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Expert on Psychology of Speech Dies
January 31, 2000

Alvin M. Liberman, an emeritus professor of psychology whose ideas set the agenda for 50 years of research in the psychology of speech and laid the groundwork for modern computer speech synthesis, died Jan. 13 of complications following open heart surgery. He was 82.

At the time of his death, he was a senior scientist at Haskins Laboratories in New Haven, a not-for-profit research organization with close links to UConn and to Yale University. He was a former president and research director at Haskins.

Liberman headed the UConn psychology department from 1960 to 1971. From 1968 to 1987, he divided his teaching time between the University and Yale. He also was an emeritus professor of linguistics at Yale.

"Al Liberman made numerous important contributions to this University," says Donald Shankweiler, a professor of psychology and a longtime friend of Liberman. "It was during the years that he was head of the psychology department that the department achieved national prominence. He also was highly instrumental in creating the Department of Linguistics at the University."

Carol A. Fowler, president and director of research for Haskins Laboratories and professor of psychology at UConn, notes that Liberman had maintained an active presence at Haskins and in the broader scientific community.

"His colleagues at Haskins are profoundly saddened and bereaved by his death," she says.

Michael Studdert-Kennedy, chairman of Haskins Laboratories, says the aim of Liberman's early work, which was sponsored by the Veterans' Administration after World War II, was to develop the sound output of a reading machine for the blind. The goal was to scan print and produce a distinctive acoustic pattern for each letter of the alphabet.

Yet Liberman and his associates at Haskins could not develop a system that operated faster than the Morse Code, or about one-tenth the normal speaking rate. That triggered the question to which he devoted much of his research for the rest of his life - why speech is so much faster and more efficient a carrier of linguistic information than other sounds?

Studdert-Kennedy says Liberman found that speech is not just signals but is an integral part of language. Consonants and vowels aren't like beads on a string but are overlapped into syllables, buying speed at the price of complexity. Human listeners are biologically adapted to decode the signal of running speech.

"In the course of developing this answer," he says, "Liberman and his colleagues discovered many of the main acoustic cues to the consonants and vowels of English. These cues later guided the development of artificial speech synthesis."

In the 1970s and 1980s, Liberman collaborated with his wife, the late Isabelle Yoffe Liberman, and other Haskins scientists on reading.

"A central discovery of this work was that children who have difficulty learning to read almost always lack what Isabelle Liberman termed 'phoneme awareness,'" Studdert-Kennedy says. "They cannot easily learn to break a word into its component consonants and vowels."

That requirement for learning to read alphabetic print is now internationally recognized, largely because of the Libermans' advocacy of the "alphabetic principle" as opposed to the "whole word" or "sight reading" method of teaching.

Among the honors won by Liberman were a lifetime achievement award from the American Psychological Association, a Wilbur L. Cross Medal from Yale University, a UConn Alumni Association Award for Excellence in Research, and an honorary Doctor of Science Degree from UConn.

Liberman is survived by two sons, a daughter, and nine grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held on Saturday Feb. 12, at 3 p.m. in von der Mehden Recital Hall.