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Paul Passy's life and career


Paul Passy (1859–1940) was, like Otto Jespersen, in his early twenties when the Reform Movement ‘broke out’ in 1882, but, again like Jespersen, rapidly took on a leading role in extending its influence beyond Germany.

Passy was born into a ‘family of unusual distinction’ (Jones 1941: 30): his father, Frédéric Passy, was a noted economist and politician and first recipient of the Nobel Peace prize. (in 1901). Growing up in privileged surroundings, he received instruction at home and mastered three foreign languages (English, German and Italian) in childhood. He also developed an early interest in the observation and classification of speech sounds, even inventing his own rudimentary phonetic alphabet. Rather like Sweet, he initially found university uninspiring, though he eventually began to work on subjects more to his liking such as Sanskrit and Gothic Latin at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes. Graduating at the early age of nineteen he embarked on a career as a teacher of languages, contracting to teach in public institutions for ten years as an alternative to military service (he had recently become a committed Christian, and both evangelism and pacifism were to be life-long concerns). During this period he taught English and some German, mostly at the Ecoles normales of Courbevoie (1878–79) and Auteuil (for the following ten years).

Although (or perhaps because) he had not himself learned languages in a classroom, he soon came to the conclusion that the methods then in common use needed radical reform. From a practical perspective, he placed his hopes in the idea that language teaching could be carried out on a phonetic basis. From the first he laid stress on the proper articulation of foreign sounds, and soon introduced a system of noting them phonetically. He provided his students with texts in a phonetic transcription which he later admitted was crude and in some respects faulty; however, he found that he still got better results in terms of improving his pupils’ pronunciation. At this time he had still not studied the work of foreign phoneticians, and he followed the classical method in everything except his use of phonetic transcription. Indeed, he was not to change his basic methods of teaching until 1886, under the influence primarily of the German and Scandinavian reformers. However, he began to learn that phonetics was a whole science, not just a way of representing pronunciation (that is, a means of transcription). As he read more in the field, pushed by practical necessity and his own curiosity, he became more excited about the possible discoveries and applications to be made in the phonetic field. This period of self-instruction in phonetics seems to have lasted from 1879 to about 1885 (Galazzi 1992: 119). His inspirations were Sweet, Viëtor, Sievers, Storm, and Lundell, and he acknowledges having been guided in these difficult beginnings by a few friends such as Franke, Jespersen, and the Norwegian Western. Well-prepared by his own practical knowledge of several languages, he quite rapidly gained a certain mastery.


The August 1886 issue of The Phonetic Teacher contains the following announcement: ‘M. Passy has left Paris for Stockholm, whither he is commissioned by the Government, to report on the proceedings of the third philological Congress of the North’ (p. 3). Passy gave a brief account of his visit in the September 1886 issue, but the official report, published the following year, is much more detailed, and provides a riveting narrative of Reform activities prior to, at and immediately following this important Congress.

Passy, it should be remembered, was largely self-taught in phonetics, and claimed he had gained his first introduction to the study of foreign phoneticians via correspondence with Franke and Jespersen (it seems possible that, having read Franke’s 1884 pamphlet, Passy wrote to him and Franke put him in touch with Jespersen). In 1886, the correspondence with Jespersen was continued, and he was told about the forthcoming congress in Stockholm. It was therefore Passy himself who asked to be sent to Stockholm as an official representative of the French government: he had heard from Jespersen that there would be an attempt to promote Reform ideas similar to that at the previous year’s Giessen Congress in Germany, and he was eager to collaborate in this venture, aside from wishing to strengthen ties with the Scandinavian phoneticians, who already appeared to be among the most active reformers (see p. 12, foot).

This was not Passy’s first official visit; he had previously been sent on a mission to the USA to study the organisation of primary education in that country, and in 1885 he had been to Iceland to study its institutions and language and literature (pp. 1–2). His report on the Stockholm Congress (Passy 1887b) is not a complete one but is limited to the part of the proceedings which had motivated him to attend the Congress, hence the title of his report, Le Phonétisme au Congrès de Stockholm (‘Phonetism [a neologism of Passy’s invention?] at the Stockholm Congress’).

Although his main interest always remained the practical possibilities of phonetics for language teaching (in 1886 he founded the Phonetic Teachers’ Association which was later to become the International Phonetic Association (IPA): see below), he also realised that the phonetics of French was a rich field for further investigation. Indeed, he had already begun to issue textbooks in phonetic script for French schoolchildren learning to read (Premier livre de lecture, 1884) and for learners of French as a foreign language (Le français parlé. Morceaux choisis à l’usage des étrangers avec la prononciation figurée, 1886a), these in addition to his (1886b) Les éléments d’anglais parlé and an earlier textbook for the learning of English published in London.

The fruits of his studies in the phonetics of French over this period are contained in his (1887a) Les sons du français. In this work, all the qualities are apparent which made Passy such a persuasive and influential advocate for phonetics. As Jones (1941: 39) remarked, ‘He succeeded in establishing phonetics as a “living” science –– thus making it stand out sharply from various other academic subjects pursued in many modern universities’. Similarly, Collins and Mees (1998: 23–24) have defined his overall contribution as being related to his ‘ability to refine and simplify the complexity of phonetic and phonological information so as to produce an easily learnt framework which can be widely utilised’. They suggest that his Christian Socialist beliefs may have influenced his deliberate clarity of exposition, in which the elaborate theory of some of his sources is honed down to the essentials in a manner understandable to the non-specialist reader (including, of course, many teachers of languages). According to Collins and Mees (1998: 174), Passy 'considered phonetics to be in great measure a useful tool in language teaching –– a means by which human beings could establish better understanding with each other –– and, consequently, found much in the directness and empiricism of Bell, Ellis and Sweet to attract him. [. . .] The essentially practical linguistic approach of the British school had more appeal for Passy than the more objective, experimentally-based researches of his fellow countryman, Rousselot, or the "misplaced striving for physiological accuracy" which coloured the work of certain German phoneticians in the late nineteenth century (Kohler 1981)'. Thus, in Les sons du français, Passy does not overload the reader with excessive detail or transcriptional complication in the way Bell, Ellis and Sweet were at times prone to do.

This book was to be followed up by further academic work in the field of phonetics. In an article of 1888 in the newly-founded Phonetische Studien (Passy 1888) and in a doctoral thesis submitted three years later (published as Passy 1891a), he built on work by Bell and Sweet in investigating the articulation of vowel sounds, and this work was later to form an important inspiration for Daniel Jones’s Cardinal Vowel system (Collins and Mees 1998: 175). The second thesis he submitted to gain his Doctorat-ès-Lettres was a phonetic account of modern Icelandic (Passy 1891b).

Although these relatively academic studies increased his standing in the field of phonetics (and were later to gain him a university position), Passy’s chief interest was always in the applications of phonetics to teaching children to read, and to modern language teaching. In 1893 he published a further pedagogic work, his Elemente der gesprochenen Französisch, and, in 1897, a jointly compiled Dictionnaire phonétique de la langue française (Michaelis and Passy 1897), the first attempt at a pronouncing dictionary of any European language to make use of IPA symbols.

As Jones (1941: 37–38) remarks, when still a young man Passy had realised that his qualifications were such as to assure to him a brilliant academic career should he choose to devote all his energies to phonetic science. However, his interests were wider, and he decided only to devote to phonetics energies which he considered ‘necessary to discharge conscientiously his professional obligations and to earn his living in an honorable manner’. Like Sweet, then, Passy could have had a more distinguished ‘academic’ career, but he deliberately rejected university academic prestige in favour of other, more ‘practical’ activities.

Passy’s work was clearly significant internationally (see above), but it also played an important role in bringing about the developments in France which led to the official recognition and approval of ‘Méthode directe’ at the beginning of the twentieth century (Galazzi 1992: 117).

Apart from his intensive work on behalf of the Association phonétique, Passy both gave and organised private lessons in phonetics and French pronunciation at his home in Bourg-la-Reine, Neuilly-sur-Seine. These attracted many participants, with a large number of them coming from abroad (Daniel Jones was to be one such visitor, in the early years of the twentieth century). He was often invited to give lectures and courses in different universities, both in France and abroad. For him, teaching was a kind of mission, and he gladly devoted more time to it than to purely academic research. Even so, he became a university teacher, almost in spite of himself (‘presque malgré lui’, as Galazzi (1992: 123) puts it). In 1892 Bréal invited him to lecture at the Sorbonne on the contributions phonetics could make to language teaching, and in January 1894 a new Chair in General and Comparative Phonetics was created for him in Bréal’s department in the École des Hautes Études. By 1897 he had risen to become an assistant director (‘directeur adjoint’) of the School.

In 1896 he began to give the lectures and practical classes in phonetics at the Sorbonne whose significance Daniel Jones (1941: 33) was later to describe in the following terms: ‘It’s no exaggeration to say that the success which has attended practical phonetics all over the world is to be attributed largely to Passy’s precept and practice there’. The classes seem to have always been full, sometimes to overflowing. Incidentally, Passy was the first teacher at the Sorbonne to insist that women should be allowed to attend his classes, and a similar attitude later characterised the appointments his pupil Daniel Jones made in the Department of Phonetics, University College, London (Collins and Mees 1998: 256).

In 1897 the Société pour la propagation des langues étrangères en France (Society for the Promotion of Foreign Languages in France) launched an essay competition for the year 1898 on the theme ‘De la méthode directe dans l’enseignement des langues vivantes’ (On the direct method in modern language teaching). Passy contributed an essay with the same title which was published in pamphlet form the following year under the auspices of the IPA (Passy 1899).

In this essay, Passy is careful to distinguish his own suggested method at once from a purely natural method (his is based on and appeals to reason and from the work of Gouin, which seems to him to over-emphasize comprehension over production. He is also at pains to stress that in his conception the mother tongue does not need to be banished entirely from the classroom (thus distinguishing himself from Berlitz). The contributions of translation and grammar are given their due place. All in all, then, the essay presents a reasoned and balanced argument in favour of a ‘direct methodology’ (in Puren’s (1988) sense) which is well-attuned to the realities of school-based language teaching at an elementary level. Perhaps surprisingly, the essay was only awarded second prize in the competition for which it had entered, but its contents were to be diffused widely, via the IPA.


Passy was to remain in his position at the École des Hautes Études until his retirement in 1926, apart from four years from 1913 when he was dismissed on political grounds (as a result of his publicly opposing an extension in the period of compulsory military service). This is just one example of the many-sided nature of Passy’s career. Aside from his pacifist and Christian evangelical activities (the latter reflected in his editorship of the journal L’Espoir du monde), in the late 1890s he had become a committed socialist, and he promoted a variety of causes via lectures, meetings and various practical enterprises with the same zeal he had devoted to spelling reform and the establishment of the IPA. Indeed, despite his practical linguistic achievements, they only occupied a secondary place in his life, and his autobiography, Souvenirs d’un socialiste chrétien (Passy 1930–32), devotes relatively few pages to them. First and foremost he was a militant Christian Socialist, and when he retired from his academic post it was to found a cooperative agricultural community which he named Liéfra (Li = Liberté, é = égalité, fra = fraternité). There, with others, he attempted to put into practice his ideal of a life lived close to nature which would combine fundamental Christianity, socialism and language teaching and learning (Collins and Mees 1998: 23).


The above essay by Richard Smith (uploaded here in 2007, slightly modified in 2018) is adapted from Introductions to different volumes in Howatt and Smith 2002. Passy’s own (1930–32) autobiography, Souvenirs d’un socialiste chrétien, is one source for the details of his career presented here; also, Anon. 2006, Collins and Mees 1998; Galazzi 1992; Jones 1941; and Passy 1887b. Source for photos: Anon. 2006.


Collins, Beverley and Inger M. Mees. 1998. The Real Professor Higgins: The Life and Career of Daniel Jones. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Anon. 2006. 'Paul Passy, fondateur de «L’Espoir du Monde», militant du socialisme chrétien et de la phonétique'. L'Espoir du Monde no. 128 (October 2006). Online:

Galazzi, E. 1992. ‘1880–1914. Le combat des jeunes phonéticiens: Paul Passy’. Cahiers Ferdinand de Saussure 46: 115–29.

Howatt, A.P.R. and Richard C. Smith (eds.). 2002. Modern Language Teaching: The Reform Movement (five volumes). London: Routledge.

Jones, Daniel. 1941. ‘Paul Passy’ (Obituary). Le maître phonétique, July–Sept. 1941: 30–39.
Kohler, K. 1981. ‘Three trends in phonetics: the development of phonetics as a discipline in Germany since the nineteenth-century’. In Asher, R.E. and E.J.A. Henderson (eds), Towards a History of Phonetics: In Honour of David Abercrombie, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Michaelis, H. and P. Passy. 1897. Dictionnaire phonétique de la langue française. Hannover: Meyer.

Passy, Paul. 1884. Premier livre de lecture. Paris.

–––––– 1886a. Le français parlé. Morceaux choisis à l’usage des étrangers avec la prononciation figurée. Heilbronn: Henninger.

–––––– 1886b. Les éléments d’anglais parlé. Paris: Firmin-Didot.

–––––– 1887a Les sons du français: leur formation, leur combinaison, leur représentation. Paris: Firmin-Didot.

–––––– 1887b. Le phonétisme au congrès philologique de Stockholm en 1886. Rapport présenté au Ministre de l’instruction publique. Paris: Delagrave & Hachette.

–––––– 1888. ‘Kurze Darstellung des französischen Lautsystems’ (in 3 parts). Phonetische Studien 1: 18–40; 115–30; 245–56.
–––––– 1891a. Etude sur les changements phonétiques et leurs caractères généraux. Paris: Firmin-Didot.
–––––– 1891b. De Nordica Lingua. Paris: Firmin-Didot.
–––––– 1899. ‘De la méthode directe dans l’enseignement des langues vivantes’. Paris: Colin. [Published as a special supplement to Le maître phonétique, May 1899.]
–––––– 1930–32. Souvenirs d’un socialiste chrétien, 2 vols. [Vol. 1, 1930; Vol 2, 1932.] Issy-les-Moulineaux (Seine): Editions ‘Je sers’.

Puren, Christian. 1988. Histoire des méthodologies de l’enseignement des langues. Paris: Nathan-Clé International.