John J. Gumperz, the Berkeley sociolinguist who, among his many contributions, introduced "the speech community" as a unit of linguistic analysis, died on Friday at the age of 91. Margalit Fox has a thoughtful obituary in the New York Times.
Professor Gumperz, who at his death was an emeritus professor in Berkeley’s anthropology department, was a sociolinguist, whose field stands at the nexus of linguistics, anthropology and sociology. But though sociolinguistics as a whole embraces spoken language and the printed word, he concentrated on face-to-face verbal exchanges.
The subfield he created, known as interactional sociolinguistics, studies such exchanges in a range of social situations. It is especially concerned with discourse as it occurs across cultures, seeking to pinpoint the sources of the misunderstandings that can arise.
“He was one of the first people to look at how language is used by people in their everyday lives,” Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author of popular books on language, said in a recent interview. “Gumperz was paying attention to the details of how language is used: your intonation, where you pause, the specific expressions that people from one culture or another might use.”