McQuown, 91, used both verbal, nonverbal communication of indigenous people to understand their languages, cultures
Norman A. McQuown, Professor Emeritus in Anthropology and Linguistics, and a leading expert on the indigenous cultures and languages of Mexico and Central America, died Wednesday, Sept. 7, at the University Hospitals. He was 91.
McQuown was interested early in the problems of international communication, and he was a leader in promoting the teaching of indigenous languages based on sound linguistic and anthropological methods as part of scholarly responsibility for keeping local cultures vital, said Michael Silverstein, the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor in Anthropology and Linguistics.
“McQuown was a central figure in the development of microanalysis of human interaction, in which the techniques of the field linguist recording and transcribing language in use are broadened to encompass all of body motion, gesture, voice characteristics, and thus rendered available for study as systems of nonverbal but potently meaningful forms of interpersonal communication,” Silverstein said. “Generations of students flocked to his courses in microanalysis from all of the behavioral and social sciences. The Natural History of an Interview by McQuown and collaborators such as Gregory Bateson is an underground classic still considered the breakthrough work in this area.”
Writing equally fluently in English, German and Spanish, McQuown was the author of a number of fundamental descriptive studies, the compiler of numerous reference tools, and the designer of several innovative language-teaching courses. These include Esperanto, Turkish, Tzeltal, Yucatec Maya, Quich&ecaute; Maya, Nahuatl (Mexicano), and others.
He produced many scholarly works, including articles such as “Analysis of the Cultural Content of Language Materials” in Language in Culture (1954); “The Indigenous Languages of Latin America” in American Anthropologist (1955); and “The Classification of the Mayan Languages” in the International Journal of American Linguistics (1956). He also wrote Reine und angewandte Sprachwissenschaft (Pure and Applied Linguistics) (1975).
Several of his papers of general scholarly interest are collected in Language, Culture, and Education: Essays by Norman A. McQuown, edited by Anwar Dil, (1982).
He received his B.A. in 1935 in German and an M.A. in 1936 in German and Romance Languages, both from the University of Illinois. His Ph.D. in Linguistics from Yale University, awarded in 1940 for his Grammar of Totonac, was done under the supervision of Edward Sapir and later Leonard Bloomfield, both of whom had previously been Chicago faculty members.
He was a research associate with the Mexican Department of Indian Affairs from 1939 to 1941, the American Council of Learned Societies from 1941 to 1943, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington from 1946 to 1949, studying Totonac, Turkish and Mayan languages, respectively.
During World War II, he was editorial supervisor of the text Spoken Turkish used by the Language Section of the Army Service Forces. It was published in 1945, and its companion book, Konusulan Ingilizce (English for Turks), in 1954.
A member of the Department of Anthropology, McQuown also helped establish a modern Department of Linguistics at the University during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1958, he was named a Professor in both departments and became the founding Director of the University’s Language Laboratory and Archives.
His interests led him to do extensive fieldwork with speakers of indigenous languages in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, and to extensive work on documents in historical archives in Spain. McQuown devoted a great deal of his scholarly efforts to compiling vast documentary archives on these indigenous peoples, from the earliest available colonial records to modern fieldwork reports. The Joseph Regenstein Library now houses McQuown’s unparalleled collection of microforms.
He received numerous honors for his work, including serving as fellow in the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences from 1955 to 1956, and being named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1991. He received the Alexander von Humboldt Award in Germany in 1988 for his work.
McQuown’s wife, Dolores, his daughter, Kathryn McQuown Connell, and a grandson, Reed Connell, survive him. A daughter, Patricia McQuown, preceded him in death.