John J. Gumperz, Who Mapped the Infrastructure of Spoken Language, Dies at 91

He pioneered the study of how people convey and conceal meaning and social standing with words, intonations, and accents.

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University of California at Berkeley

Every time you open your mouth to speak, you give yourself away. The way you talk says more about you than mere words ever could. It telegraphs your ethnic background, your level of education, your geographic history – the things that place you in the hierarchy of your society.

That sometimes uncomfortable truth is familiar to anyone who has ever struggled to impress a potential boss during a job interview, or had a misunderstanding with a bureaucrat behind a window at a government agency, or traded jokes with the guy at the local deli counter. Every conversation you have is a delicate negotiation of tone and nuance – especially with strangers in urban settings, where people from different backgrounds and cultures rub up against one another constantly.

As a human being, you play this game instinctively, sometimes with confidence and sometimes with fear. Will the person you’re talking to think you’re being polite or abrupt? Showing sympathy or contempt? Acting superior or projecting confidence? So much depends on what you say and how the other person hears you.

The sociolinguist John J. Gumperz, who died this week at the age of 91, spent his career thinking about these things. He was a pioneer in the field of "interactional sociolinguistics" – the study of the way people convey and conceal meaning and social standing with their choice of words, their intonations, and their accents.

Born in 1922 in Germany, Gumperz knew about navigating different languages and cultures firsthand. As a Jew, he was prohibited by the Nazis from attending high school in his native country, and passed through Italy and a Dutch refugee camp before landing in the United States with his family in 1939.

Many years later, in 1982, Gumperz and his wife, Jenny Cook-Gumperz, wrote this in the introduction to a book called Language and Social Identity:

Post-industrial society in the urbanized regions of both Western and non-Western countries is characterized by the bureaucratization of public institutions and by the increasingly pervasive penetration of these institutions into the day-to-day lives of individuals…. The role communicative skills play has thus been radically altered in our society. The ability to manage or adapt to diverse communicative situations has become essential and the ability to interact with people with whom one has no personal acquaintance has become essential to acquiring even a small measure of personal and social control. We have to talk in order to establish our rights and entitlements.

I was lucky enough to take a class in linguistic anthropology from Gumperz when I was an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, where he joined the anthropology department in 1956. I had no idea when I walked into the lecture hall that the somewhat rumpled, unassuming bald man standing at the podium was going to change the way I saw the world forever.

Gumperz told us about the research he and others had done into the way people use different ways of speaking in different social situations to gain advantage. His own early research in Indian villages had explored the concept of what he called the “prestige dialect,” the speech pattern that establishes an individual’s social dominance. He told us about the work of William Labov, who had documented African American vernacular speech in Harlem and demonstrated that black English was a linguistically consistent and grammatical variation on the language.

He played us selections from a BBC series called Crosstalk that he had worked on in the late 1970s, showing British employers conducting job interviews with applicants from the Indian subcontinent – video that showed how the different styles of communication used by the people facing each other in these blank rooms created confusion. The British interviewers expected the conversations to get to the point straight away, and quickly grew impatient with the discursive, roundabout answers of the Indians and Pakistanis they were questioning. Neither party really stood a chance of truly hearing or being heard.

I remember sitting in that lecture hall and watching the painful misunderstandings unfold, wishing that somehow the people on the videotapes could step outside themselves and see what I was seeing – what Gumperz was showing me. I promised myself that every time I talked to someone from a culture other than my own, I would try to remember these halting and unproductive conversations. I promised myself that I would do better.

I can’t say that I have always succeeded. But hardly a day goes by that I don’t think about some aspect of what I learned in Gumperz’s class.

For an event honoring him in 1999, one of his colleagues wrote in an essay, “His tools are eclectic and his toolbox cluttered…. He is trying to depict processes that still defy understanding with the best tools that come to hand from whatever school of analysis.” Gumperz never retreated from the messy world to academic abstraction. He was always interested in the real-world application of his ideas.

"[C]ommunication cannot be studied in isolation," Gumperz wrote. "It must be analyzed in terms of its effects on people’s lives."

Gumperz looked around him and saw the invisible infrastructure of spoken language that surrounds us all. If we understand the nature of that infrastructure, his work demonstrated, the walls of language need not divide us.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.