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John Esling

Canadian John Esling completed his PhD at Edinburgh in the 1970s, when 13p could buy you a pint. Now retired, the distinguished linguist looks back on a rewarding career in academia and with the International Phonetic Association.


John H. Esling

Degree Course

PhD in Linguistics (Phonetics)

Year of Graduation


Your time at the University

John Esling

My Edinburgh career began in 1973, when I came to study phonetics on an Overseas Student Postgraduate Studentship. There was a rare conviviality in the postgraduate community, especially with the South Americans and southern Europeans. We joined the ski club and toured the hills of Scotland with first-year undergraduates. The ceilidhs were memorable, a pint cost 13p (but then my flat in Portobello was £5/week). I bought my bicycles from Sandy Gilchrist and rode in to the university every day, down the Canongate cobblestones and through Holyrood every night, and around Midlothian on weekends.

My phonetic field work took place in Morningside and in Pilton (where many families from old Leith had moved). For that work, I rode the buses, carrying my relatively cumbersome Uher tape recorder; but that was nothing compared to the extensive efforts of the Linguistic Survey of Scotland at the time or the work of Hamish Henderson to revive folk music traditions. Notable events were celebrated at the top of Arthur’s Seat, usually involving fire, hill walks in the Pentlands were always bracing, and our research was done at the top of the old Royal Infirmary, then only steps away from Sandy Bell’s pub. We filmed the function of the larynx in speech, significant because my supervisor, an engineer in the department, had the only fibreoptic nasendoscope in town, and the doctors at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh or Western General had to borrow it to do their laryngeal or cleft palate surgeries. Summers were spent teaching English to foreign students, and I enjoyed the Fringe, crewing on sailboats on the Forth or out the Clyde, as well as trips to London and Paris to visit their famous phonetics laboratories.

Your experiences since leaving the University

Before finishing my PhD, I got a job teaching phonetics for a year at the University of Leeds, where I still cycled in the Yorkshire dales. Returning to North America in 1978, after teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) for a time, I had the privilege of teaching and doing my research in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Victoria in British Columbia from 1981 to 2014, chairing that department from 2008 to 2013. In 2009, I was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Now retired (Professor Emeritus, they call it), I still engage in research projects and travel to conferences and lecture to new groups of students at educational institutions around the world (as well as keeping honeybees and providing nesting boxes for indigenous solitary bees). The International Phonetic Association (IPA) has been a key part of my academic life since I joined as a student on the Diploma in Phonetics course at Edinburgh, where the study of voice and speech has enjoyed a long legacy. IPA members and congresses have been a continuing inspiration. I am proud to have served on the IPA Council, as Secretary of the IPA, Editor of the ‘Journal of the International Phonetic Association’, and President of the IPA.

My research has concentrated on auditory and articulatory phonetics, particularly the categorization of voice quality, vocal register in tone languages, the first speech sounds that infants produce, and the phonetic production and modelling of laryngeal and pharyngeal sounds (speech articulation in the throat) – work that led to the ‘iPA Phonetics’ app for teaching phonetics. The book on ‘Voice Quality’ that sums all this up is largely down to the inspiration of my family, my co-authors, and my mentors at Edinburgh.

Alumni wisdom

In short, it was a philosophy of learning that taught us to be aware, mindful, and wise.

Professor Emeritus John Esling, FRSC

One of the hallmarks of the PhD course at Edinburgh was the degree of independence that we enjoyed. That means that we had to figure out on our own what we were meant to learn, how to go about learning it, and how to navigate our own path through degree courses. In short, it was a philosophy of learning that taught us to be aware, mindful, and wise. It taught us to search out knowledge from those we met, to observe life around us to build conceptualization, to direct our own course, to engage with others to develop our ideas, and to rely on our instincts to weave theory and practice together. So perhaps all of you studying at Edinburgh today are acquiring that wisdom on your own. It will teach you far more than I can tell you.

Related links

Linguistics and English Language  

Royal Society of Canada (external link)

International Phonetic Association (external link)

Alumni bookshelf (Oct 2019) featuring John's book, 'Voice Quality: The Laryngeal Articulator Model'