First International Workshop on the History of Speech Communication Research (HSCR 2015)

Dresden, Germany
September 4-5, 2015

A Brief History of Experimental Phonetics in the 18th and 19th Centuries

John J. Ohala

International Computer Science Institute, Berkeley, CA, USA

The notion of ‘experimental [any science]’ is based, I think, on two philosophical premises:

   1. Our (unaided) senses cannot give us a complete understanding of the world. Our senses are limited and even the impressions we do get from our senses can give us misleading information. Further, the processing that our brain gives to sense data can be defective. And the reasoning powers of the brain – even on imaginary data – can be defective. This much was known and discussed by ancient philosophers, e.g., the Skeptic School in ancient Greece. Many myths and religions were invented to fill gaps in our knowledge of the world.
   2. With the advent of the Scientific Revolution around the turn of the 16th to 17th century, there was a new idea: one could overcome the limitations of the senses and reasoning by (a) discovering and devising aids that extended the range of our senses and (b) by formulating hypotheses about what could not be directly detected and then testing such hypotheses using rigorous observation of predicted consequences of the hypotheses and, as far as possible, eliminating or attenuating anticipated sources of error in making and processing such observations. The microscope is an example of the former and Pasteur’s famous experiment with broth in the special retort of his own design is an example of the latter.

Experimental phonetics was somewhat late to adopt these views and practices but in the past three centuries it is has come to conform to the practices of normal science. Here I propose to review some of the highlights of this effort in the 18th and 19th centuries, specifically to briefly review the accomplishments of scientists who have pondered the mysteries of speech and made attempts to reveal it physical basis. I give in parentheses their professional background.

One is struck by the fact that almost all of these pioneers in experimental phonetics had backgrounds such as medicine and physics that had already achieved the status of what we would now consider ‘normal science’. Their disciplines had early on embraced the two philosophical premises given above and, moreover, were used to the idea that it is possible to make the unknown known by careful observations and rigorous testing of hypotheses.

Full Paper

Bibliographic reference.  Ohala, John J. (2015): "A brief history of experimental phonetics in the 18th and 19th centuries", In HSCR-2015, 13-14.