Wells is a professor emeritus at University College London, where until his retirement in 2006 he held the departmental chair in phonetics.
His father was originally from South Africa, and his mother was English; he has two younger brothers. After a childhood in poverty, he studied languages and taught himself Gregg Shorthand. Having learned Welsh, he was interviewed in Welsh on radio; he has a reasonable knowledge of ten different languages. He was apparently approached by the Home Office to work on speaker identification but turned down the offer as it was still considered unacceptable to be homosexual at the time, and he feared that the security check would make his homosexuality public.
Wells earned his bachelor's degree at the University of Cambridge and his master's degree and his Ph.D. at the University of London.
Ziko. Universala Kongreso de Esperanto, Roterdamo 2008. John Wells, IKU-prelego: "La mirinda mondo de la parolsonoj".
John Christopher Wells is a British phonetician and Esperanto teacher. In September 2006 he signed a civil partnership with Gabriel Parsons, a native of Montserrat and his partner since 1968. Wells is a professor emeritus at University College London, where until his retirement in 2006 he held the departmental chair in phonetics. He is a member of London Gay Men's Chorus and has featured in their It Gets Better video. He is also a player of the melodeon and has uploaded videos to YouTube.
Wells is well known for his book and cassette Accents of English, the book and CD The Sounds of the IPA, Lingvistikaj Aspektoj de Esperanto, and the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. He is the author of the most widely used English-Esperanto dictionary. Accents of English was reviewed by the sociolinguist KM Petyt in the December 1982 edition of the Journal of the IPA. His review was generally positive, but he criticised the geographical unevenness of the coverage and the large number of anecdotes from personal experience.
Until his retirement, Wells directed a two-week summer course in phonetics for University College London, focusing on practical and theoretical phonetics, as well as aspects of teaching phonetics. The course ends with written and oral examinations, for which the IPA Certificate of Proficiency in the Phonetics of English is awarded.
A considerable part of Wells's research focuses on the phonetic description of varieties of English. From 2003 to 2007 he was president of the International Phonetic Association. He is also a member of the six-man Academic Advisory Committee at Linguaphone.
Wells has long been a pioneer of new technology. He is the inventor of the X-SAMPA ASCII phonetic alphabet for use in digital computers that could not handle IPA symbols. He learned HTML during the mid-1990s, and he created a Web page that compiled media references to Estuary English, although he was sceptical of the concept. After retirement, Wells ran a regular blog on phonetic topics from March 2006 to April 2013. He announced the end of his blog on 22 April 2013 saying, "if I have nothing new to say, then the best plan is to stop talking."
Wells was appointed by Longman to write its pronunciation dictionary, the first edition of which was published in 1990. There had not been a pronunciation dictionary published in the United Kingdom since 1977, when Alfred C. Gimson published his last (the 14th) edition of English Pronouncing Dictionary. The book by Wells had a much greater scope, including American pronunciations as well as RP pronunciations and including non-RP pronunciations widespread in Great Britain (such as use of a short vowel in the words bath, chance, last, etc. and of a long vowel in book, look, etc.). His book also included transcriptions of foreign words in their native languages and local pronunciations of place names in the English-speaking world. His book prompted the publication of new pronunciation dictionaries by the Oxford and Cambridge presses.
Wells was the president of the World Esperanto Association (UEA) from 1989 to 1995. As of 2012, he is the president of the Esperanto Association of Britain, and since 2007, he has been the president of the Esperanto Academy.
Wells is currently the president of the Spelling Society. He was criticised in a speech by David Cameron for advocating tolerance of text spelling and omitted apostrophes. However, Cameron was under the misapprehension that the Spelling Society was concerned with upholding standards of spelling.
In Accents of English he defined the concept of lexical sets, a concept in wide usage. A lexical set is a set of words (named with a designated element) that share a special characteristic. For example, words belonging to lexical set BATH have the /æ/ phoneme in the United States and /ɑː/ phoneme in Received Pronunciation.
Wells is a member of London Gay Men's Chorus and has featured in their It Gets Better video. He is also a player of the melodeon and has uploaded videos of his playing to YouTube.
Accents of English: Volume 1 by John C. Wells
Series: Accents of English (Book 1)
Paperback: 300 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press (May 31, 1982)
Amazon: Accents of English: Volume 1
Accents of English is about the way English is pronounced by different people in diffeent places. Volume I provides a synthesizing introduction, which shows how accents vary not only geographically, but also with social class, formality, sex and age; and in volumes 2 and 3 the author examines in greater depth the various accents used by people who speak English as their mother tongue: the accents of the regions of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland (volume 2), and of the USA, Canada, and West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Black Africa and the Far East (volume 3). Each volume can be read independently, and together they form a major scholarly survey of considerable originality, which not only includes descriptions of hitherto neglected accents, but also examines the implications for phonological theory.
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