John J. Ohala

Posted: September 2020

The LSA regrets to report that John J. Ohala, professor of Linguistics and Director of the Phonology Lab at UC Berkeley, died on Aug 22 at his home in Berkeley. 

John received an A.B. in English from Notre Dame in 1963, an M.A. in Linguistics from UCLA in 1966 (when he joined the LSA), 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.  He was inducted as a Fellow of the LSA in 2010. 

He 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.  Constraint-based approaches for describing and explaining phonology, which were pioneered by Ohala, are now the standard view in linguistics.

John was also 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 propose ‘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’.

Learn more about John and his work.