Professor emeritus of anthropology and lover of language John Gumperz dies at 91

John Gumperz dedicated his life to language. A UC Berkeley professor emeritus of anthropology, he died at the age of 91 on Friday in Santa Barbara.

Gumperz was an intellectual and adventurer — a curious, unassuming scholar who studied people and language all around the world. He used his research to fill the gaps that written language could not, focusing linguistic study on solving issues of social justice and helping people communicate across cultural boundaries.

He brought this passion for language to UC Berkeley, where he taught for 35 years until his retirement in 1991. The professor pioneered research in linguistic anthropology — studying language as a social and cultural endeavor as well as a form of written communication.

“He was totally unpretentious,” said lifelong friend and colleague Dan Slobin, who is a professor emeritus of psychology and linguistics at UC Berkeley. “I struggled at first to make sense of him and was finally just overwhelmed at how profound his ideas were.”

Among the focuses of Gumperz’s work was code-switching, a process in which speakers use multiple languages in one conversation. He also studied the way culture affected linguistics, finding at times that two people speaking the same language were in fact communicating very differently, depending on the different environments in which they learned to speak.

Born in 1922, Gumperz quickly became a scholar of language when he left his native Germany to finish high school in Italy. This move was prompted by an increasingly dangerous Nazi regime, which Gumperz, a Jew, eventually escaped by moving to Holland and then the United States in 1939.

Gumperz completed his education in the United States, eventually earning a doctorate in Germanic linguistics at the University of Michigan in 1954. He went on to work in India alongside other linguists, a post that had a lasting influence on his research.

Gumperz was an engaging, amiable man who could sit down with professors and farmers alike to talk about the world.

“He had a way of being totally at ease with people,” Slobin said. “He would just sit down with them. He was such a sweet man.”

This interest in people led Gumperz to the center of a vibrant intellectual community in Berkeley, which formed in the early 1960s. He often hosted dinner parties where graduate students and professors from different disciplines would discuss and share ideas, a practice that led to great support for interdisciplinary studies at UC Berkeley.

“We had constant afternoon and evening dialogues,” said Susan Ervin-Tripp, a professor emeritus who taught psychology while Gumperz was at UC Berkeley. “It was an exciting time.”

Gumperz left the UC Berkeley community after retiring but continued to work and study linguistics until his death.

“He opened people’s eyes to the fact that language isn’t just the language you read in texts,” Slobin said. “It’s in face-to-face interactions.”