George M. Cowan 1916 - 2017: Linguist, Leader and Statesman

SIL remembers the trailblazing leadership of George M. Cowan.

(February 2017) Executive Director Michel Kenmogne and SIL staff gratefully remember historic leader, inspiring colleague and noted linguist, George M. Cowan. Cowan died 11 February 2017, only a few days before what would have been his 101st birthday.

Cowan began his service with SIL in Mexico in 1942. While there, he met and married Florence Hansen Cowan. Together, they studied the Mazatec language spoken in Huautla de Jiménez, where Florence had been living since 1936. George and Florence published various technical papers about the language and culture, including a description of the now famous whistle speech that the Mazatec people utilize. The Cowans also collaborated with Mazatec colleagues to translate the New Testament, which was completed in 1961.

Cowan's years of leadership included: SIL Mexico Director (1951-1953); member of the SIL Board of Directors (1956-1981); President of Wycliffe Bible Translators, now Wycliffe Global Alliance (1957-1981); Area Director for SIL’s work in Europe and Africa (1963-1971). He also was instrumental in the creation of university-level SIL training programs in Canada, England, Germany and the United States.

Cowan family photo with Eunice Pike and Sarah Gudschinsky, 1953 | George working with Mazatec colleague, Isauro Nava Garcia, 1953 | George speaking with a Mazatec lady on a visit to Mexico, 2006
(Click Image to Enlarge) 

Cowan received his B.A. degree from McMaster University (Brandon College), a Master's degree in theology at Dallas Theological Seminary, and a Master's degree in linguistics at the University of North Dakota. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate from Biola University in 1970.

Throughout Cowan’s career he was often invited to lecture in linguistics and anthropology classes at colleges and universities. He was also asked to give monolingual demonstrations — a live language analysis demonstration where Cowan would only speak in Mazatec while he interacted with a person who only spoke a language Cowan didn’t know. These sessions illustrated how SIL staff began learning a language that had not yet been written.

Among his colleagues, Cowan is best known for his prayerful passion for people of every language to have the same opportunities that he had as an English speaker. He was especially concerned that they have access to the Bible in their language.

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