Nora England’s passion for linguistics was sparked during her undergraduate years at Bryn Mawr College. Almost on a whim, she enrolled in a linguistics field methods course. “That really got me going—actually hearing data from another language and paying attention to it,” she recalled in an interview. “It was the first course that I ever took where I was willing to stay up late and study instead of fool around.”
England, who died on January 26, 2022, at the age of 75, would go on to make an international name for herself in the field of documentary and descriptive linguistics. Among her key publications are her 1983 Grammar of Mam, A Mayan Language and the 2017 handbook The Mayan Languages, co-edited with Judith Aissen and Roberto Zavala Maldonado. She is most celebrated for her decades-long work in Guatemala, during which she recruited Indigenous Maya, trained them as linguists, and worked with them to build a model of linguistics in which Indigenous scholars documented languages with and for other Indigenous peoples. She did this work against the backdrop of a society in which Indigenous people have been marginalized and excluded for generations.
“She had a broad sense of duty and obligation, and she found an outlet for that in her career,” said Stephen Clearman, her younger brother. “She was unrelentingly selfless and generous.”
Born Nora Clearman in Washington, DC, in 1946, she was raised in Hicksville, NY, a blue-collar community on Long Island, the daughter of a physicist father and a mathematician mother. After graduating from Bryn Mawr with a degree in anthropology, England went on to the University of Florida for graduate work in linguistic anthropology.
After completing her master’s degree, she saw a call for linguists to work on a language-documentation project in Guatemala, the Proyecto Lingüístico Francisco Marroquín (PLFM), run by the late Terrence Kaufman. The project, which she joined in 1971, aimed to establish a research center that trained Indigenous speakers of Mayan languages to work on their own languages.
The experience changed the course of her career. Returning to Florida, she pursued a doctorate, writing her dissertation on Mam, one of 30 Mayan languages, and committing herself both to the study of Mayan languages and to the training and empowerment of Indigenous Maya scholars. She joined the faculty of the University of Iowa in 1977.
In 1990, along with Maya linguists, she co-founded OKMA, an Indigenous academy in Antigua, Guatemala, devoted to research and teaching on Mayan languages and linguistics. Through OKMA, England expanded her ability to train Indigenous speakers of Mayan languages in linguistics, including in the documentation of their own languages through the creation of dictionaries, grammars, and texts transcribed from everyday speech.
In 1993, the MacArthur Foundation awarded her one of its coveted “genius” fellowships, citing her training of over 100 Indigenous Mayan linguists, among other accomplishments.
England joined the Linguistics faculty at The University of Texas at Austin in 2001; at the time of her death, she was Dallas TACA Centennial Professor in the Humanities. During fall 2021, in response to her diagnosis with terminal cancer, England’s colleagues in Latin American Indigenous linguistics arranged to transform sessions of a fall 2021 graduate seminar into an oral history lab. England’s intellectual clarity is on full display in these sessions, as is her well-known penchant for blunt truth-telling. But what really jumps out is her conviction that speakers of Indigenous languages must be leaders in how their languages are studied, taught, preserved, and revitalized.
“Speakers of Indigenous languages, to my mind, will never have control of their languages if they leave some aspect of those languages always to foreigners,” said England said in one of the interviews. “The most important thing that those of us who are ‘true outsiders’ have to work on is making sure people in the community become the leaders of this whole enterprise.”
England’s passion for her field, and her deep belief that Indigenous speakers must be part of the forefront in linguistics, led to a strong and growing presence of Latin American Indigenous students pursuing graduate degrees in linguistics at UT Austin. To date, eight Indigenous students have earned a PhD in linguistics and one in linguistic anthropology.
“Nora was the heart and soul of our program in documentary and descriptive linguistics,” Linguistics department chair Richard Meier said. “Her life, her person, her scholarship, were all wrapped up with her students, her colleagues, with supporting the Maya in Guatemala, with promoting the training of Indigenous speakers of Latin American languages to become linguists and receive doctorates.”
As longtime graduate adviser in l
Linguistics, England was known as a firm but supportive mentor to students. “Fue una mamá académica [she was an academic mother],” wrote Jaime Pérez González, an Indigenous speaker of Tseltal from Chiapas, Mexico, who earned his PhD in 2021. “She put her faith in a diversity of voices in linguistics from Latin America, and was able to make this blossom at UT Austin, promoting us and making us feel included. I am a fruit of that effort.”
The legacy of England’s almost 21 years at UT Austin reaches beyond her home department. In partnership with the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS), she established the Center for Indigenous Languages of Latin America (CILLA), whose large biennial conference brings close to 100 linguists to UT Austin to present their research.
“Her work led many linguists to become collaborators in language revitalization in several regions of the world,” LLILAS Director Adela Pineda Franco said. “Yet her most important legacy lies in her relentless effort to understand cultural affirmation and activism through the struggle for social rights and language. Her work will remain alive for generations to come.”
On May 31, 2019, England was honored by the Guatemalan government in a ceremony acknowledging her 48 years of work on the preservation of Maya languages. Following the ceremony, she received a document naming her Mensajera de la Paz—a Messenger of Peace. It was the last time she would visit Guatemala.
“There has been a major shift in the role native Mayan speakers play in Mayan linguistics,” said Judith Aissen, England’s friend and co-editor. “There is now a significant cadre of native-speaker linguists with advanced degrees in linguistics who have taken up research, teaching, and public policy positions in Guatemala, Mexico, the US, and Canada. And really, the central person responsible for this shift is Nora.”
Nora England was student and teacher, listener and leader. She could be gruff and direct. She was also enormously generous and kind. She treasured languages and their speakers, and saw no hierarchy among them. Her work lives on in those who continue documenting and preserving Indigenous languages, and in those who value and uplift this work. That was her message; that is her legacy.