LEIGH LISKER (1918—2006)
Comments on Leigh Lisker
My first contact with Leigh Lisker was in the fall of 1955 when he served one evening as a guest lecturer in a pioneering Columbia University course on Acoustic Phonetics taught by the late Franklin S. Cooper at Haskins Laboratories, then in New York City. Leigh was at that time an assistant professor of Linguistics and Dravidian Languages at Penn and, along with a few other academics, a research associate at Haskins. As a graduate student resuming my studies after a stint of two and a half years of teaching in Thailand, I was much taken with the research that he presented, his clarity, his unassuming manner, his pleasant, approachable nature, and his wry sense of humor. I knew immediately that I had to seek him out for discussions of my own interests. Additional links that led to the beginning of a fruitful colleagueship and treasured friendship for just over 50 years included our polyglot backgrounds, an interest in exploring phonetic topics across languages, and shared experiences as U.S. Army veterans of the Second World War.
I would like to dwell a little on Leigh as a colleague. Of course, my knowledge of the collegial value attributed to him by others in the Penn Department of Linguistics was largely indirect, yet I was struck by his deep concern, expressed in many conversations, over the handling of courses and the solving of problems. Indeed, although he never sought the position, he served as Chairman for eight years. I did have many opportunities to see him respond to the needs of students, his own as well as those of others, serving as research assistants at Haskins. His treatment of them was always kind and helpful.
At Haskins Laboratories, Leigh’s zeal for designing and carrying out experiments to determine the information-bearing elements of speech, the “acoustic cues,” facilitated his blending very well with the distinguished group of early speech scientists there. While retaining his own distinctive style, he worked well in the rich interdisciplinary atmosphere of that research institute. I, however, with delight and much satisfaction, can truthfully claim to have been his principal collaborator over the years.
Against the background of relevant work by precursors, we had 18 papers published, several with additional co-authors, between 1964 and 1993 on the subject of voicing distinctions in consonants. Our central thesis was the role of the temporal control of laryngeal action in the production and perception of such distinctions. Although my interests toward the end of that period were turning in other directions, Leigh persisted in exploring the matter further. Even then, we continued spending the same day and night at Haskins every week, so that we could discuss our work and other topics over meals and before going to sleep. It was a compatible and harmonious partnership with, to be sure, occasional arguments.
We have lost an important figure in the shaping of speech science with its impact on general linguistics, experimental psychology, the study of speech and hearing disorders, and communications engineering.