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InMemoriamJohn J.Ohala (1941–2020)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 December 2020

Keith Johnson*
University of California, Berkeley
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© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the International Phonetic Association 2020

John J. Ohala, past president of the International Phonetic Association, died in Berkeley, California, on 22 August 2020. He was married to Manjari (Agrawal) Ohala (former Professor and Chair of Linguistics at San Jose State University) for 51 years, and was a professor at UC Berkeley for one year less than that. He was born in Chicago on 19 July 1941, and he received his A.B. in English from Notre Dame in 1963. In 1966, he received an M.A. in Linguistics from UCLA, and in June 1969 he completed his Ph.D. also at UCLA under the direction of Peter Ladefoged. After a one-year post-doc at Tokyo University, he started his career at Berkeley in April 1970 and by 1977 he was a full professor. In 2004, he retired from teaching.

One of the most fascinating and intellectually influential figures in 20th century linguistics, Ohala insisted that the sound systems of language, their phonologies, are constrained by the physiology of speech production and speech perception (Ohala Reference Ohala1974). He noted, for example, that the aerodynamic conditions which are required to produce vocal fold vibration (the Aerodynamic Voicing Constraint) underlie cross-linguistic patterns of pitch patterning, and (de)voicing processes. A key feature of this approach, distinguishing it from the approach that was dominant at this period in Linguistics in North America, concerns the role of corpus-external information in linguistic explanation. At the time, the dominant way to explain phonological patterns found in a corpus of elicited forms was to state the phonological patterns in a formal grammar that is maximally simple and universal. Ohala critiqued this as more of a reification of observations than an explanation of them, and argued that a deeper understanding of language sound patterns is to be found by reference to aerodynamic, articulatory, and auditory constraints that are external to the linguistic corpus. Such constraint-based approaches for describing and explaining phonology, which were pioneered by Ohala, are now the standard view in linguistics.

His theory of the listener as a source of sound change (Ohala Reference Ohala1981) was similarly influential. This theory rejects teleological explanations of change – the idea that change somehow improves the fitness of a language by making it easier to produce or perceive, as if these were the goals of speakers in producing sound change. Instead, he assumed that speakers aim to faithfully reproduce words as they have heard them, and that listener misperceptions sometimes introduce change. Just as he rejected the notion of an unseen divine hand in the shaping of the physical world, he also rejected the idea that speakers and hearers would be guided by a desire to optimize the sound system of their language for maximal communicative efficiency. He saw any tendency for optimality as emergent from the cumulative effects of individual acts of speaking – with the articulatory slop (his word) and listener misperceptions that are inherent in speech communication. This scientific approach to sound change as an explanation of language sound patterns was fleshed out in a series of influential papers (Ohala Reference Ohala1987, Reference Ohala1993; Ohala & Feder Reference Ohala and Feder1994; Ohala & Ohala Reference Ohala1995).

He was deeply interested in the ethology of sound symbolism. He felt that sound symbolism was an understudied field where most work lacked scientific rigor. His goal was to propose ‘a unifying, ethologically based and phonetically plausible theory of aspects of sound symbolism’ (Ohala Reference Ohala1983, Reference Ohala1984, Reference Ohala1994, Reference Ohala1997). He focused on what he called the frequency code, with a high F0 innately signaling a ‘small vocalizer’, and a low F0 to ‘large vocalizer’. Ohala’s desire to stimulate the field and increase the amount of scientifically sound literature on sound symbolism led him to initiate and host a major conference on the subject at UC Berkeley. The results of this conference became the Cambridge volume Sound Symbolism (Hinton, Nichols & Ohala Reference Ohala1994), still the most-cited work on the topic.

Another accomplishment, for which he was well known, is that he was an inventor of phonetic instruments. He refined the use of the whole-body plethysmograph for the measurement of subglottal pressure (and produced a delightful video about the technique). Additionally, he perfected the use of the photoelectric thyroumbrometer for the measurement of larynx movement. Beyond these, he invented two instruments that stand out for their simplicity and insightful use. His photoelectric glottograph (Ohala Reference Ohala1966) used the transillumination of the glottis to measure the opening of the vocal folds. A light source was positioned on the skin of the neck below the glottis, and a light-sensitive diode encased in a plastic catheter was swallowed into the throat above the glottis. This simple use of a photodiode to measure vocal tract constriction was also used in his nasograph (Ohala Reference Ohala1971). These devices produced insights regarding the complex relationship between articulatory and aerodynamic processes and their acoustic consequences which informed his subsequent theoretical work. Although he reported that ‘dedicated subjects report no great discomfort or disruption of natural speech articulation’, swallowing the catheter and leaving it suspended in the esophagus did require some dedication.

John received many honors over the years, including two festschrifts (Jaeger Reference Jaeger1992 and Solé, Beddor & M. Ohala Reference Ohala2007). He was awarded an honorary Ph.D. by the University of Copenhagen in 1992 (the same year that he was elected as a Fellow of the Acoustical Society of America). He was the president of the International Phonetic Association from 1995 to 1999. In 2004 he was awarded the Berkeley Citation, and in 2006 he was awarded the Medal for Scientific Achievement by the International Speech Communication Association. In 2015, he was awarded the Silver Medal in Speech Communication by the Acoustical Society of America ‘for advancing the understanding of speech production and perception and applying phonetic principles to the study of spoken language change over time’ (Maddieson & Beddor Reference Maddieson and Speeter Beddor2015).

Many of John’s students looked up to him as an intellectual father figure, and celebrated him in festschrifts and honorary conferences. He is described as a very patient and supportive research supervisor who always encouraged his students to think about the big-picture goals of their research. His ambitions for himself and his students are hinted in his 1987 paper on Experimental Phonology. He said, ‘all who would be the Galileos, Newtons, Harveys, Lavoisiers, and Pasteurs of phonology can still get in at the beginning where imagination and a breadth of knowledge counts for more than narrowly focussed technical knowledge’ (Ohala Reference Ohala1987: 208). Many answered this call to high intellectual ambition.



The author is grateful to Leanne Hinton, Larry Hyman, Ian Maddieson, Manju Ohala, and colleagues at UC Berkeley for their advice and comments on this obituary.


Hinton, Leanne, Nichols, Johanna & Ohala, John J. (eds.). 1994. Sound symbolism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Jaeger, Jeri J. 1992. Guest Editor’s introduction. Language and Speech 1–2, 13.Google Scholar
Maddieson, Ian & Speeter Beddor, Patrice. 2015. Acoustical Society of America Silver Medal in Speech Communication: John J. Ohala. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 138, 1873. doi: 10.1121/1.4934195.Google Scholar
Ohala, John J. 1966. A new photoelectric glottograph. Working Papers in Phonetics (UCLA) 4 40–52. Retrieved from Scholar
Ohala, John J. 1971. Monitoring soft-palate movements in speech. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 50, 140. [Abstract. Full text: Project on Linguistic Analysis Reports (Berkeley) 13.JO1–JO15 (1971).] Retrieved from Scholar
Ohala, John J. 1974. Experimental historical phonology. In Anderson, John M. & Charles, Jones (eds.), Historical linguistics II: Theory and description in phonology. Proceedings of the 1st International Conference on Historical Linguistics, Edinburgh, 2–7 September 1973, 353389. Amsterdam: North Holland. Retrieved from Scholar
Ohala, John J. 1981. The listener as a source of sound change. In Masek, Carrie S., Hendrick, Roberta A. & Mary Frances, Miller (eds.), 17th Regional Meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society (CSL 17): Papers from the Parasession on Language and Behavior, 178203. Chicago, IL: Chicago Linguistic Society. Retrieved from Scholar
Ohala, John J. 1983. Cross-language use of pitch: An ethological view. Phonetica 40, 118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ohala, John J. 1984. An ethological perspective on common cross-language utilization of F0 of Voice. Phonetica 41, 116. Retrieved from Scholar
Ohala, John J. 1987. Experimental phonology. Proceedings of the 13th Annual Meeting, Berkeley Linguistics Society (BSL 13), 207222. Scholar
Ohala, John J. 1993. Sound change as nature’s speech perception experiment. Speech Communication 13, 155161. Retrieved from Scholar
Ohala, John J. 1994. The frequency codes underlies the sound symbolic use of voice pitch. In Hinton et al. (eds.), 325–347. Retrieved from Scholar
Ohala, John J. 1997. Sound symbolism. Proceedings of the 4th Seoul International Conference on Linguistics (SICOL) 11–15 August 1997, 98–103. Retrieved from Scholar
Ohala, John J. & Feder, Deborah. 1994. Listeners’ identification of speech sounds is influenced by adjacent “restored” phonemes. Phonetica 51, 111118. Retrieved from Scholar
Ohala, John J. & Ohala, Manjari. 1995. Speech perception and lexical representation: The role of vowel nasalization in Hindi and English. In Bruce, Connell & Amalia, Arvaniti (eds.), Phonology and phonetic evidence: Papers in Laboratory Phonology IV, 4160. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from Scholar
Sole, Maria-Josep, Beddor, Patrice Speeter & Ohala, Manjari (eds.). 2007. Experimental approaches to phonology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar