Arthur Seymour Abramson (1925–2017) was an American linguist who was prominent in the international experimental phonetics research community. He was best known for his pioneering work, with Leigh Lisker, on voice onset time (VOT), and for his many years spent studying tone and voice quality in languages such as Thai. Born and raised in Jersey City, New Jersey, Abramson served several years in the Army during World War II. Upon his return to civilian life, he attended Columbia University (BA, 1950; PhD, 1960). There he met Franklin Cooper, an adjunct who taught acoustic phonetics while also working for Haskins Laboratories. Abramson started working on a part-time basis at Haskins and remained affiliated with the institution until his death. For his doctoral dissertation (1962), he studied the vowels and tones of the Thai language, which would sit at the heart of his research and travels for the rest of his life. He would expand his investigations to include various languages and dialects, such as Pattani Malay and the Kuai dialect of Suai, a Mon-Khmer language. Abramson began his collaboration with University Pennsylvania linguist Leigh Lisker at Haskins Laboratories in the 1960s. Using their unique VOT technique, a sensitive measure of the articulatory timing between an occlusion in the vocal tract and the beginning of phonation (characterized by the onset of vibration of the vocal folds), they studied the voicing distinctions of various languages. Their long standing collaboration continued until Lisker’s death in 2006. Abramson and colleagues often made innovative use of state-of-art tools and technologies in their work, including transillumination of the larynx in running speech, X-ray movies of speakers in several languages/dialects, electroglottography, and articulatory speech synthesis. Abramson’s career was also notable for the academic and scientific service roles that he assumed, including membership on the council of the International Phonetic Association (IPA), and as a coordinator of the effort to revise the International Phonetic Alphabet at the IPA’s 1989 Kiel Convention. He was also editor of the journal Language and Speech, and took on leadership roles at the Linguistic Society of America and the Acoustical Society of America. He was the founding Chair of the Linguistics Department at the University of Connecticut, which became a hotbed for research in experimental phonetics in the 1970s and 1980s because of its many affiliations with Haskins Laboratories. He also served for many years as a board member at Haskins, and Secretary of both the Board and the Haskins Corporation, where he was a friend and mentor to many.
Sign phonetics is the study of how sign languages are produced and perceived, by native as well as by non-native signers. Most research on sign phonetics has focused on American Sign Language (ASL), but there are many different sign languages around the world, and several of these, including British Sign Language, Taiwan Sign Language, and Sign Language of the Netherlands, have been studied at the level of phonetics. Sign phonetics research can focus on individual lexical signs or on the movements of the nonmanual articulators that accompany those signs. The production and perception of a sign language can be influenced by phrase structure, linguistic register, the signer’s linguistic background, the visual perception mechanism, the anatomy and physiology of the hands and arms, and many other factors. What sets sign phonetics apart from the phonetics of spoken languages is that the two language modalities use different mechanisms of production and perception, which could in turn result in structural differences between modalities. Most studies of sign phonetics have been based on careful analyses of video data. Some studies have collected kinematic limb movement data during signing and carried out quantitative analyses of sign production related to, for example, signing rate, phonetic environment, or phrase position. Similarly, studies of sign perception have recorded participants’ ability to identify and discriminate signs, depending, for example, on slight variations in the signs’ forms or differences in the participants’ language background. Most sign phonetics research is quantitative and lab-based.