MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections

X-ray Used in MIT Linguistics Research, 1951

From the Roman Jakobson Papers, 1908-1982


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Before the 1950s the study of language at MIT consisted primarily of elementary courses in foreign languages and practical courses aimed at helping graduate students pass their foreign language requirements. William Locke, head of the Department of Modern Languages, had ambitions to develop the program to incorporate original research on the characteristics of speech. Morris Halle, a Harvard graduate student under the tutelage of Roman Jakobson, came to MIT as an Assistant Professor in 1951 and made regular use of equipment at the Research Lab of Electronics. This work led to an affiliation between RLE and the Department of Modern Languages, resulting in the establishment of RLE’s Speech Analysis Group and the publication of Preliminaries to Speech Analysis: the Distinctive Features and Their Correlates, by Jakobson, Fant, and Halle, 1952, a work that had a significant impact on the study of linguistics.

The x-ray reproduced here, taken at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, was part of a series of x-rays documenting the position of the tongue, lips, and other articulators while producing speech sounds. The drawings were studied in comparison with related spectrograms and other acoustic records of speech as part of a program to establish the foundations of speech analysis. The resulting report proposed many questions “to be discussed by specialists on various aspects of speech communication” concerning the “ultimate discrete components of language, their specific structure, their inventory in the languages of the world, and their identification on the acoustical and perceptual levels and their articulatory prerequisites.” Gunnar Fant subsequently used the x-rays to answer many questions raised by the 1952 report in his groundbreaking book entitled Acoustic Theory of Speech Production, 1960.

Roman Jakobson (1896-1982) was a multifaceted scholar whose work influenced fields as diverse as phonology, philology, literature, folklore, aesthetics, comparative mythology, semiotics, psychoanalysis, and social anthropology. He held positions in Europe before immigrating in 1941 to the United States, where he taught at Columbia (1943-1949), Harvard (1949-1967), and MIT (1957-1967). Gunnar Fant was a physicist who served as a visiting faculty member at MIT’s Acoustics Lab in the early 1950s. Morris Halle is Institute Professor Emeritus in MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.

The papers of Roman Jakobson (MC 72) and the papers of Morris Halle (MC 227), as well as other materials documenting the history of linguistics, are available for research in the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections, 14N-118.

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