Explore Mexican indigenous languages in McQuown papers

Norman McQuown

The papers of anthropologist, linguist, and University of Chicago professor Norman A. McQuown are now available to researchers at the Special Collections Research Center. A new guide is also available for the records of the Department of Anthropology’s Chiapas Project, which McQuown was heavily involved in.

Norman McQuown was best known for his efforts to document and study indigenous languages in Mexico and Central America and for his work in the field of non-verbal communication. He studied, conducted field and archival research, taught, and wrote on a wide range of languages, including Huastec, Quiche Maya, Yucatec Maya, Nahuatl, Totonac, Turkish, Russian, and Esperanto. He published in English, Spanish, and German, was comfortable writing and conversing in a large number of additional languages, and wrote frequently on the process of language teaching and learning. His papers document his research, writing, teaching, and administrative work.

The Chiapas Project records document the University of Chicago Department of Anthropology’s research projects in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas from 1956-1964. The projects aimed to investigate the language, culture, environment, and history of local Maya communities. The records contain administrative and financial material, project reports, and photographs. The McQuown Papers contain a significant amount of additional material from the Chiapas Project.

Norman A. McQuown was born in Peoria, Illinois on January 30, 1914. He received his AB in 1935 and MA in 1936, both in German, from the University of Illinois. He earned his PhD in linguistics from Yale University in 1940, where he studied under Edward Sapir and Leonard Bloomfield and wrote his thesis on the Totonac language. From 1939-1942 he taught in Mexico and worked on a Turkish Language project for the American Council of Learned Societies. McQuown continued in this area during World War II, where he served as a Turkish specialist and editorial supervisor for the Language Section of the Army Service Forces.

After teaching briefly at Hunter College in New York City from 1945-1946, McQuown came to the University of Chicago in 1946 and remained there for the rest of his career, spending time as chair of both the anthropology and linguistics departments. Throughout his career, teaching and creating resources to help others learn remained important to him, and he edited, compiled, or translated a significant number of instructional texts for language learning.

McQuown was involved in a wide range of research activities. He made numerous trips to Mexico and Guatemala to conduct field work for the Man in Nature project, Chiapas project, and other work. He conducted archival research at libraries in Europe and the Americas and compiled catalogs of sources available on indigenous languages at various institutions. McQuown was also an early user of computers to document and study languages.

In addition to his work on indigenous languages, McQuown was a core contributor to The Natural History of an Interview, a project in which he and colleagues conducted an in-depth microanalysis of a personal interview and related family interactions, covering both verbal and nonverbal communication. The manuscript was never published in English, but their work in the area of nonverbal communication was considered particularly groundbreaking.

McQuown was dedicated to preserving research and fieldwork, both his own and that of others. He did significant work to organize and provide access to the papers of Manuel Andrade, a professor of anthropology and linguist who passed away unexpectedly shortly before McQuown arrived at Chicago. McQuown was also the Founding Director of the University of Chicago’s Language Laboratory and Archives, now the Digital Media Archive, and established and made numerous contributions to what is now known as the Microfilm Collection of Manuscripts on Cultural Anthropology at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library.

Norman McQuown married Dolores Elrine Milleville on November 7, 1942. They had two daughters, Kathryn Ann and Patricia Ellen. Patricia predeceased him. Norman McQuown died in Chicago on September 7, 2005.

 

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