George Cowan: SIL Linguist, Mexico

Remembering Dr. George Cowan

by John Watters, former SIL Executive Director (2000–2007) and SIL Board Chair (2008–2016)

On February 11, 2017, Dr. George Cowan passed away having almost reached his 101st birthday. He was among the small group of early leaders in the development of SIL International, then known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics. He joined the work of SIL in 1942 in Mexico. He was a gentle, warm and humble man of deep piety, with a quick smile and a pleasant laugh. He was concerned to serve well the people who spoke the thousands of lesser known languages around the world, serving them through translation and language development. His concern led him to commit to the training of new SIL personnel academically, emotionally and spiritually.

George was born on February 23, 1916, in Kelwood, Manitoba, Canada. His father was a minister in the Canadian Presbyterian Church. He shared his father’s faith throughout his life. He served in SIL from 1942 until he retired in 1998. He married Florence Hansen from Inglewood, California, in 1943. They were blessed with three children: Paul, Esther, and Ruth. He is survived by his daughters Esther and Ruth, as well as Paul’s wife Sue Ortlund and their children and grandchildren. His wife, Florence (1997), and son, Paul (2010), preceded him in death.

George had an early interest in music, gaining an Associate Teacher’s Certificate in Music through the Toronto Conservatory of Music (1933) for teaching piano. Three years later he received his B.A. from McMaster University (Brandon College) in Theology and English (1936). During those years he also served as a nurse at the Brandon Mental Hospital. His interest in theology led him to the United States where he gained a Master of Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary with a major in Greek (1941). He took a summer of linguistics at Michigan University (1948) and a year of anthropology courses at UCLA (1948–1949). He was a member of the Linguistic Society of America from 1947–1987. After twenty-one years of experience in SIL in translation, language development, and training new staff in linguistics, he gained a Master of Arts in Linguistics from the University of North Dakota (1963). Later, the Biola University conferred him with an honorary doctoral LL.D. degree. 

He began his career in SIL serving among the Amuzgo speaking people in Mexico in 1942. In 1943 he married Florence Hansen and together they served among the Huautla Mazatec speaking people in Oaxaca, Mexico. The language belonged to the Otomanguean language family and used tone as a distinguishing feature. They were part of a four-person team that assisted the Huautla Mazatecs in developing a writing system for their language and producing various educational materials in the language. They also assisted the Mazatecs in translating the New Testament that was published in 1960. With his music background, he was fascinated by the Mazatec use of whistle speech for long distance communication. He published various materials in and about Mazatec.

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)

From early on George was engaged in activities beyond the world of the Mazatec people. He started and directed or simply succeeded others in directing several SIL training programs. These included programs in Canada (1944–1952, 1985–1987), England (1953–1961), Germany (1962–1969), and Gordon College in Massachusetts (1970–72). He also lectured in various courses in these programs. In addition, he served as a lecturer at the National School of Anthropology and Mexico City College (1951–1952), during a number of summers at the SIL training program at the University of North Dakota (1960-1969), and Biola University (1946–67, 1984). He took speaking tours during various years in the USA, Canada, and Europe from 1963 to 1983.

He also held a number of executive and administrative roles in SIL. These roles included serving as Director of SIL Mexico (1951-1953) and Area Director for Europe and Africa (1963–1971). He traveled extensively in Africa in 1970. At the time SIL had about 2,300 personnel worldwide, but with only about 120 serving in Africa. After the trip, George appealed to Americans and Europeans to consider serving in Africa. He was a member of the SIL International Board for twenty-five years (1956–1981). Apart from his service in SIL, he also served in a variety of roles with Wycliffe Bible Translators International (now Wycliffe Global Alliance) as well as on boards of other organizations.  

George Cowan was clearly a man born to serve and born to lead. He was a motivational speaker, with a strong, clear voice. He served as a spiritual adviser to individuals and the organizations with which he was engaged. Two major values for George were the centrality of prayer and the equality of all individuals before God, regardless of ethnicity, tribe, or religion.  Who from the West could say they are better or of greater value before God than a person from an isolated minority group elsewhere in the world? George’s answer: no one. There are few who could articulate the passion of their heart for speakers of the lesser known languages of the world as well and forcibly as George Cowan could. His commitment and confidence in God that all the minorities of the earth would eventually be served through translation and language development never wavered up to the time of his death. We have all been blessed by his commitment to the minority peoples of the earth and by his radical confidence in God and his commitment to prayer as a real force in the world.

SIL News Article: George M. Cowan 1916 – 2017: Linguist, Leader and Statesman

A sampling of language publications:

"Mazateco Housebuilding" in Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 1946

"Mazateco Whistle Speech" in Language, 1948

"La importancia social y politica de la 'faena' mazateca" in America Indigena, 1954

"The Mazatec Language" in Maria Sabina and her Mazatec Mushroom Velada, Harcourt Brace & Jovanovich, 1974

"Whistled Tepehua" in Speech Surrogates, 1976

For a fuller bibliography, see: