Skip to main content
John J. Ohala
In Memoriam

John J. Ohala

Professor of Linguistics, Emeritus

UC Berkeley

John J. Ohala died in Berkeley, California on August 22, 2020.  He was married to Manjari (Agrawal) Ohala (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. Born in Chicago on July 19, 1941, 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 PhD 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.

Professor Ohala was awarded an honorary PhD by the University of Copenhagen in 1992 (the same year that he was elected as a Fellow of the Acoustical Society of America).  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 (one of only 14 recipients in the history of the Society) ‘for advancing the understanding of speech production and perception and applying phonetic principles to the study of spoken language change over time.’ Two festschrifts in John Ohala’s honor have been published. The first, sixteen papers edited by Jeri Jaeger, was published in 1992 as the first two issues of Language and Speech, Volume 35, and the second, twenty-three chapters edited by Solé, Beddor, and M. Ohala, was published by Oxford University Press in 2007. The papers in these collections include contributions from colleagues around the world as well as from his Berkeley students and peers.

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.  He noted, for example, that the aerodynamic conditions which are required to produce vocal fold vibration (the AVC - “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, 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. 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 was similarly influential. In his theory of how words come to be pronounced differently by subsequent generations, he rejected ‘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 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 – the articulatory slop (his word) and misperception that is inherent in speech communication.

Ohala 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 develop “a unifying, ethologically based and phonetically plausible theory of aspects of sound symbolism.” 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.” Referring to work by animal ethologists on agonistic and submissive behaviors, Ohala proposed humans and other animals either automatically display or even manipulate a high F0 to signal “smallness, non-threatening attitude, desire for goodwill of the receiver, etc.,” and a low F0 to convey “largeness, threat, self-confidence and self-sufficiency.” From this universal base can be derived large swaths of gestural symbolism, such as the smile, and beyond to size sound-symbolic language such as the choice of certain consonants and vowels, and enhancement of high or low frequencies in speech. 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 1994 Cambridge volume Sound Symbolism, still the most-cited work on the topic. Ohala’s contribution to sound symbolism became known as the “Frequency Code Hypothesis,” which has stimulated many related studies.

John was an avid hiker in the East Bay Hills and an accomplished photographer of nature, but also of protest marches in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, and action shots of linguists at conferences. His linguistics photographs are an invaluable historical record of linguistics in the late 20th century, and his interest in the history of science was also expressed in his extensive collection of early scientific literature, especially books on human speech production. He would often report on a trip to a conference in two parts – the research presented at the meeting, and the volumes that he found in the local book shops. Many of his research articles have a literature review that starts in the seventeenth century. He envisioned and was the head editor of A Guide to the History of the Phonetic Sciences in the United States, in addition to his service on the editorial boards of fourteen different professional journals over the course of his career.

Many of John’s students looked up to him as an intellectual father figure, and celebrated him in festschrifts and honorary conferences. He was 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.” Many students answered this call to high intellectual ambition.

Keith Johnson