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date: 15 October 2019

Ward, Ida Carolinefree

  • M. M. Green
  • , revised by D. W. Arnott

Ward, Ida Caroline (1880–1949), phonetician and scholar of west African languages, was born at Bradford, Yorkshire, on 4 October 1880, the eighth child of Samson Ward, a wool merchant, and his wife, Hannah, daughter of Charles Tempest, also of Bradford. She went to school in Bradford and then to Darlington Training College and Durham University, where she graduated BLitt in 1902.

After sixteen years of secondary schoolteaching Ida Ward joined the phonetics department of University College, London, in 1919, and became an authority on the phonetics of the main European languages, and on speech defects. During this period she collaborated with Lillian E. Armstrong in A Handbook of English Intonation, and also wrote The Phonetics of English. Her interest turned to African languages and in 1932 she joined the staff of what later became the School of Oriental and African Studies of London University, and in 1933 was awarded the degree DLitt for her Phonetic and Tonal Structure of Efik, which opened a new chapter in the study of African languages by analysing scientifically the element of tone which plays a vital part in them. There followed her important Introduction to the Ibo Language (1936) with its elucidation of Igbo vowel harmony as well as of tone.

In 1937 Ward became head of the new department of African languages and cultures at the school and in 1944 was made professor of west African languages. She gradually built up the department from small beginnings into an institution of international standing for research, teaching, and consultation. Missionary and educational bodies sought her help, and after the Second World War the Colonial Office called for courses in eleven African languages for some hundred colonial officials annually. She also trained Africans in the scientific study of their own mother tongues. The importance of this contribution became increasingly evident with the development of the various African universities. Working at a crucial time in African history she matched her opportunity by her achievement which received official recognition in 1948 when she was appointed CBE, and after her death when the secretary of state for the colonies paid tribute to the immense amount of time and work which she had devoted to the interests of colonial peoples.

After her third visit to west Africa Ward published her report on Gold Coast language problems (1945); her Introduction to the Yoruba Language appeared posthumously in 1952. In 1948 she visited universities and learned societies in the United States under a Rockefeller grant, and in that year retired from her chair, although continuing as adviser in African studies. She also gave unstinted help to the International African Institute and was closely involved in the production of its 1952 Handbook of African Languages. Her own Practical Phonetics for Students of African Languages (with Professor D. H. Westermann, 1933) was widely influential.

Ida Ward's achievements were due not only to scholarship but to her warm human qualities. Her Christianity was a living force and her large-hearted generosity, her zest, wisdom, and courage made working with her a continuous and fruitful adventure. Her genial common sense, sound judgement, and adaptability helped her in dealing with official bodies and difficult situations. Friendly, unpretentious, understanding, and accessible, but with natural dignity, she was regarded with affectionate respect by all and conveyed to all her own enjoyment of life. She was unmarried, but the happy home life which she shared with her widowed sister and the keen interest she took in her great-nephews and nieces were as real to her as her work. She died at the Royal Surrey County Hospital, Guildford, Surrey, on 10 October 1949, and was cremated four days later at Woking.


  • Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 13 (1950), 542–7
  • D. Westermann and M. A. Bryan, Handbook of African languages, 2nd edn, 2: The languages of West Africa (1970)
  • SOAS, archives
  • private information (1959)


  • SOAS


  • group portrait, photograph, 1948 (with African department members), SOAS
  • portrait (with members of the department of Africa at SOAS), SOAS; repro. in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies

Wealth at Death

£12,027 3s. 3d.: probate, 8 Feb 1950, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
School of Oriental and African Studies, London