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John C. (Ian) Catford

John C. Catford, emeritus professor of linguistics, died October 6, 2009, at the age of ninety-two.


John C. (Ian) Catford was born March 26, 1917 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He described himself, in his 1998 paper "60 years in linguistics", as "a normal boy" of the period who, in his pre-teen years had a passion for steam locomotives and who developed some expertise in the dynamics of steam flow through pipes and valves. However, this schoolboy passion is remarkable in that it was later followed up by research in phonetics with which many phoneticians are now familiar on the aerodynamics of the human vocal tract - an area in which Ian became an established authority.

Fortunately for the phonetics community, Ian's "60 years in linguistics" spanned over 70 years. He was inspired at a young age by Henry Sweet's A Primer of Phonetics and Daniel Jones' Outlines of English Phonetics, and received training from Jones at the University College in London before enrolling at the University of Edinburgh. His Edinburgh studies included an academic year in France, where he studied with Pierre Fouché and Marguerite Durand at the University of Paris and earned the Diplôme de Phonétique Générale. Ian interrupted his Edinburgh training in 1939 to participate in the British Council's Institute of English Studies in Athens. His time in Athens was especially notable for introducing him to the phonetics of Caucasian languages. After hearing only a few words of Karbardian, Ian was, as he later said, "hooked." World War II extended his stay overseas to several years; Athens was followed by evacuation to Egypt, and then years in Jerusalem and Palestine. It was in Jerusalem, in 1942, that he met his future wife Lotte. He returned to the UK in 1946, where he resumed his studies at the University of London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies and School of Oriental and African Studies. In 1952 he joined the University of Edinburgh as a Research Lecturer, and was the driving force behind the Linguistic Survey of Scotland. He became Director of the University's new School of Applied Linguistics in 1957.

In 1964 Ian joined the faculty at the University of Michigan as Professor of Linguistics (until his retirement in 1985) and Director of the English Language Institute (1964-68). He went on to chair the Department of Linguistics (1968-71; 1984-85) and directed the department's Phonetics Laboratory through 1977. He became Professor Emeritus of Linguistics in 1986, although he never ceased his scholarly activities. He held distinguished visiting positions, including at the University of the Bosphorus in Istanbul (1986-87), Hebrew University in Jerusalem (1987), and UCLA (1989). He was elected a member of the Council of the International Phonetic Association (1985-1990), and for most of his years at U-M (both pre- and post-retirement) was affiliated - as editor, board member, and later chair of the board - with the journal Language Learning. During his retirement, he also continued to be involved in the life of the Department of Linguistics, and his support was appreciated by subsequent department chairs.

Ian's scholarly contributions span phonetics, phonology, dialectology, Caucasian studies, comparative linguistics, second language teaching, and translation theory. His publications include over 60 articles and three books: A Linguistic Theory of Translation (Oxford University Press), Fundamental Problems in Phonetics (Edinburgh and Indiana University Press), and two editions of A Practical Introduction to Phonetics (Oxford). The last book, which emphasizes introspective observation of the motor sensations of speech production, cemented his worldwide recognition as a leading, if not the leading, practical phonetician of his time. However, as Ian himself noted in the introduction to the volume, the ability to analyze and control vocal tract postures and movements is not only an important practical ability for phoneticians, but is of theoretical value in that it provides a means for understanding the principles underlying speech sound description and classification. Ian was renowned as well for his pioneering work on the languages of the Caucasus, an interest stemming from 1940 and further fueled by research trips to the former USSR in 1970 and 1977. During these trips, he worked with native-speaking consultants of more than 25 Caucasian languages, and a series of significant publications attests to the productivity of his work in this area. In 1989, U-M Linguistics held in his honor an international conference on "Linguistic Approaches to Phonetics", which resulted in a special issue of the Journal of Phonetics also in his honor. Another volume dedicated to Ian is Sound Patterns for the Phonetician: Studies in Phonetics and Phonology in Honour of J. C. Catford edited by T. Balusubramanian and V. Prakasam (T. R. Publications).

Ian was a phenomenal teacher, often enrolling over 100 students in his phonetics courses. One of his former M.A. students and teaching assistants, Alan Pagliere, wrote that it was a privilege to work closely with Ian, noting that his teaching "was like the performance of a virtuoso musician who gives you both the technical and the human with a mastery that is evidenced by its control and depth." In Ian's case, the control and depth included a phenomenal ability to produce the sounds of the world's languages and accents of a range of dialects; he was well known for stories delivered in, as Alan put it, "heavily-accented character." These skills were honed by years as a BBC actor (a position Ian held while also a student at the University of London), but fundamentally stemmed from Ian's intense focus on experimentation with one's own speech mechanism. Ian's retirement memoir, written by departmental colleagues, similarly praised his unique skills, noting that "his athletic vocal apparatus is the delight of his students and the envy of his colleagues." Fortunately, the Department of Linguistics has preserved eight lectures given by Ian at the time of his retirement in 1985; these can be viewed online, as part of U-M's Deep Blue collection, at this location.

During his 70 years as a linguist, John C. Catford inspired us as scholar, teacher, and colleague. He was, as well, a voracious reader of all matters linguistic; whenever linguists gather in the Catford Seminar Room in Lorch Hall, we are surrounded by the library that he so generously donated. His friends at U-M will miss him deeply, and extend our heartfelt sympathies to his wife Lotte, son Julian, and daughter Lorna.