James 'Tony' Anthony

James KF Anthony, phonetics scientist and lecturer

Born: 1 July, 1921, in Edinburgh Died: 28 January, 2003, in Dysart, Fife, aged 81

FOR some time over the second half of last century, the University of Edinburgh Phonetics Department held a prominent place among centres of its kind. James Anthony - invariably known to family, friends, and colleagues as "Tony" - was the first member of staff to be appointed in 1948 to this newly-founded department by its head, David Abercrombie; and he served the university until his retirement in 1984.

On taking up his new post, Tony, who, after war service from 1939 to 1946 with the Royal Signals, had trained as a telephone engineer, had as his first responsibility the planning and equipping of the phonetics laboratory. Over the next 30 years or so, work in experimental phonetics was to become one of the department’s strengths, and Tony, promoted in 1951 to Senior Technician, was the mainstay of much of this.

By the beginning of the Sixties, he was a Research Fellow. One of his duties at this stage was to oversee the technical development of the department’s programme in speech synthesis, an area in which the Edinburgh work became pre-eminent. Housed in a rather dingy basement in Minto House, the synthesis equipment, known as PAT (standing for Parametric Artificial Talking device), became one of the department’s great attractions for visiting academics, audio engineers and others.

The principles employed in the production of artificial speech in Edinburgh differed in some important respects from what took place elsewhere, in that the signals, derived from natural speech, that served to "drive" the machine, reflected not the acoustic properties of individual sounds set side by side analogously to the written mode of language, but rather the unbroken simultaneous variation over time of a number of selected parameters of the acoustic signal. The quality of the artificial speech produced surpassed a good deal of the competition at that period, which made it particularly well-suited to experiments using artificial stimuli; this was further facilitated by the fact that the parameters could be quickly and relatively easily manipulated. A further valuable outcome were the insights provided into natural speech by the approach, as the parameters were extracted from sound-spectrograms by eye.

The staff of the PAT lab, headed by Tony, always included one or two members of the academic staff seconded from their teaching duties; and this could at times be an uneasy marriage, as we linguists struggled to follow his impromptu lectures in front of a laboratory blackboard that he covered with what were to us baffling acoustical formulae . But he always took a very patient and forbearing line, and, in the end, as he knew we would, we caught up with him and became more knowledgeable.

A second and later preoccupation was with the workings of the larynx, which led to an eerie period in the department’s life when Tony’s excised larynxes, fastened to the tops of oxygen cylinders, would produce literally disembodied wails from behind a door at one end of an unfrequented corridor.

This work he continued during the 1963-4 session as Visiting Professor at the University of California in Los Angeles, bringing it to a conclusion (after a sabbatical year at Trinity College, Dublin, in 1981-2) with the publication in 1982 of a PhD thesis entitled Breathing and Speaking, a wide-ranging study of various aspects of speech aerodynamics - an area of phonetic research which was, even at this recent date, not at all well explored, and which allowed him to develop his interest in the medical applications of phonetics laboratory work and to extend his teaching expertise into the field of otolaryngology.

In 1971, Tony was promoted to Lecturer, and three years later to Senior Lecturer, the post he held at the time of his retirement - an altogether remarkable career for a man who left school at the age of 15.

He travelled widely in the course of his work, initially around northern Scotland and the Western Isles, making recordings of songs and other folk material being gathered by Calum Maclean and Hamish Henderson; later further afield, when engaged by the British Council to advise universities in continental Europe and Asia on the establishing and developing of their own phonetics laboratories.

Outside of his professional activities he had manifold interests. Foremost among these was sailing; many were the colleagues and friends who experienced with Tony the pleasures and discomforts of sailing the Forth, from both the Edinburgh and, later, the Fife shores. He was for many years a member of the Scottish National Party, and a founder member (the sixth) of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.

He could always surprise one with the range of his interests and the depth of his knowledge of them. And none of it was bookish knowledge, or acquired simply for its own sake. His knowledge was lived-in, as it were, and it begot the need for more. On one long afternoon’s walk from Dysart to West and East Wemyss he astonished me with talk of the history and geology of the area. He made me want to join the Fife Historical Society immediately!

His convictions were, likewise, deeply held - expressed sometimes with a vigour and tenacity that some could find exasperating, but a solid part of himself. Through everything, he was all of a piece, never pompous or stuffy, never shallow, never a follower of fashion. A colleague once said of him that he was "the kind of man it is good to have around a university". And to this one can only say: "Oh aye, oh aye."