Betsy Uldall, teacher

Born: 30 November, 1913, in Kearney, Nebraska

Died: 23 June, 2004, in Edinburgh, aged 90

FOR more than 30 years, Betsy Uldall was a lecturer in the Department of Phonetics and Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. Her lively curiosity, wry wit and keen intellect contributed greatly not only to her chosen field but to her many causes and avocations.

Her long and remarkable career included postings on five continents, and her many students pass on her legacy at universities around the world.

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Betsy never let go of her roots in the American prairie town of Kearney, Nebraska, where she was born Elizabeth Theodora Anderson, the youngest of three daughters of the town photographer. From childhood on, however, she was something of an exotic in Nebraska. When Betsy went to her 60th high-school reunion, a classmate confided to her daughter: "We always knew she would be leaving Kearney."

A freethinker from infancy, she had no patience with her family’s Baptist faith. Her mother often invited the minister to "speak to Elizabeth", but when Betsy saw him coming up the sidewalk, she would run and stuff a fig in the doorbell so it wouldn’t ring.

Words and language fascinated Betsy from childhood on; she remembered sitting under the piano, listening to the grown-ups talking, and wondering why their words and voices were so distinctive. She discovered phonetics at Barnard College in New York, and went on to study with the renowned Dr Daniel Jones at University College, London. Through him she met and married Jon Uldall, a Dane who co-founded the linguistic theory of glossematics. Betsy and Jon spent the Second World War years in the Middle East, working mostly for the British Council in Athens, Tel Aviv, Baghdad, Cairo and Alexandria.

After the war, they worked for the British Council in Argentina, and Betsy also served in Paraguay. Most of her work for the council was teaching English as a second language.

She came to the University of Edinburgh in 1949 as part of the new phonetics department.

Betsy was noted for her ingenious pioneering laboratory work, some of it quite taxing. She would spray the inside of her mouth with chalk, for instance, sound a consonant, and then take a photograph of the marks in the chalk where her tongue had actually touched. Her high-speed film of human vocal cords at work was used for many years as a teaching aid. The cords being filmed were her own; she said she was the only volunteer who could suppress the gag reflex with a camera down her throat.

Betsy was made a senior lecturer in 1965, specialising in intonation and rhythm. She had visiting assignments at the University of Michigan, the University of Illinois at Urbana, Annamalai in India, the University of Copenhagen and the Haskins Laboratory in New York.

Apart from phonetics, her wide-ranging mind had interests ranging from photographing and documenting antique postal boxes to studying the history of clothing, Iznik pottery, industrial archaeology and Romanesque churches.

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Betsy was resolutely independent and self-reliant. She called herself "neat-handed", and tailored many of her own clothes, carefully mended books and invented small gadgets to suit her needs.

She was a member of groups including the Georgian Society (now the Cockburn Society), the Scottish Society for Northern Studies, the Hellenic Society and the Film Society.

Betsy Uldall was a great lady whose fascination with life never flagged. Blunt and impatient with cant, she was eager to engage with new ideas; she gravitated to interesting people in all walks of life, and more than repaid their time and attention. A good cook, she loved to eat.

Nearing retirement, Betsy travelled often with her daughter, Anne Sophie Uldall Martz, to destinations including Greece, Turkey and China.

Her daughter survives, as do two grandchildren, Jenny Anne Horst-Martz and Geoffrey Martz, three great-grandchildren, Emily, Hans and Mack, and her much-loved nephews, Robert, John and Roger Worlock.

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