On the Retirement of Emeritus Professor John Christopher Wells

The end of the third term of the 2005-2006 session at University College London saw Professor John Christopher Wells relinquish the chair of phonetics previously occupied by A. C. Gimson, D. B. Fry and initiated for the illustrious Daniel Jones.

Professor Wells was born on the 11th of March 1939 in Lancashire the eldest son of a vicar who had moved up to that county from the southeast of England. His mother was a teacher with a Leeds background. He has described himself as "a northerner ... by birth and upbringing" but even so he was sent south to a preparatory school and after that to another boarding school, the "minor" public school, St John's at Leatherhead in Surrey.

From there he proceeded to Trinity College Cambridge where he obtained a degree in classics but found that he had acquired, notably under the influence of the late John Trim (who had previously been a highly valued member of Daniel Jones's staff at UCL), an abiding interest in linguistics and especially phonetics. It was on Trim's recommendation that he was accepted to work on a thesis for an M.A. on A study of the formants of the pure vowels of British English (noteworthy enough to be quoted by A. C. Gimson in his Introduction to the Pronunciation of English) at the UCL Department of Phonetics for the next two years and remained there ever afterwards energetically pouring out an inexhaustible series of high-quality publications.

Immediately after completing his studies he was taken on as an Assistant Lecturer and began work on his doctoral thesis on Jamaican Pronunciation in London (1973), though its progress was held up to some extent while he worked on his Esperanto Dictionary (1969) and his collaboration with drama teacher Greta Colson to produce an excellent short book on Practical Phonetics (1971). In 1970 he published a substantial article (over 20 pages) 'Local accents in England and Wales'. This proved to be the germ that grew during the following dozen years into his magnum opus in which he set himself to "bring together all [he] could find on the pronunciation of English as a first language and present it in a unified framework". This he did with signal success in the awesome three volumes (673 pages plus tape) of Accents of English (1982), a work very unlikely to be superseded for at least another generation.

His other most staggering achievement was to produce single-handedly in 1990 the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary eclipsing anything of the kind written before. It incorporated in effect a concise textbook on English pronunciation (including admirable vowel diagrams). It dealt not only with the traditional south-of-England type of accent but embodied northern and midland educated usages as well as a record of General American pronunciations superior to anything comparable in print even in the USA. It provided numerous IPA transcriptions of original-language pronunciations of loanwords from over fifty foreign languages and opinion-poll-based information on the pronunciation preferences of ultimately over two thousand volunteer respondents to questionnaires illustrated in the second edition of 2000 and the third edition of  2008 with strikingly effective graphics. His substantial book (285 pages with audio CD)  English Intonation appeared in 2006. It tackled head-on a wide range of knotty problems of describing the prosodic features of British English particularly for the benefit of the advanced EFL user. Once again he produced a far better and more comprehensive treatment of his subject than any of his predecessors in the field.

He has long been a major figure in the International Phonetic Association having been its Secretary and editor of its Journal from 1971 to 1987, contributing to it articles, specimens, reviews etc, and in 2003 being elected to the Association's Presidency. He has also contributed frequently to a great variety of collections, journals and dictionaries etc. He was president of the World Esperanto Association from 1989 to 1995. He has been President of the (Simplified) Spelling Society. Besides his admired teaching and lecturing in the Department of Phonetics and Linguistics he directed from 1983 to 2006 the University College Summer Courses in English Phonetics with the greatest success in their history. Besides his work at UCL, where he headed his department for a decade (1990-2000), he has travelled worldwide to lecture and has made frequent radio broadcasts and television appearances.

There are very many other possible illustrations of his tireless productivity. One thing is certain: he hasn't sat back and rested on his laurels since leaving the post in which he was for so long so outstandingly successful. In particular he continued for seven years from March 2006 to maintain a stream of stimulating comments and discussions in his daily Phonetic Blog, accessible in archive form via his homepage since he relinquished it in April 2013.