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.”
Fox opens the obituary with a telling anecdote:
The conflict hinged on a single word: “gravy.”
The place was Heathrow Airport, the time the mid-1970s. The airport had recently hired a group of Indian and Pakistani women to work in its employee cafeteria, and trouble had arisen between them and the British baggage handlers they served.
The baggage handlers complained that the servers were rude, and the servers complained that the baggage handlers were discriminating against them. Neither group knew why the other felt the way it did.
Enter John J. Gumperz.
But the full story isn't revealed until the end:
Summoned to Heathrow that mid-’70s day, tape recorder in hand, Professor Gumperz discovered the following: when diners ordered meat, they were asked if they wanted gravy. The English women who had previously worked behind the counter had posed the question with a single word — “Gravy?” — uttered, per cultural convention, with rising intonation.
When the Indian and Pakistani women joined the staff, they too asked the question with a single word. But in keeping with their cultural conventions, they uttered it with falling intonation: “Gravy.”
Professor Gumperz played the recorded exchanges for diners and staff members. His explanation of the subtle yet powerful difference in intonation, and the cultural meaning it carried, helped the groups achieve a mutual understanding.
“He pointed out that the rising intonation versus falling intonation made it a very different statement, even though the word was the same,” Professor Tannen said. “So rising intonation sounded like, ‘Would you like gravy?’ And falling intonation sounded like: ‘This is gravy. Take it or leave it.’ ”
(This reminds me a bit of another gastro-anecdote in a recent Times obituary: the "mean beef stroganoff" that appeared in the obit for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill, before it was silently removed. Of course, as Nancy Friedman points out, the Gumperz/gravy story was at least professionally relevant, unlike Brill and her beef stroganoff.)