John C. Wells

For other people with the same name, see John Wells.
John C. Wells in Great Britain in 1991.

John Christopher Wells (born 11 March 1939 in Bootle, Lancashire[1]) is a British phonetician and Esperanto teacher. Wells is a professor emeritus at University College London, where until his retirement in 2006 he held the departmental chair in phonetics.[2]


Wells earned his bachelor's degree at the University of 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. 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.[3]

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of England, which was the principal output of the Survey of English Dialects.[4] He argued that the methodology was outdated, that the sample was not representative of the population and that it was not possible to "discover with any certainty the synchronic vowel-system in each of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".[4]

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.[5]

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.[6] 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."[7]

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 and omitted apostrophes.[8]

Lexical sets

Main article: lexical sets

In Accents of English[9] 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.

Personal life

His father was originally from South Africa, and his mother was English; he has two younger brothers. He attended St John's School, Leatherhead,[10] 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 different 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 homosexual at the time, and he feared that the security check would make his homosexuality public.[6] In September 2006 he signed a civil partnership with Gabriel Parsons, a native of Montserrat and his partner since 1968.[6][11]


Wells is a member of London Gay Men's Chorus and has featured in their It Gets Better video.[12] He is also a player of the melodeon and has uploaded videos of his playing to YouTube.[13]






  1. 1 2 Professor J.C. Wells: brief curriculum vitae, at UCL.
  2. "On the Retirement of Emeritus Professor John Christopher Wells". Retrieved 12 April 2014.
  3. Petyt, KM (1982). "Reviews: JC Wells: Accents of English". Journal of the International Phonetic Association. Cambridge. 12 (2): 104–112. doi:10.1017/S0025100300002516. Retrieved 6 January 2013.
  4. 1 2 Review of the Linguistic Atlas of England, John C Wells, The Times Higher Education Supplement, 1 December 1978
  5. "Linguaphone Academic Advisory Committee". Linguaphone Group. Retrieved 2 November 2013.
  6. 1 2 3 My personal history, biography at UCL.
  7. Click farewell, John Wells's phonetic blog, 22 April 2013
  8. "Conservative conference: David Cameron's speech in full". The Guardian. 1 October 2008.
  9. Wells (1982)
  10. "Who's Who".
  11. John and Gabriel at UCL.
  12. "London Gay Men's Chorus – 'It Gets Better' Episode 2". YouTube. 25 November 2010. Retrieved 2 November 2013.
  13. See "Personal" section on
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