Remembrances of John Ohala

John's friends and colleagues have shared the following thoughts. Please contact Keith Johnson ( if you would like to make a contribution to this page.

You are also invited to visit a slideshow of photos from John's life.

John reviewed my Acoustic Phonetics book, and gave terrifically constructive and thorough feedback. I am so grateful to him for that. The first time I encountered him was at a meeting of the Linguistic Society of America. I gave a talk on tone and intonation in Cantonese and a guy in suede desert boots got up and asked me a question. Well, not so much asked a question but contradicted my talk by saying "that's no what we found in our lab". I didn't really know who this was, and I speculated on some of the ways he could have messed up his research and failed to find the effect. Later, Ilse Lehiste said "I think you handled John Ohala's comment very well" and I almost fainted. "That was Ohala?! I was so rude!" He seemed to get over it.

Keith Johnson

John met an undergrad professor of mine at a conference and emailed me to say hi my first year of grad school. I had just read a bunch of his papers for a class my senior year, and it felt so surreal for *him* to be contacting *me*. We met for a coffee at Cafe Milano and talked about science, Berkeley, and being an academic for over an hour. He brought me a cookie from Pacific Cookie Company, insisting it would be the best cookie I ever tried.

He made me feel like part of a community, at a time when I really needed that. Over the next few years, I'd see him at Phorum or BLS or in the PhonLab. One time he brought us a new comic to hang up in the lab. He was always friendly and happy to talk. I never had the chance to have such a long conversation with him again, but I will never forget the advice he gave me in 2015 at the cafe; it was a "moral lecture" I feel very grateful to have received:

"I know that young people rarely enjoy getting moral lectures from old people, but let me tell you the three virtues of a good scientist. First, be skeptical. Don't believe something just because it's the textbook if it doesn't make any sense. Second, have the drive and the will to overcome that skepticism and decide what merits believing, and what merits wanting other people to believe. The third one is the most important, and it's the hardest. Have the drive and the will and the courage to write it up and get it published."

--Emily Remirez

Susanne Fuchs

Back in the day, while at UCB in a different department, I had the fortune of working with John on perception, and doing a Master's thesis with him as one of my advisors.

A few weeks after turning in the bound-at-copyshop thesis to the different professors on the committee, I visited John to get his comments. He said a few things, and then at the end he said in a nice way when handing the copy back, something like

"I really liked that you left some of the interpretation up to the reader

When i got home, and flipped through for his comments, I found (to my horror) that there were about 30 completely blank pages in the middle of the binder!

As it turned out, I didn't get any comments in that regard from the other folks on the committee. Meaning John was the only one who actually read it!

That was John. A great scientist, always taking time to actually read your work, a great teacher, and always gentle and full of humor.

I miss him greatly. Thank you to all who put his Memorial together.

Liz Shriberg

I first met John in 1969 when he came to Japan to stay for 10 months at the Research Institute of Logopedics and Phoniatrics (RILP), Faculty of Medicine University of Tokyo, as a post-doctoral fellow supported by National Science Foundation to participate in our research project under the guidance of Prof. Osamu Fujimura. In that summer, John and I made a trip to the western parts of Japan and had a very nice time together. In the same year, he also visited Kurume University and worked together with Dr. Minoru Hirano. They developed a technique of hooked-wire electrodes for the electromyographic research of the laryngeal muscles, which has been one of the most useful devices for EMG study of the articulatory organs in the field of speech physiology. Since that time, John and I have made a long-standing bonds of friendship. It was my privilege to have known him so well, and I never forget his research mind and kindness. I missed him very much indeed.

Hajime Hirose, M.D., Ph.D., Professor emeritus, University of Tokyo

The first conference on intonation I attended was in 1983, in Zurich, where John Ohala gave a keynote lecture. It featured men wearing beards and deer with antlers and for a moment it felt as if I had ended up at the wrong conference. Years later, I realized I had witnessed a rare event: someone giving a definitive answer to a linguistic question. (Why do spoken questions have higher pitch than spoken statements?) During my intermittent stays at Berkeley, for one term of which I was honoured to replace John when he was on sabbatical at Alberta, he was a most pleasant friend and wise senior colleague. I remember opening up to him over being unable to cope with a large number of obligations. He didn’t ask what they were but said “I do what I can, and can [points at wastepaper basket] what I can’t”, giving me a big smile.

Carlos Gussenhoven

There are so many things to say about how incredible and legendary John was as both a linguist and a father figure to so many of us young grad students. Taking Intro to Phonetics during my first semester of grad school in 2001 was like a born-again religious experience. But, in this case, John didn't peach God; he preached atheism. Finally, phonetics and phonology made sense because phonology, as John explained it, didn't really exist -not through the popular theoretical stories of that time period, anyway. He was a renegade, a pioneer, and the best kind of skeptic. I TAed with him during his artificial heart valve operation (must've been 2003), and I remember joking with him that it somehow seemed appropriate for him, of all people, to have a permanent artificial valve lodged into his body. "Don't believe everything you think." John would agree. (Posted this to the Berkeley FB page, but sharing here as well.)

Jenny Lederer, Associate Professor of Linguistics, SFSU, Berkeley PhD 2009.

I have a few recollections about John during the Ohalas’ 1991-1992 tenure at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. They were very social and liked giving and attending departmental parties. At one of these events, which they hosted at the house they were renting, I learned just how avid of a bird-lover John was. John was grilling chicken for the party on a second-story patio deck which overlooked the garage. As John was preparing pieces of chicken for the grill, he stripped off the skin of each chicken part reminding us of how unhealthy the skin was and flung each piece onto the facing garage roof. He assured us that the magpies––very emblematic black & white orca-looking birds endemic in Edmonton––would soon be swooping down to pick off the chicken skins from the garage. I don’t actually recall seeing the birds, but will never forget the sight of all the raw chicken skins peppering the roof.
I was just starting my career when the Ohalas were in Edmonton. One thing he said to me really stuck: The best linguistic education is to spend Friday afternoons in the library reading a new descriptive grammar.
Finally, in addition to John’s terrible reputation as a punster and glacially slow joke-teller, he also loved to compose anagrams. While I don’t share that need to “anagramize”, I recognize a shared ethos of “creativity under constraint.” Unfortunately, John composed some anagrams for me at the back of a large classroom while I was giving a departmental colloquium about some analysis of prepositional meaning from the perspective of cognitive linguistics. At the end of my talk, he presented to me a sheet of paper with anagrams for cognitive linguistics:


Maybe a bit less biting were a few he composed of my name, Sally Ann RIce:


I’d like to close by returning the favor, John Ohala:


It's really hard to express what John's guidance as my advisor has meant to me. When I was in grad school, he would always take time to sit with a student in the lab and talk about their research, possible literature to read, ideas for how to investigate something, for hours, even if the student's work wasn't close to his topics at all. He was so generous that way. If I was spending Saturday in the lab labeling acoustic data and I emailed him a question, he wrote right back, every time. He gave detailed feedback on every paper. (It was not a good idea to turn in a paper with a typo in it!) John was a genius at guiding students on experimental design to make sure our data would turn out interpretable. We didn't know that was what he was doing, because he didn't make it explicit, but he made sure it happened. Now that I teach statistics, I see how important that kind of guidance is. He wrote across the top of my first experimental term paper that I should re-do the experiment and then submit the paper for publication, something I never would have thought of, and that comment is why my first journal article happened. That advice is often too rare. John talked with me about bias against women in academia, and was supportive of me as a female grad student. What I valued most about John was something that happened after grad school: at some point, I realized that John would always think my work was "good enough" no matter what, sort of the academic version of the unconditional love of a parent. Since academia can often be a long series of being told that one is not good enough, that faith from him continued to mean a lot for many years.

-- Natasha Warner, University of Arizona

In the Roengpitya family, two female linguists, Kanita (1970s) and Rungpat (1990s), were John’s students at Berkeley. To all members of our family, John has been very kind, and his warmth has touched our hearts. His trainings have broadened our worldviews, especially in the way that the scientific thinking can meet the arts. That is the true liberal arts education. On top of that, we are liberal to think of our own research and enjoy seeking the ways to find the plausible and possible answers to our questions. John is a great teacher and a genuine person whom we luckily met. His departure has saddened our hearts indeed. We would like to express our deepest condolences.

Kanita Roengpitya (Chulalongkorn University) and Rungpat Roengpitya (Mahidol University), Thailand

Many of my memories of John are much like others': hiking at Point Reyes, his knowledge of birds, and his dirty puns. Several people have alluded to his tolerance of formal phonology, even though he disagreed with it. My experience of his tolerance was different-- I was among the linguistics graduate students who participated in the GSI strike at Berkeley, and John made it very clear that he thought it was a big mistake, but he never let that interfere with our warm relation as student and teacher, or my respect for him as a scientist.

I only had the opportunity to meet John a few times, once at Manju's and John's house, and once when he gave a talk in our department. Yes, the jokes abounded, as well as the cheerful grins and good nature. He was clearly a remarkable man, and meant so much to so many. My very best to him now wherever he is.

- Stefan Frazier, Chair, Department of Linguistics and Language Development, San José State University

I met John in 1994, when I started as a graduate student in the UCB Linguistics department, coming from computer engineering training. Though I later moved into cognitive linguistics and the interdisciplinary humanities, his important early guidance and encouragement and approaches to knowledge have remained influential. Two things I remember vividly: his taking those of us who were interested on hikes in the hills, including Mount Diablo, where he'd expand our knowledge of the flora and fauna (such as pointing out those radial, segmented plants you could drink water from, and an edible round-leafed plant with a nutty flavor); and his telling me firmly more than once guiding words that at the time I didn't quite understand: "remember, it's not how the university will change you, it's how you can change the university." Since that early welcome to the Bay Area, I have become an avid birdwatcher and amateur bird photographer. Though I remember him each time I hike the hills, I wish I could have shared this new love of photography with him these more recent years I fell out of touch. I still constantly think about language and its centrality, and not far from the knowledge I repeatedly refer to is John's exemplary and beautiful research on the relationships between articulatory phonetics, acoustics, and sound change. Finally, I remember John proudly telling us a pun that involved berms. That is in fact when I first learned about berms. Thank you, John, and wishing Manju and the rest of John's family all the very best.

-Mel Y. Chen

It was so wonderful to gather with others whose lives John affected and who loved him. His was a life well lived. I went hiking with my family today in his honor, as he introduced me to hiking in Tilden. He was a wonderful teacher and advisor, who taught me so much about experimental phonetics and how to let the question being asked determine the methodology. What a legacy his work is. I will miss his kindness, generosity, and humor.

Julie Lewis

Words cannot express my gratitude for having John as my advisor, teacher, and academic father figure during my years at Berkeley. As an advisor and a teacher, John gave me numerous opportunities to observe his data collection sessions with lab instruments to learn his research techniques, which often involved his craftsmanship. That was a true gift that a scientist could give to his student. I’m also extremely grateful for the support and encouragement he provided to me during the difficult times in my academic journey. I will forever treasure his words: “I’m your champion.” I'm so grateful to John for having being my champion. I will miss him.

-- Reiko Kataoka, San José State University

A phonetics joke: "Ed edited it." Thank you, John.

-- Joy A Chuck

When I think of John, his work, and how he influenced my research, I immediately think of my first class with him. It was in summer school at UCSB in 2001. The course was called “The phonetics of phonology”. I still keep a well-thumbed course reader because it’s means a lot to me…
I remember that I took this course after my master's thesis, which was purely phonetic, and also my doctoral thesis, which was purely phonological. I still felt that something was missing, that I hadn't found my niche yet, that I was searching for my destiny. In this course, John inoculated me against both pure phonology and pure phonetics, showing me how to combine the two disciplines and how research could benefit from this combination. I felt that I had found my path, which I continue to follow today.

Marzena Zygis