John J. Gumperz, 1922-2013

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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.)


  1. suzanne sullivan said,

    April 2, 2013 @ 11:21 pm

    When I was teaching Americans to deal with the French at L'Oréal USA, I had to tell them that a "demande" was not a "demand"—it was a request. And that the French way of requesting was their way of being polite, not bossy. This saved the day. Tout simple!

  2. David Morris said,

    April 3, 2013 @ 5:51 am

    I read about the obituary for Yvonne Brill on a news website in Australia. It read, and I am quoting from memory, so this may be a slight misquote "No equivalent male would be written about in the same terms, that had nothing to do with their professional capacity." I recently heard an instance where a male sportsman (admittedly, hardly in the same professional category as a rocket scientist) *was*. I don't follow Australian football closely, but turn the tv onto a match occasionally. Last week I was sort-of watching a match and the commentator said "[Player 1] passes to [Player 2] and the father of four kicks his third goal". I wondered what he reproductive capacity had to do with it.

  3. S.N. Sridhar said,

    April 3, 2013 @ 4:13 pm

    Nice obit by Margalit Fox.

    It is interesting to note how the exposure to and experience of doing fieldwork and teaching in India in the 1950s, together with the anthropological background, brought about a major breakthrough in these linguists' perspective on language, leading to a whole field of linguistics that we recognize world-wide as "socio-" linguistics.

  4. Sharry Erzinger said,

    April 3, 2013 @ 6:15 pm

    In addition to his direct intervention in cross cultural situations of miscommunication, John Gumperz had an ability to listen to voice, tone and words of eager students in their attempts to explore what remained at the edge of expression. I thank him for guiding my doctoral study of cross cultural communication and miscommunication and its impact within health settings. His insights while interpreting audiotaped interaction encouraged me, enhanced my understanding and contributed greatly to my study completion. Thank you to John Gumperz.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 4, 2013 @ 12:06 am is a recent obit for perhaps the only man in history to have obtained both a D.Phil. (Oxon.) in linguistics and an Olympic silver medal?

  6. Andrew Gumperz said,

    April 4, 2013 @ 5:42 am

    @ S.N. Sridhar–He loved India and Indians. He had a deep love for the people and the culture. He would have been one if he could.

    @Sharry Erzinger–Thanks for your memories of him. Its gratifying to hear how he impacted your own studies.


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