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Vanderbilt linguist Walburga von Raffler-Engel dies

Dec. 3, 2009, 4:27 PM

Walburga von Raffler-Engel, a widely published linguistics expert who taught at Vanderbilt University for two decades, died on Nov. 28 in San Antonio. She was 89.

The funeral was held Dec. 3 in Baltimore, where von Raffler-Engel was buried.

Von Raffler-Engel spoke eight languages. Her specialties included nonverbal communication and she coined the term “Developmental Kinesics” for her study of how children acquire nonverbal behavior. She organized the first congress on child language, held in 1972 at the Tuscan Academy in Florence, Italy.

She published 13 books and more than 500 articles and spoke at conferences across the globe. She retired from Vanderbilt in 1986 and was awarded the title of professor of linguistics, emeriti.

“She was just a lovely person,” said James Auer, director of the Center for U.S.-Japan Studies and Cooperation at the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies. “She had lots of opinions and was particularly generous with her time helping people new to the United States to adjust.”

Born in Munich, Germany, on Sept. 25, 1920, much of von Raffler-Engel’s family was killed in concentration camps during World War II. She escaped to Italy and joined the resistance. Her missions included transporting messages, food and weapons.

With the Nazis closing in, she fled to Switzerland, where she saved the lives of couriers by transcribing information from paper to pieces of silk and then attaching the silk inside the lining of their coats so they had a better chance of evading detection.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has documented von Raffler-Engel’s wartime adventures in its archives.

After the war, she earned her Ph.D. in classical Greek at the University of Turin, Italy, and did post-doctoral work at the Italian Institute of Archeology at the University of Rome. Moving to the United States in 1949, von Raffler-Engle earned a master’s degree in library science and Ph.D. in linguistics. She came to Vanderbilt in 1965 after stints at Bennett College and Morris Harvey College.

After her retirement, von Raffler-Engel served as a senior research associate at the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies. She moved to San Antonio in 1999 to be near her son, Robert Engel, and his family.

Survivors in addition to Robert Engel include daughter Lee Engel, two grandchildren and three sisters in Italy. Her husband, A. Ferdinand Engel, preceded her in death.

Memorial contributions may be made to von Raffler-Engel’s college scholarship fund for her grandchildren, c/o Porter Loring Mortuary North, 2102 N Loop 1604 E, San Antonio, Texas, 78232; or The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, 305 7th Ave., 19th Floor, New York, NY, 1001, which provides financial support to aged and needy rescuers who saved Jews during the Holocaust.

Media contact: Jim Patterson, (615) 322-NEWS