiality of an intrusive r in thawing). I analyse all syllabic consonants as reflecting an underlying sequence of schwa plus consonant. (Jones and Gimson, pre-Chomskyan in their theoretical approach, had no concept of an 'underlying' representation. I do, but the requirements of EFL pedagogy mean that I keep it in the background.) I propose a unified and rule-governed treatment of the compression phenomenon evidenced in the varisyllabicity of words such as lenient, influence, reference, and national. I propose a heretical but to me convincing theory of syllabification. And for various words of uncertain or controversial pronunciation I adduce evidence from polling surveys that I have conducted (Wells, 1996, 2000).    LPD cover shot
celebrating the publication of LPD

My other main activity in the EFL field is that of being Director of the annual UCL Summer Course in English Phonetics, a role I took over from Gimson in 1983. While other courses have been discontinued as no longer viable, the UCL course has more than doubled in size and become an important source of departmental income as well as a potent vehicle for the dissemination internationally of information about English phonetics and how to teach it.

I have supplied pronunciations for a number of English dictionaries and encyclopedias. Publishing houses in Britain (though not in the USA) have over the last quarter-century gradually adopted the International Phonetic Alphabet, a trend I favour. Where publishers rejected IPA in favour of a respelling system, I have at least made sure that the system is as logical, consistent and self-explanatory as possible (see for example Encarta 1999).

Fidel Castro and JCW Fidel Castro and JCW
Face to face with Fidel Castro
From 1989 to 1995 I served as President of the World Esperanto Association. Our 1990 international Congress was held in Havana, which meant that I got to meet Fidel Castro. Watch a video clip of us.

In 1990 I took over from Neil Smith as Head of the Department of Phonetics and Linguistics at UCL, and served in this role for ten years. Administration is not my strong point, but at least the Department remained financially viable and emerged unscathed from the ever more frequent assessments, audits and appraisals to which we are all nowadays subject.     lecturing
Lecturing in Japan, 2000

I have also served for some years as President of the British Association of Academic Phoneticians, whose main role is to organize a biennial Colloquium.

with Peter Ladefoged
With Peter Ladefoged, 1997
   Through Gimson's sponsorship I was elected to the Council of the International Phonetic Association. In time I took over from him as Editor of its Journal and as Secretary. I oversaw the gradual modernization of the IPA alphabet (e.g. the redesign of the Chart, the introduction of the symbols [ʝ] and [ɰ] and the withdrawal of recognition from various little-used symbols). But it was only when I resigned and Ladefoged succeeded that the IPA finally held a proper Convention (in Kiel, 1989) and set about a comprehensive revision of the Alphabet.

One of the classes I regularly teach deals with the phonetics of ten or a dozen languages each year, using native-speaking informants (including members of the class). As various informants offered themselves, I have become familiar with the phonetics of a large number of languages. I was able to put this kind of knowledge to practical use when the need arose to co-ordinate the computer-readable phonetic transcription of several European languages as part of the Speech Assessment Methods (SAM) research project chaired by Adrian Fourcin in the late eighties. It was necessary to negotiate tactfully with speech technologists and phoneticians representing many different international partners. In this way we produced the SAM Phonetic Alphabet (SAMPA), an ASCIIization of the IPA now widely adopted as an international standard. I imagine it will be superseded by Unicode if and when the Unicode standard becomes a practical reality: but we have not yet reached that point. In extended form SAMPA, still using only ASCII symbols, can cater for the phonemic and 'phonotypical' notation of any language (see the SAMPA website).

In 1995 I launched my personal homepage on the departmental website. Guided by my colleagues Mark Huckvale and Warwick Smith, I learnt HTML and have become an enthusiastic webmaster. Amongst other web initiatives, I created a site devoted to Estuary English, which has succeeded in bringing together the academic research on this topic, not to mention a mass of popular journalism.

running in Berlin   In my fifties I took up running. I started by jogging short distances, and built up steadily until I could manage a half-marathon (21 km). I became a member of a local running club, Wimbledon Windmilers. I set up a website for the club in 1995, and in 1998 we acquired our own domain name, I continue as webmaster both for the Windmilers and for the MABAC league to which we belong. I ran my first full marathons in 1993 in London and Berlin, and have since completed the London three four further times, in 1997, 1999, 2001 and 2003. I am not a fast runner, but I have managed to build up the endurance needed for running long distances. It's a bit like writing dictionaries, really: you prepare yourself thoroughly, start off confidently, and then just keep going, doggedly, until you finish.

PS In June 2012 I suffered a stroke. Fortunately I have made an excellent recovery, and in Nov. 2012, for example, was able to fulfil a series of lecturing engagements in Japan and China.


Placed on the web 2000 12 23. Minor revisions 2001 02 09, 2001 02 22, 2001 05 14, 2001 05 21, 2001 11 27, 2002 05 22, 2002 06 05, 2003 07 18, 2003 09 23, 2005 03 05, 2007 02 02, 2008 05 02, 2008 07 03. 2011 02 17, 2012 12 26.

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