Obituary - John Okell, 1934-2020

Patrick McCormick's picture
Dear All,

With sadness I announce the death of John Okell (b June 1934, d 3 Aug 2020) after being diagnosed with a brain tumour at the end of June. He died peacefully and painlessly surrounded by his family. His illness took everyone unaware, initially manifesting as drowsiness.


John was Lecturer and then Senior Lecturer in Burmese at SOAS from 1959 until his retirement in 1999, after which he started running annual short Burmese courses in Chiang Mai and then from 2009 in Yangon. John also taught at the Southeast Asian Summer Studies Institute (SEASSI) held in the US for several summers during the 1980s and 1990s.


In 1969, John wrote an extensive two volume A Reference Grammar of Colloquial Burmese, the first of its kind in its comprehensiveness, and later with his SOAS colleague Anna Allott, co-authored Burmese/Myanmar Dictionary of Grammatical Forms in 2001. In between, he developed a four-volume course for learning Burmese with sound recordings, and also the concise ­Burmese by Ear. John researched several Burmese dialects (Rakhaing, Intha, Tavoyan and Yaw), which culminated in a major publication in 1995. Through his work, John encouraged the study of one of Southeast Asia’s less taught languages, one for which relatively few resources had existed.


Anyone who worked with John or had him as a student will remember him for his patience and gentle humour, and his great skill as a teacher. He brought a great depth of knowledge and enthusiasm to the classroom, which his students appreciated. John always seemed interested in helping students learn, whatever their aptitudes or abilities. After retirement, John stayed immersed in Burmese, listening to broadcasts and reading widely. In the digital age, he picked up on new expressions on social media.


John leaves behind his wife Sue, their two children Tom and Lucy, and five grandchildren. He will be missed by a huge number of colleagues, students and friends. Due to Covid 19 restrictions, the family plan a small private funeral on August 18th, and John will be buried in the Chiltern Hills not far from their home in North Barnett in northern London.


Patrick McCormick


PS A former student wrote the following tribute. The Britain Burma Society also released an obituary which mentions John receiving the Order of the British Empire (OBE). A Wikipedia page lists all his publications.