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A History of Phonetic Science at Michigan

By Patrice Speeter Beddor and John C. Catford

From Beddor, P.S. and Catford, J.C., 1999,
“History of the phonetic sciences at the University of Michigan,”
in A Guide to the History of the Phonetic Sciences in the United States
(14th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences),
eds. J. J. Ohala, A.J. Bronstein, M. Grazia Busa, J.A. Lewis, and W.F. Weigel, pp. 58-61. University of California, Berkeley

So far as we have determined, the first Professor of Phonetics at the University of Michigan was John H. Muyskens. Muyskens received his ScD from Michigan in 1925 with a dissertation on “The Hypha”, a term he used to refer to a minimal physiological unit of speech. Appointed as Assistant Professor of French and Phonetics in 1924, Muyskens was Associate Professor of Phonetics and Director of the Speech Clinic at the time of his death in 1957. Muyskens collaborated with Clarence L. Meader (Professor of Latin, Sanskrit, and General Linguistics) on the study of the physiology of normal and pathological speech.

1940 – 1950

During the 1940′s, the most important contributions to the study of phonetic sciences at Michigan were made by Kenneth L. Pike. Pike’s interest in phonetics stemmed from his evangelical commitments, especially that of providing the Scriptures to linguistic communities throughout the world. His early association with the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) taught him the value of phonetics as preparation for Bible translation. Through his work with SIL, fieldwork in languages of Mexico, and graduate studies under Sapir, Bloomfield, and Fries at the Linguistics Society of America Summer Institutes, Pike earned his PhD at Michigan in 1942. On the Linguistics faculty at the University of Michigan from 1942-1977, President of SIL from 1942-1979, former President of the Linguistics Society of America (1961), permanent council member of the International Phonetic Association, and named Charles C. Fries Professor in 1974, Pike became Emeritus Professor after his retirement in 1977.

Pike’s dissertation, published in 1943 [1], was the most thorough survey up to that time of the phonetic possibilities of the human vocal tract, and possibly the most influential of his many phonetic publications. This work was quickly followed in the subsequent five years by a series of publications on tone, intonation, and phonemic theory. Inspired by extensive field experience, Pike’s contributions, while firmly grounded in theory, were also highly practical and pedagogically oriented. He was among several faculty members who inspired a group of Michigan graduate students to found the journal Language Learning in 1948, with Pike as an Editorial Advisor.

As a teacher of phonetics and linguistics, Pike is legendary for his demonstrations of the monolingual field technique in which he shows, through a 40-minute exchange with a native speaker of a language unknown to Pike, that language can be learned without an interpreter. As Eunice Pike observed, “Watching [a demonstration] is something like watching a high diver in Acapulco, Mexico, as he dives from the cliffs there into the ocean below. It’s beautiful, and you know he’s an expert, so you don’t expect trouble, but there is always the chance that he might end up on the rocks instead of in the ocean. That possibility makes you watch all the more intently” [2, p. 130]. (A videotaped demonstration is available through the University of Michigan Television Center’s Pike on Language series.) Through his long-standing affiliation with Michigan and SIL (including field seminars on several continents), Pike’s influence on our knowledge of linguistic phonetics – either directly or through his students – extends to hundreds of indigenous languages.

1950 – mid 1960s

By 1950, Pike’s interests were being re-directed from phonetics and phonemics towards grammatical theory. Although some of Pike’s students continued to work on phonetic issues, the primary driving force behind the study of phonetics at Michigan in the 1950′s through the mid 1960′s was Gordon E. Peterson. Peterson left Bell Laboratories in 1953 to join the Departments of Speech and Electrical Engineering at Michigan. His interests in the phonetic sciences were broad, including acoustic analysis, speech synthesis, automatic speech recognition, and phonemic theory. A member of the Permanent Council for ICPhS, during his years at Michigan Peterson was also editor of the Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders (1955-57) and Vice President of the Acoustical Society of America (1966).

Peterson brought with him from Bell Laboratories a Model D spectrograph (one of only a few spectrographs then in existence) and in doing so introduced the study of experimental phonetics for research purposes to the University of Michigan. Peterson’s former students have graciously offered us glimpses of the earlier years. Ilse Lehiste describes “the special excitement that the availability of the spectrograph created – we knew that whatever we were looking at, nobody had seen before. I imagine a biologist might have felt the same way when handed the first microscope” (personal communication). (That spectrograph now resides in the Smithsonian Institute, donated by June Shoup.) The new Communication Sciences Laboratory required major changes to the basement of the Frieze Building, including installation of a sound-attenuated room and an anechoic chamber. In describing Peterson’s perfectionism (“in the best sense”), William Wang recalls that, the evening the chamber was installed, he and Peterson crawled with flashlights and crowbars around the base of the chamber to sever any solid contacts between the chamber and the surrounding building left by the poured concrete.

Peterson’s own work bridged experimental phonetics and linguistic theory, hence it is not surprising that research in both phonetics and phonology was conducted by members of the laboratory he directed. Examples of the work undertaken by this interdisciplinary group of linguists, engineers, speech scientists, and psychologists give a sense of the laboratory’s varied activities. Ilse Lehiste (Linguistics PhD, 1959; now Emeritus Professor at the Ohio State University) focused on the acoustic structure of English; her discoveries included the intrinsic pitch, intensity, and duration of vowels. Lehiste continued as a Research Associate in the laboratory until 1963. Language automation was a major research effort of the laboratory, funded by numerous governmental grants (Air Force, Navy, NIH, NSF). William S.-Y. Wang (Linguistics PhD, 1960; now Emeritus Professor at the University of California, Berkeley) and June Shoup (Linguistics PhD 1964; now Emeritus Professor at the University of Southern California) worked on phonetic issues with practical applications to automatic speech recognition and speech synthesis. Wang and Charles Fillmore (Linguistics PhD, 1962; now Emeritus Professor at the University of California, Berkeley) collaboratively investigated acoustic cues for speech perception; Fillmore also worked in phonological theory. Dennis Klatt (Computers and Communication Sciences PhD, 1964; Professor at MIT at the time of his death in 1988) investigated information processing in the peripheral auditory system; Norris McKinney (Computers and Communication Sciences PhD, 1965; now with the International Linguistics Center) worked on techniques for analyzing fundamental frequency.

In 1966, due to failing health, Peterson left the University of Michigan for California. He founded the Speech Communications Research Laboratory (now directed by June Shoup) in Santa Barbara, and was joined there by some of his former students. Peterson died of leukemia in 1967.

mid 1960s – mid 1980s

For the 20 years following Peterson’s departure, the most prominent phonetician in Speech and Hearing at Michigan was Donald Sharf. A specialist in speech perception, Sharf was on the Michigan faculty from 1964 until his retirement in 1987; he remained Emeritus Professor until his death in 1995.

Harlan Lane was on the Psychology faculty from 1960-1971; he studied the role of acoustic cues in speech and non-speech perception, and also investigated prosodic properties (pitch, speaking rate) using psychophysical scaling techniques. In 1965, Lane founded (and directed until 1969) the Center for Research on Language and Language Behavior which, similar to Peterson’s Communication Sciences program, drew together faculty and students working on language phenomena from a range of academic disciplines.

In 1964, J. C. Catford came to the University of Michigan from the School of Applied Linguistics, which he had founded at the University of Edinburgh, to be Director of Michigan’s English Language Institute. A phonetician who had studied under Jones, Fouch&eacute, and Durand (among others), Catford not only directed the Institute, but also took over the direction of the Communication Sciences Laboratory, as well as much of the teaching of phonetics in the Department of Linguistics.

During this period, the laboratory – now known as the Phonetics Laboratory – was maintained as an ongoing and generally available resource for faculty or students investigating spoken language, whether in phonetics, applied linguistics, or psycholinguistics. Instrumentation included a Kay Sonograph, a mingograph, and airflow recording equipment. Between 1966 and 1985, 38 dissertations were written on topics in phonetics and phonology, about half of them incorporating research carried out in the laboratory. Catford’s Fundamental Problems in Phonetics [3], and his work on the phonetics of Caucasian languages, likewise owed much to research in the laboratory.

The theory of componential-parametric phonetics expounded in Catford’s Fundamentals was taught to Linguistics, and Speech and Hearing, students through intensive introspective observation of the motor sensations of speech production and intensive ear-training. This approach induced students to acquire a personally experienced understanding of the basic components of speech production – initiation, articulation, and phonation – and of the parametric ranges of characteristic features of these components.

Upon retirement as Emeritus Professor in 1985, Catford presented a series of informal talks on his phonetics career; videotapes are available through the university’s English Language Institute Library (see also [4] for an autobiographical account of Catford’s work).

late 1980s – present

In the late 1980′s, study of the phonetic sciences outside of Linguistics at the university subsided, with a major factor being the dissolution of the Department of Speech and Hearing in 1987. In that year, Patrice Speeter Beddor joined the Linguistics faculty from Yale/Haskins Laboratories. Andr&eacute M. Cooper, also from Yale/Haskins Labs, was appointed to the Linguistics faculty in 1989. Cooper left Michigan in 1996 (he is now at the College of William and Mary). The resulting gap in the phonetics program was filled in 1997 by Jos&eacute Benk&iacute from the University of Massachusetts.

Beginning in 1987, the university provided Linguistics with substantial funding, augmented by NSF support in later years, to bring the Phonetics Laboratory into the computer age. The laboratory’s initial computer systems were a Kay Digital Sonograph and a VAX network running acoustic analysis and speech synthesis software; the VAX system has since been replaced with a Macintosh system. To accommodate Cooper’s expertise in speech articulation, especially laryngeal timing, transillumination and strain gage systems were added shortly after. More recently, the sound room and anechoic chamber built for Peterson’s lab have been renovated and equipped for on-line presentation of auditory stimuli. The newest portion of the laboratory includes Sun SPARC and PC workstations, and a PC-based speech airflow measurement system.

The current study of phonetics continues the 50-year tradition at Michigan of closely integrating research in phonetics and phonology. Beddor’s research areas include coarticulatory organization, acoustics, speech perception, and the phonetics-phonology relation. Of particular interest are the ways in which the human auditory system constrains phonological systems, as well as the ways in which experience with a particular coarticulatory structure influences perceptual abilities. Also, under Beddor’s editorship, the University of Michigan was “home” to the Journal of Phonetics from 1995-97. Benk&iacute works on problems in speech perception, including models of phonetic cue interaction, whole word perception, and lexical access. His interests extend to second language speech perception and how articulatory and perceptual realities affect phonological systems. Other faculty at Michigan working on sound structure also investigate issues in phonetics-phonology, and interact closely with the phonetics faculty and students. San Duanmu’s work in theoretical phonology involves study of the phonetic realizations of phonological constructs (e.g., phonological syllable weight). Lesley Milroy’s sociophonetic investigations include work on stop glottalization in British English and the vowel shift in northern U.S. cities; she is more generally interested in sociohistorical accounts of language change.

In 1989, an International Conference on Linguistic Approaches to Phonetics was held at Michigan in honor of J. C. Catford. In hindsight, we are struck by the fact that the common thread of that conference – the fundamental interaction of research in phonetics with areas not traditionally viewed as part of the phonetic sciences – is the common thread of the past decade of phonetics research at Michigan. Recent and on-going dissertations in phonetics all reflect this interest in the integration of the linguistic subdisciplines concerned with sound structure.


We thank Charles Fillmore, Harlan Lane, Ilse Lehiste, Beatrice Oshika, June Shoup, and William Wang for the very helpful background they provided concerning their years at Michigan.


Catford, J. C. 1977. Fundamental Problems in Phonetics. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. [3]

Catford, J. C. In press. Sixty years of linguistics. In K. Koerner (ed.) First Person Singular III. Phildelphia, PA: John Benjamins. [4]

Pike, Kenneth L. 1943. Phonetics: a Critical Survey of Phonetic Theory and a Technic for the Practical Description of Sounds. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. [1]

Pike, Eunice. 1981. Ken Pike: Scholar and Christian. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics. [2]