Acoustical Society of America
Biennial Award - 1986

William E. Cooper

William E. Cooper has already accomplished what most people fail to do in a lifetime. He has made significant contributions to speech research, has been a productive researcher and scholar with no less than 65 papers, 3 books, 2 edited books, published, has received a string of awards including a Fulbright Scholarship and a Guggenheim Fellowship, is a dedicated teacher—and he is just now celebrating his 35th birthday.

From the time he was a sophomore in 1970 at Brown University, Bill was clearly in a "class" by himself. Bright, curious, and well-directed, he showed a flair for research and a sophistication well beyond his years. He was among the first undergraduates I taught and among the first undergraduate research assistants I worked with. From the outset, it was clear that he was neither an undergraduate nor a research assistant, except in name only. Instead, he was a colleague, contributing equally new ideas, actively working at all stages of the experimental process, and sharing in the authorship of the research. In fact, in our first research project relating to distinctive features in speech perception, Bill and I set up the test materials, and I sent him off to run the subjects. Within a week, he returned, I thought to ask a procedural question. But no—not only were the subjects run, but the data were analyzed, and parts of the paper were written in final form. And so began a career which has grown and progressed consistently and steadily.

In 1973, Bill received combined degrees, a BA in Linguistics and Psychology and an MA in Psycholinguistics from Brown University. He completed his Ph.D. in Psychology from MIT under the direction of Merrill Garrett in an unprecedented three years, and he was a post-doctoral research fellow in Ken Stevens' speech group at MIT from 1976—1978. He has been an Assistant Professor of Psychology from 1978—1981 and an Associate Professor of Psychology from 1981—1983 at Harvard University, and he is currently a Professor of Psychology at the University of Iowa.

Speech perception research has been guided by a number of theoretical issues including how the continuous speech signal is perceived by the listener in terms of discrete units and what the nature of those units might be. In his "early" years, Bill investigated whether the speech processing mechanism is comprised of a set of detectors sensitive to phonetic features. Jumping off from the original findings of Peter Eimas using the selective adaptation paradigm, an adaptation technique used to test for the hypothesized phonetic feature detectors, Bill did an extensive number of studies exploring the effects of selective adaptation on speech perception and also on speech production. While the field has continued to question the notion that phonetic feature detectors underlie speech perception, the large series of studies conducted by Bill and his colleagues helped the field realize the importance of the acoustic characteristics of the speech signal and the sensitivity of the listener to fine-grained acoustic changes in the perception of the phonetic dimensions of speech.

However, Bill has done considerably more than follow a line of research that has already been developed. In his dissertation research and in many studies that followed, he virtually "reopened" the question of the role of intonation as a cue to syntactic or grammatical structure and overall sentence planning. He used imaginative test materials and pitch extraction techniques provided by computer analysis—procedures which have become available only in the last 10—15 years. The importance of his work is that it bridges the gap between issues motivated by linguistic theory and experimental phonetics, attempting to ground theoretical linguistic constructs and claims in phonetic facts. He has explored whether there are important manifestations of syntactic planning or "traces" of syntactic operations in the raw acoustic signal. He has also explored the acoustic basis of sentence melody or prosody as it contributes to linguistic stress and focus. More recently, Bill has investigated the potential phonetic bases of metrical phonology, a relatively new linguistic theory which grants theoretical status to such units as the syllable. As usual, he has been among the first to recognize and explore those issues which are at the "cutting edge" of speech research. As a consequence, his work is interesting and exciting. It is also controversial. However, it has succeeded in setting up a dialog among researchers and in providing an impetus to continue to develop hypotheses, to test them, and to provide an empirical framework for theoretical issues.

And finally, Bill has contributed his talents to research on the laterality of speech and the nature of speech and language disorders subsequent to brain damage. He has explored the acoustic characteristics of phonetic dimensions in aphasic speech production. And he was among the first to systematically explore the nature of intonational or prosodic disturbances in right and left brain-damaged patients using state-of-the-art analysis techniques.

On the personal side, Bill is quiet and unassuming, but always in command. A fine athlete, he has actively participated in tennis, squash, and golf. He conducts his life in the same vein as his research—low-keyed, direct, searching objectively for answers to critical questions. In his career, he has had the knack of attracting bright people to work with him, serving as a mentor to students and junior researchers, and as a colleague to many well-known senior researchers. He has published papers with over 35 different people.

We in speech research are very lucky that Bill has focused his many talents, his intelligence, and his energies in our field. He has been a shining light, and a respected colleague and friend. It is a great pleasure to congratulate Bill on the occasion of his Biennial Award.