The renowned linguist John Gumperz “devoted his career to improving cross-cultural understanding and his work in ethnography of communication, interactional sociolinguistics, discourse strategies, code-switching, and urban anthropology was extremely influential” (BLC).
Born in Germany to Jewish parents, Gumperz moved to the US with his parents in 1939. Having received a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry, he later became fascinated with language and switched fields, pursuing a PhD in Germanic languages at the University of Michigan. From 1956 until his retirement in 1991, he worked at the UC Berkeley where he pioneered research in linguistic anthropology.
His main interest was sociolinguistics, the study of the effect of society (cultural norms, conventions, etc) on language use. Specifically, he established the subdiscipline of interactional sociolinguistics by using discourse analysis to investigate “the way people convey and conceal meaning and social standing with their choice of words, their intonations, and their accents” (Goodyear). Among his many contributions to the field is the introduction of the ‘speech community’ as a unit of linguistic analysis.
John Gumperz passed away on Friday 29 March 2013 in Santa Barbara, at the age of 90.
For more information, read the obituaries in the New York Times and The Daily Californian, and listen to an interview with his former student, Professor of Linguistics Deborah Tannen (Georgetown University), on NPR.