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Historic UCL Phonetics recordings pass to British Library

21 May 2008

His Master's Voice

A collection of more than 500 gramophone records of speech, recently discovered at UCL, has been entrusted to the British Library’s Sound Archive. ‘The UCL Phonetics Collection’ documents over a century of teaching and research at UCL Phonetics & Linguistics, and has been described by the British Library as having “unique value and interest”.

The collection, which dates predominantly from the inter-war period of the twentieth century, includes both commercial and unpublished recordings, covering lectures, performances, and extensive teaching materials for English and many other languages. Professor Daniel Jones, founder of UCL Phonetics, is strongly represented, as are various colleagues who were to be seminal figures in their own right, including JR Firth, who was to hold the first Linguistics chair in Britain, at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Unheard for generations, the records were locked in cupboards of the department’s Gordon Square premises until Steve Nevard, Experimental Officer in the department, and Michael Ashby, Senior Lecturer in Phonetics, began to examine them in preparation for the department’s move into new accommodation. It quickly became apparent that the collection was of international importance, and they made contact with Jonnie Robinson, a Content Specialist at the British Library.

Phonetics research students Angelos Lengeris and Young Shin Kim compiled a detailed catalogue, enabling Joanne Sweeney, also a Content Specialist at the British Library, to confirm that a significant proportion of the UCL collection was apparently unknown in the Sound Archive.

Digital transfers of selected recordings were played by Michael Ashby at a colloquium of the British Association of Academic Phoneticians in Sheffield in April 2008, exciting great interest. He commented: “Cataloguing this collection, and conserving it for posterity, are important first steps. The next stage, in conjunction with our British Library colleagues, will be to seek funds to accelerate the restoration and digitisation of the recordings, and to make them widely available by building web interfaces for teaching and research.”

To find out more, follow the links at the top of this item.

Daniel Jones
Professor Daniel Jones (1881–1967), whose voice is prominent among the recordings unearthed at UCL Phonetics & Linguistics, was the founder of the department, which rapidly came to be regarded as one of the best in the world. It is believed he was the inspiration for Henry Higgins, the character in George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’.