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(1982), a work very unlikely to be superseded for at least another generation.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
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.