UCLA Spotlight


Peter Ladefoged, Faculty Emeritus

  • By Meg Sullivan, Reed Hutchinson
  • Published Feb 1, 2004 8:00 AM

Rex Harrison almost made an enemy when he extinguished his cigarette in Peter Ladefoged’s mouth.

Never mind that the oral cavity was only a dental cast. Ladefoged, a distinguished linguist, planned to use the plastic replica of his upper jaw in his research on word formation. That is, until Harrison started hunting for an ashtray on the set of the 1964 movie “My Fair Lady.”

“I was rather annoyed,” Ladefoged recalls.

But four decades later, “Rex Harrison’s ashtray” is the second most colorful souvenir of Ladefoged’s stint as technical consultant on the set of the beloved classic about a phonetician.

In anticipation of this fall’s 40th anniversary of the release of “My Fair Lady,” the dry-witted professor emeritus will dust off his single most colorful souvenir of the experience – his memories – on Feb. 25. He’ll speak at the inaugural event for Friends of Linguistics, a newly-formed support group for the most highly ranked department in the UCLA College and the nation’s third-ranked linguistics department. A tour of UCLA’s linguistics labs follows the talk.

Linguistics professor Pat Keating, who succeeded Ladefoged as head of the UCLA Phonetics Lab, considers her predecessor a highlight of the tour. “He is a living treasure,” she says.

Now renowned as a champion of the world’s endangered languages, Ladefoged isn’t in the habit of relating “My Fair Lady” anecdotes to audiences. But he did include a reference in a textbook on linguistic field work that was published last summer: he explained the kymograph, an arcane piece of equipment found in the film and once found in turn-of-the-century linguistics laboratories.

Legendary director George Cukor tracked down Ladefoged, then an assistant professor, for advice on just such details. But the name of the director, famous in Hollywood for “The Philadelphia Story” and “Gone With The Wind,” didn’t ring any bells with the Englishman who had joined UCLA two years earlier. “I had no idea who he was,” Ladefoged recalls.

But Ladefoged was quite familiar with the tools – like mouth casts – that would have captivated Henry Higgins, the cocky Edwardian linguist who seeks to elevate a common flower vendor by erasing her Cockney accent. Ladefoged could even remember the equipments’ manufacturers, who then provided vintage models.

“There were enormous strides made during World War II in analyzing sounds,” Ladefoged said. “But when I was a student in the late 1940s, we still had pre-war-type equipment, which hadn’t change much since the turn of the century.”

“Pygmalion,” the George Bernard Shaw play on which the Lerner–Lowe musical is based, was also an old friend.

“I remember setting students – as I’d been set by my professors – to transcribing parts from Pygmalion to learn linguistic notation.”

In fact, it was Ladefoged who produced the linguistic notations that Harrison appears to be making in the opening scene with Audrey Hepburn as “gutter snipe” Liza Doolittle. The camera lingers on his transcription for 10 seconds, Ladefoged once calculated.

“You wouldn’t have a hope in hell of remembering it,” he says.

The movie’s legendary but long deceased cast burn more brightly in his memory. The elegant Hepburn, for instance, impressed Ladefoged as a “homebody.”

“Between takes, she passed around a plate, saying ‘Would you like a chocolate chip cookie – I baked them last night,’” Ladefoged remembers. “A very nice person, a very nice person, indeed.”


Copyright © Prof. Ladefoged

Peter Ladefoged passed away January 24, 2006 in London, England, en route to his home in Los Angeles, California. He had been conducting phonetics research in India. - (Updated 1/07)