Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
📺 WATCH LIVE: 3rd Congressional GOP primary debate @ 6p

Linguist Did Pioneering Work On Discourse Across Cultural Boundaries


We learned this week of the death of John J. Gumperz, a Berkeley sociolinguist who pioneered the study of real-life discourse across cultural boundaries. His obituary in the New York Times relates how he brought workplace peace to London's Heathrow Airport by pointing out the misunderstanding of the word gravy when it was uttered by cafeteria staff of South Asian background.

Deborah Tannen of Georgetown University is a professor of linguistics who studied with John Gumperz and she joins us now from Stanford, California. She's a fellow at Stanford this year. Welcome to the program.

DEBORAH TANNEN: Pleasure to be here.

SIEGEL: Gravy?

TANNEN: That's the difference. That's one side of it. John Gumperz was on sabbatical at London. He was called in as a consultant because the employees were complaining that they were being discriminated against. The employees who were getting their food at that cafeteria were complaining that the new employees were rude. He used his method of tape-recording the real interactions, then playing it back for both parties.

And he was able to focus on this one word and the way it was spoken. So if the same word, gravy, was said by the British women with a rising intonation, gravy, that was understood as "would you like some gravy?" The Indian and Pakistani women said it with a falling intonation, gravy. That came across as, "this is gravy, take it or leave it."

SIEGEL: Even though they were doing the same thing. They were asking the employees, would you like gravy on the meat?

TANNEN: Yes. And it's a perfect example because each side pointed to that as evidence for their point of view. And so John Gumperz's brilliance was to show that - not that there could never be discrimination; of course there could be and there probably was, but that just language and the subtle aspects of language that we might have thought didn't make any difference, made a world of difference.

SIEGEL: Now, a brief biographical note here. Mr. Gumperz, who was 91 years old, was born Jewish in Germany. He was barred from study there, I gather, so he was sent, as a young man, to Italy and then to Holland before coming to the U.S. just before World War II. From that early background, I would assume cross-cultural communication would have been a natural subject of interest to him.

TANNEN: Yes. I think you're absolutely right. He worked at the intersection of linguistics and anthropology. And probably because of that personal history, he had a commitment to social justice. That was also very much in the era, the time and the birth of modern sociolinguistics. But he was able to combine an awareness of the cultural patterns with a very specific focus on language and how you're using language.

He had done field work in India, so he knew about the Indian culture and the Indian language. And then he was able to ask questions like, why is it that someone of Indian background in England, perfectly good speaker of English, might not get a job that he was qualified for.

SIEGEL: Yes. I gather it came all too naturally to the person of Indian background when asked why he wanted the job, said because I need a job, which was not the correct answer.

TANNEN: Yeah. There's great examples. And he naturally made a video together with the BBC called "Cross Talk." And some examples from there are just, show how just the way - the conventions that we take for granted. We know you're supposed to say, this is the perfect job for me, even if you really just need a job. Well, this applicant actually said, well, I'm not particularly interested in this job. I need a job. I'm doing everything I can to get a job. And the result, again, can be a kind of discrimination where each one thinks, well, I'm well-intentioned. It must be your fault.

SIEGEL: We started with the gravy story from Heathrow. After Professor Gumperz pointed this out to people, did they actually change the way they spoke? Did the women from India and Pakistan who were living in Britain, did they start putting an upward intonation at the end of gravy? Or was it up to the workers to learn what they were hearing instead?

TANNEN: That's a great question. Professor Gumperz himself doesn't say whether the follow-through was there, but I think we all find, from our own experience, once people know what the issue is, they are in a much better position to change their behavior and get better results.

SIEGEL: Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, thanks for talking with us about the late Professor John J. Gumperz.

TANNEN: My pleasure. Thank you.



You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.