John C. Wells

John Christopher Wells (born 11 March 1939) is a British phonetician and Esperantist. Wells is a professor emeritus at University College London, where until his retirement in 2006 he held the departmental chair in phonetics.[2]

John C. Wells
John C. Wells in the Netherlands in 2008
John Christopher Wells

(1939-03-11) 11 March 1939
Academic background
ThesisPhonological Adaptation in the Speech of Jamaicans in the London Area (1971)
Doctoral advisorJoseph Desmond O'Connor
Academic work
InstitutionsUniversity College London (1962–2006)


Wells earned his bachelor's degree at Trinity College, Cambridge and his master's degree and his PhD at the University of London.

Wells is 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.

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.

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.[3]

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.[4] 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."[5]

Work on accents of English

A considerable part of Wells's research focuses on the phonetic description of varieties of English. In 1982, Cambridge University Press published his three volumes of Accents of English that described accents all over the English-speaking world in phonetic terminology. This applied consistent terminology to accents that had previously been analysed in isolation. Accents of English[6] 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. In addition, Wells is acknowledged as the source of the term rhotic to describe accents where the letter r in spelling is always pronounced phonetically.[7]

Before writing Accents of English, Wells had written a very critical review of the Linguistic Atlas of England, which was the principal output of the Survey of English Dialects.[8] He argued that the methodology was outdated, that the sample was not representative of the population and that it was not possible to "discover with any certainty the synchronic vowel-system in each of the localities investigated".[8] KM Petyt noted in his review of Accents of English that Wells had made abundant use of the data from the Survey of English Dialects in some sections of the work whilst criticising the survey in other parts of the same work.[9]

Longman Pronunciation Dictionary

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.


John Wells at the World Congress of Esperanto, Rotterdam 2008

Wells was the president of the World Esperanto Association (UEA) from 1989 to 1995. He has previously been the president of the Esperanto Association of Britain and of the Esperanto Academy.

Work for spelling reform

Wells was president of the Spelling Society, which advocates spelling reform, from 2003 to 2013. He was criticised in a speech by David Cameron for advocating tolerance of text spelling.[10]

Personal life

His father was originally from South Africa, and his mother was English; he has two younger brothers. Wells grew up in Up Holland, Lancashire, born to the vicar of the parish, Philip Wells.[11][12] He has commented on the accent of the area and how it contrasted with the Received Pronunciation that was spoken in his home in his book Accents of English; vol. 2: the British Isles.

He attended St John's School, Leatherhead, studied languages and taught himself Gregg shorthand. Having learned Welsh, he was interviewed in Welsh on radio; according to his CV, he has a reasonable knowledge of ten languages.[1] 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 gay at the time, and he feared that the security check would make his sexual orientation public.[4] In September 2006 he signed a civil partnership with Gabriel Parsons, a native of Montserrat and his partner since 1968.[4][13]


Wells is a member of London Gay Men's Chorus and was featured in their It Gets Better video.[14] He is also a player of the melodeon[4] and has uploaded videos of his playing to YouTube.



  • 1962 ə spesəmin əv britiʃ iŋgliʃ [A specimen of British English]. In: Maître Phonétique Nr. 117, S. 2–5. JSTOR 44705582
  • 1967 spesimɛn. *dʒəmeikən ˈkriːoul [Specimen. Jamaican Creole]. In: Maître Phonétique, Nr. 127 S. 5. JSTOR 44705724
  • 1968 Nonprevocalic intrusive r in urban Hampshire. IN: Progress Report, UCL Phonetics Laboratory, S. 56–57
  • 1970 Local accents in England and Wales. In: J.Ling., Nr. 6, S. 231–252.
  • 1979 Final voicing and vowel length in Welsh. In: Phonetica'. 36.4–5, S. 344–360.
  • 1980 The brogue that isn't. In: JIPA vol. 10 (1980), S. 74–79. Can be read on-line.
  • 1985 English accents in England. In: P. Trudgill (Hrsg.): Language in the British Isles. Cambridge University Press. 55–69.
  • 1985 English pronunciation and its dictionary representation. In: R. Ilson: (Hrsg.): Dictionaries, lexicography and language learning. Oxford: Pergamon.
  • 1994 The Cockneyfication of RP?. In: G. Melchers u.a. (Hrsg.): Nonstandard Varieties of Language. Papers from the Stockholm Symposium 11–13 April 1991. 198–205. Stockholm Studies in English LXXXIV. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International.
  • 1995 New syllabic consonants in English. In: J. Windsor Lewis (Hrsg.): Studies in General and English Phonetics. Essays in honour of Prof. J.D. O'Connor. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-08068-1.
  • 1995 Age grading in English pronunciation preferences. In: Proceedings of ICPhS 95, Stockholm, vol. 3:696–699.
  • 1996 Why phonetic transcription is important. In: Malsori (Journal of the Phonetic Society of Korea) 31–32, S. 239–242.
  • 1997 What's happening to Received Pronunciation?. In: English Phonetics (English Phonetic Society of Japan), 1, S. 13–23.
  • 1997 Our changing pronunciation. In: Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society xix, S. 42–48
  • 1997 One of three named "main technical authors" for Part IV, Spoken language reference materials. In: D. Gibbon u.a. (Hrsg.): Handbook of Standards and Resources for Spoken Language Systems. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1997.
  • 1997 Whatever happened to Received Pronunciation? In: Medina & Soto (Hrsg): II Jornadas de Estudios Ingleses, Universidad de Jaén, Spain, S. 19–28.
  • 1997 Is RP turning into Cockney?. In: M. P. Dvorzhetska, A. A. Kalita (Hrsg.): Studies in Communicative Phonetics and Foreign Language Teaching Methodology. Kyiv State Linguistic University, Ukraine, S. 10–15.
  • 1999 Which pronunciation do you prefer?. In: IATEFL Bd. 149, June–July 1999, "The Changing Language", S. 10–11.
  • 1999 Pronunciation preferences in British English. A new survey. In: Proc. of the 14th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, San Francisco, 1999.
  • 2000 British English pronunciation preferences. A changing scene. In: Journal of the International Phonetic Association (1999) 29 (1), S. 33–50.
  • 2000 Overcoming phonetic interference. In: English Phonetics (Journal of the English Phonetic Society of Japan), Nr. 3, S. 9–21.
  • 2001 Orthographic diacritics. In: Language Problems and Language Planning 24.3.
  • 2002 John Wells. In: K. Brown, V. Law (Hrsg.): Linguistics in Britain. Personal histories. Publications of the Philological Society, 36. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • 2002 Accents in Britain today. In: Ewa Waniek-Klimczak, Patrick J. Melia (Hrsg.): Accents and Speech in Teaching English Phonetics and Phonology. Lang, Frankfurt/M. 2002 [2003]. ISBN 3-631-39616-3, S. 9–17.
  • 2003 Phonetic research by written questionnaire. In: M. J. Solé, u.a. (Hrsg.): Proc. 15th Int. Congress of Phonetic Sciences, Barcelona, R.4.7:4
  • 2003 Phonetic symbols in word processing and on the web. In: M. J. Solé u.a. (Hrsg..): Proc. 15th Int. Congress of Phonetic Sciences, Barcelona, S.2.8:6


  • 1962 A study of the formants of the pure vowels of British English. Unpublished MA thesis, University of London.
  • 1971 Practical Phonetics. London: Pitman. ISBN 0-273-43949-9 (with G. Colson)
  • 1973 Jamaican pronunciation in London. Publications of the Philological Society xxv. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-14730-6. (Revised version of his PhD dissertation, 1971.)
  • 1990 Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. Longman. (ESU Duke of Edinburgh's Prize.)
  • 1993 Hutchinson Dictionary of Difficult Words. Edited by John Ayto. Oxford: Helicon.
  • 1994 Longman Interactive English Dictionary. CD-ROM, incorporating a spoken version of the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. ACT Multimedia/ Harlow: Longman, ISBN 0-582-23694-0.


  • Wells, J. C. (1969). Concise Esperanto and English Dictionary. Kent: Teach Yourself Books. ISBN 0-340-27576-6.
  • Wells, J. C. (1982). Accents of English (Three volumes + cassette). New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-22919-7. Vol. 1: an Introduction; vol. 2: the British Isles; vol. 3: Beyond the British Isles
  • Wells, J. C. (1985). Geiriadur Esperanto / Kimra Vortaro. London: Grŵp Pump/Group Five. ISBN 0-906632-02-1.
  • Wells, J. C. (2000). Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. Harlow, England: Pearson Education Ltd. ISBN 058236468X. (casebound), 0582364671 (paperback edition).
  • Wells, J. C. (2006). English Intonation: an Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-68380-7.
  • Wells, J. C. (2014). Sounds Interesting: Observations on English and General Phonetics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wells, J. C. (2016). Sounds Fascinating: Further Observations on English Phonetics and Phonology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


  1. "Professor J. C. Wells: brief curriculum vitae". UCL Psychology & Language Sciences.
  2. "On the Retirement of Emeritus Professor John Christopher Wells". Retrieved 12 April 2014.
  3. "Linguaphone Academic Advisory Committee". Linguaphone Group. Archived from the original on 2 November 2013. Retrieved 2 November 2013.
  4. "My personal history". UCL Psychology & Language Sciences. Archived from the original on 5 December 2008. Retrieved 9 August 2008.
  5. "click farewell". John Wells's phonetic blog. 22 April 2013.
  6. Wells (1982)
  7. The Oxford English Dictionary documentation of the word's first use is as follows: "rhotic ... 1968 J. C. Wells in Progress Rep. Phonetics Lab. Univ. Coll. London (unpublished) June 56 It was possible to divide respondents into three categories: A. (non-rhotic) Those who had nonprevocalic r-colouring neither for ‑er nor for ‑a; B. (rhotic) Those who had nonprevocalic r-colouring for ‑er but not for ‑a; C. (hyperrhotic)." Cf. Wells's Twitter account at
  8. John C Wells (1 December 1978) [Placed on the web 7 April 1999]. "Review of the Linguistic Atlas of England". The Times Higher Education Supplement via UCL Psychology & Language Sciences.
  9. Petyt, K. M. (1982). "Reviews: J. C. Wells: Accents of English". Journal of the International Phonetic Association. Cambridge. 12 (2): 104–112. doi:10.1017/S0025100300002516. S2CID 146349564. Retrieved 6 January 2013.
  10. "David Cameron's speech in full". The Guardian. 1 October 2008.
  11. "J C Wells - personal history". Archived from the original on 5 December 2008. Retrieved 14 August 2008.
  12. Wells, John (16 March 2012). "John Wells's phonetic blog: English places".
  13. "John and Gabriel". UCL Psychology & Language Sciences.
  14. "London Gay Men's Chorus - 'It Gets Better' Episode 2". London Gay Men's Chorus. 25 November 2010. Retrieved 29 May 2022.
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