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  • Arthur S. Abramson
  • D. H. Whalen and Laura L. Koenig

Arthur S. Abramson, former Secretary, Vice President, and President (1983) of the Linguistic Society of America, died on December 15, 2017, at the age of ninety-two.1 He was a central figure in the linguistic study of tone, voicing, voice quality, and duration, primarily in their phonetic realization. His seminal work with Leigh Lisker (Lisker & Abramson 1964) introduced the metric voice onset time (VOT), which has become perhaps the most widely used measure in phonetics. He contributed to the field in numerous other ways; in addition to his work for the LSA, he became the first chair of the Linguistics Department of the University of Connecticut, served as editor of Language and Speech, and was a long-term researcher and board member of Haskins Laboratories.

Life. Arthur was born January 26, 1925, in Jersey City, New Jersey. He learned Biblical Hebrew in his childhood, and then followed up with post-Biblical Hebrew later on. Yiddish was also part of his background. His parents were born in the US, but his grandparents were not, and they primarily spoke Yiddish. He learned some from his mother, and it came in handy when he served in the US Army in Europe during World War II. (Many years later, he taught it at the University of Connecticut in the Center for Judaic Studies, which he helped establish.) He became fluent in French, starting from classes in high school, where he was lucky enough to have a native speaker as a teacher. (The teacher was Belgian, and Arthur was sometimes said, by French colleagues, to have a Belgian accent.) Arthur had an early introduction to synthetic speech when he attended the New York World’s Fair in 1939. He saw and heard Homer Dudley’s Voder there, but it did not immediately strike him that speech synthesis would be a major part of his life’s work.

Arthur began his college education at Rutgers University, with a major in botany and a minor in French. This would lead to some teaching in the school system of Jersey City, NJ, which Arthur thought could be a worthwhile career. As with many of his generation, however, the onset of World War II interrupted his trajectory. At the end of his first year of college (1943), he went into the US Army, where he served for three years as an x-ray technician in the field hospitals. He did not participate in the Normandy invasion, but he was diligently processing x-rays of the wounded soldiers returning from the front. Once the beachheads had been established and the breakthroughs made across the enemy lines, he entered continental Europe with the rest of the US Army. He was not exposed to direct fire after that, but he had much paramedical work to perform. As the fighting died down, his fluency in French was useful for helping his unit interact with the local populace, but Yiddish also played a role. At the end of hostilities but before demobilization, Arthur and several other Jewish soldiers attended a French rabbi’s weekly Sabbath table, where Yiddish was the main language spoken, and Arthur’s fluency increased there. He would often augment his Yiddish with his estimate of how the cognate Hebrew word would have been modified—usually successfully, if you discount the laughter that accompanied the subsequent corrections. [End Page 969]

After returning from Europe, Arthur completed his undergraduate degree at Yeshiva University in 1949. He was in a double program, both Jewish studies (in Hebrew) and French, but he still had not yet heard of linguistics as a formal discipline. When he graduated, his language interests led him to think about teaching, and he began doing so at Columbia University Teacher’s College. Ilene Kitchen, an applied linguist there, inspired him, and led him to consult with the head of the Linguistics Program at the Columbia University Graduate School, André Martinet. Martinet said that Arthur ‘belonged there’. Once beginning classes, Arthur found that his interest was in the sounds of language. Uriel Weinreich was an instructor, giving him a sense of the history of sound change. Arthur received an...


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