November 19, 2006

Find that mystery mumbling phonetician

A further case of a linguist raising serious suspicions and almost getting arrested can be found in the biography entitled The real Professor Higgins by Beverley Collins and Inger Mees (Mouton, 1999; page 352). Professor Daniel Jones. It was pointed out to me by John Wells of University College London (UCL). The story concerns Professor Daniel Jones, the distinguished founder of the Department of Phonetics at UCL (later the Department of Phonetics and Linguistics, where I taught for several years early in my career). Jones, one of the most important figures in the entire history of phonetics, was once taken for a spy — in wartime, so this could have meant the firing squad.

During the Second World War (1939-1945), the operations of the Department of Phonetics were evacuated to Aberystwyth in Wales, because London was under constant German bombing. Professor Jones did not move his domicile to Wales, but had to go there sometimes, especially to conduct examinations. (The tradition at UCL has always been to examine phonetics in part through a process of live dictation of invented nonsense words which the examinees have to write down in the International Phonetic Alphabet, and this requires the simultaneous co-presence of the candidates with an expert practical phonetician who can pronounce arbitrary syllable strings perfectly and recognize accurate transcriptions of them.) Here's the way Collins and Mees tell the tale of Jones's curious incident:

On one of his rare trips to Wales, Jones was busily checking his phonetic transcriptions for the examinations, noting snatches of the Welsh conversation in the carriage, and practising "nonsense words" to himself. He was quite unaware that some perceptive passengers had been distressed by the strange activities of an elderly gentleman who was not only apparently muttering odd noises in a strange language which was neither English nor Welsh, but also writing down peculiar signs and symbols in his notebook. On his arrival at his destination, Jones was alarmed to find the local constabulary waiting to arrest him on suspicion of being a spy.

(By the way, you are probably so young and modern and part of the cell phone generation that it may not have occurred to you that the passengers couldn't have alerted the Aberystwyth police by cell phone calls from the train, because cell phones were still science fiction, some fifty years into the future. But the technology for radio communication from trains was known as early as 1914, and there were also techniques involving inductive coupling to telegraph lines running alongside the train; it would have been possible in principle for a passenger to go down the corridor of the train and alert railway personnel, and for them to pass on the alarm in some way while the train was in motion.)

Strange mutterings, notations in the International Phonetic Alphabet, attentive listening to fellow passengers talking in Welsh... Well, it doesn't exactly sound like Casino Royale, does it? But I guess in wartime people get really nervous. Perhaps (as George Kesteven points out to me) Jones was practicing his bilabials and the other passengers took the wartime slogan "loose lips sink ships" somewhat too literally.

Jones did not, however, cause the Aberystwyth post office to be closed. Barbara Citko, that Polish bioweaponry Mata Hari, still seems to be the only linguist ever to have seemed dangerous enough that a whole post office had to be shut down in the battle to stop her evil schemes. In case anyone is keeping score on such matters.

Thanks to Bill Poser and Barbara Zimmer for research on trains and radio.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at November 19, 2006 02:14 PM