LINGUIST List 24.4078

Wed Oct 16 2013

All: Obituary: Prof. John Gumperz (1922-2013)

Editor for this issue: Sarah Fox <>

Date: 15-Oct-2013
From: Imtiaz Hasnain <>
Subject: Obituary: Prof. John Gumperz (1922-2013)
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Tribute to John J. Gumperz
(1922 - 2013)

There were two occasions which allowed me to have an association, albeit indirectly, with John J. Gumperz. Once, when I had gone to Pune to conduct Ph.D. viva voce examination of Dr. Nitin Saya More, who had submitted his thesis under the supervision of Prof. R.V. Dhongde, sometime in early 2000. We had the honour of having Prof. Ashok R. Kelkar to chair the occasion. The External Foreign Examiner was none other than Prof. John Joseph Gumperz!

The other one was when Dr. Shailendra Mohan from Deccan College and I had submitted a joint Major Project to ICSSR, New Delhi titled “Revisiting Khalapur: Language Variation and Social Change 50 years Later”. Gumperz was aware of this “Revisiting” and we were directed to be in contact with Michael Mahar, one of the members of the team of Cornell University Field Project, a Ford Foundation sponsored international development initiative in India.

After earning his Ph.D. in German Linguistics in 1954 from the University of Michigan, Gumperz joined the Cornell University Field Project. After being associated with this project for two years, he joined as a faculty in the University of California at Berkeley, first in Linguistics, and then in Anthropology.

World over, the complexities of social relationships between language and dialects have been recognized for centuries. India is no exception. Way back in 1939, T.C. Hudson’s paper “Sociolinguistics in India” published in Man in India (XIX, 94) informed us about the social dimension of relationship between Sanskrit and Prakrit in the past. Madhav Deshpande’s Sociolinguistic Attitudes in India (1979) further attested the presence of rich traditions of scholarship, which marked the complex interplay of social stratification, religion and language in Vedic India. However, this tradition of scholarship went unnoticed in the west. Gumperz’s engagement with the Cornell University Field Project has, therefore, been significant.

Most of the obituaries have touched upon his profound scholarship that stands at the nexus of linguistics, anthropology, sociology and culture. As a sociolinguist from India, writing a necrology on Gumperz anticipates another kind of expectation. His work focusing on the questions of linguistic variability and social stratification reiterates India’s rich traditions of linguistic scholarship, which dealt with the social dimensions of language and dialects. Although Gumperz’s work on linguistic variability and social stratification may appear co-relational in nature, like his all other later works, the research that he carried out in India also examines “the ways in which linguistic variability is bound up in the making of social inequality.” (Heller, 2013: 394) Hence, the question of how much language contributes to the continuing significance of caste in India, as in Khalapur, and the “problem of unexpected...where languages ostensibly from different language families shared syntax but not lexicon”, as in Kupwar, are important, for they have a bearing on Sociolinguistics when studied from the viewpoint of its history of this discipline.

Schuchardt’s observation, way back in 1885, that “the pronunciation of the individual is never free from variation” (1885/ 1972: 48) was further reinforced by Sapir when he wrote “everyone knows that language is variable” (1921:147). Sapir was aware of the loose ends in linguistic analysis and porosity in grammar. He metaphorically looked at grammar as epitomizing regime of tyranny and, thus, provided the following epigrammatic conclusion: “Unfortunately or luckily, no language is tyrannically consistent. All grammar leak.” The notion of variable as structural unit was never given any serious credence by later linguists. The variable as a structural unit was dismissed and the variants were merely considered as random fluctuation. The presence of variants, though attracted attention of linguists, were simply regarded as “belonging to different co-existent linguistic systems or as unpredictably free substitutes” (Chambers (1995:13). The notion of free variation gained currency without being critically looked at, despite serious concerns shown by some scholars with regard to systematic studies of variation and the notion of ‘free variation’. In fact, Fischer in 1958 looked into the systematic co-relations between linguistic variants –in and –ing in participles and social determinants like social class, sex etc. and concluded that:

‘Free variation’ is … a label, not an explanation. It does not tell us where the variants came from nor why the speakers use them in differing proportions, but is rather a way of excluding such questions from the scope of immediate inquiry. (Fischer, 1958:47-48)

In sociolinguistics literature the notion of variable as a structural unit found its acceptability, and subsequently got firmly rooted, with the work of Labov (1963). Labov categorically proved that the variables are not only structured but are predictable, systematic and carry a significant social import. However, much before Labov’s study, Gumperz (1958) work, based on the data collected from Khalapur, provided convincing argument that the there is a significant co-relation between language and social stratification. His study of Khalapur village in 1958 is one of the best-known examples of empirical investigation of language variation and language change by establishing a robust correspondence between linguistic facts and social facts, and it provided an impetus to the later works carried out by Bright (1960) McCormack (1960) and others, which looked into the manifestation of caste dialects in languages like Tamil, Kannada, etc.

Revisiting Khalapur: Language Variation and Social Change 50 years Later

Gumperz in his 1958 study of Khalapur village in north India deconstructed the different speech styles possible within one small but ''highly stratified'' village and had drawn inferences and conclusions about status and social interaction from a linguistic viewpoint. “Revisiting Khalapur” provides a rare opportunity to explore the degree to which linguistic and social variables have remained the same and investigate the comparable research on real-time diachronic change in Khalapur village dialect. In the last five decades of socio-economic planning the political landscape of North India has considerably changed. “Revisiting Khalapur” also helps in evaluating inferences about language variation and change, and social change that have evolved in last 50 years in Khalapur village. His 1958 study is significant because it considers the sociolinguistic structure of a community as a whole, while most of the other studies on caste dialects that appeared after 1958 had taken language as a base for investigation, rather than a community as a starting point.

This study reports that caste differences exist and villagers are aware of their caste distinctions, but the village dialect is gradually veering towards Standard Hindi. For example, distinction between diphthongs and pure vowels is mostly absent now; use of nasal retroflexion and nasalization of vowels have also declined in the village dialect and there is a greater assimilation to Standard Hindi. However, some features like dropping of /h/ and gemmination have been noticed to have increased in the village dialect. “Revisiting Khalapur” clearly shows the continuity and change in the speech repertoire of 1958 study.

Revisiting Gumperz’s Proposal for Convergence in Kupwar

Gumperz’ and Wilson’s 1971 study conducted in the village of Kupwar at the Maharashtra-Karnataka border hosting three languages (Marathi, Kannada and Hindi-Urdu) occupied a prominent place in the field of contact linguistics and convergence studies and is cited by scholars the world over as a unique case of lexical maintenance but structural convergence spanning more than four centuries. G&W ascribed the long-standing tradition of bilingualism in the village, which had been maintained despite regular and frequent interaction among the local residents, and which had not resulted in the “triumph” of one language to the importance of “ethnic separateness of the home.” (Gumperz and Wilson 1971: 153-4)

Forty years after the original study (and the linguistic reorganisation of the border districts), Sonal Kulkarni-Joshi revisited the contact situation in the border town-village. Drawing on her field data and observations collected between 2006 and 2013 she reports that, unlike G&W’s (1971) proposal, a single focused structure is difficult to identify for the languages in the contact situation today. Instead, parallel syntactic constructions and assimilation towards Marathi are noted; these probably suggest a phase of deconvergence accompanied by language shift, especially among the local, Kannada-speaking elites. These changes may be attributed to the growth of industry in this farming village, easy access to neighbouring cities and, more importantly, to the changed inter-community relations in the village-town: the latter refers to the disappearing interdependence and the rise of competitive market relations where earlier social and economic interdependence had existed.

Gumperz and Wilson (1971) had predicted that multilingualism in Kupwar would be maintained as long as the ethnic separateness of home life was valued and language continued to be associated with ethnic separateness (p. 154). Kulkarni-Joshi’s recent work broadly bears out G&W’s observation: religious identities today (Jain, Muslim, Hindu, as well as neo-Buddhist and Christian) in the region are more accentuated but the symbolic values of languages in the contact situation have changed. The linguistic minority communities in the border region do not always associate language with religious difference and the language of opportunity (i.e. Marathi) is making inroads into religious practice. This is especially true of the Kannada-speaking Jains and Lingayats while the Hindi-Urdu speaking Muslim community shows greater maintenance of the home language.

If one were to trace the history of sociolinguistics in India, Gumperz’s early research in Indian villages will occupy a distinct place, particularly for his insightful observation, which holds true even today, that “Where social norms put a premium on social distinctness, linguistic symbols of such distinctness tend to be maintained.” (1967: 228)

CHAMBERS, J. K. 1995. Sociolinguistic Theory: Linguistic Variation and its Social Significance. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers.
FISCHER, JOHN L. 1958. ‘Social influences on the choice of a linguistic variant’. Word 14: 47-56.
GUMPERZ, JOHN J. 1967. ‘Language and Communication’, in Bertman M. Gross (ed.) The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 373: 219-231.
GUMPERZ, JOHN J. 1964. ‘Religion and social communication in village north India’. The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol.23, Aspects of religion in South Asia (Jun.,1964), pp. 89-97. Association for Asian Studies.
GUMPERZ, JOHN J. 1958. ‘Dialect differences and social stratification in a North Indian Village’. American Anthropologist, Vol. 60:4.668-82.
GUMPERZ, JOHN J. and ROBIN WILSON 1971. ‘Convergence and Creolization: A Case from the Indo-Aryan/Dravidian Border in India’. In Pidginization and Creolization of Languages edited by Dell Hymes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp 151-168.
HELLER, MONICA 2013. ‘John Gumperz In Memorium’. Journal of Sociolinguistics. Vol. 17, Issue 3: 394-399, June.
KULKARNI-JOSHI, SONAL (forthcoming). ‘Religion and Language Variation in a Convergence Area: The view from the border town of Kupwar post linguistic reorganisation of Indian states’.
KULKARNI-JOSHI, SONAL 2012. ‘Language Contact and Grammatical Change: an Exploration of the Limits of Convergence’. Bulletin of Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute Nos. 70-71: 249-260.
KULKARNI-JOSHI, SONAL 2008. ‘Deconvergence in Kupwad?’ Indian Linguistics 69:153-162.
SAPIR, EDWARD 1921. Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. 1949.
SCHUCHARDT, HUGO 1972 [1885] ‘On sound laws: against the Neogrammarians’. In Schuchardt, the Neogrammarians, and the Transformational Theory of Phonological Change edited by Theo Vennemann and Terence Wilbur. Frankfurt: Athenaeum. Pp. 39-72.

Linguistic Field(s): Not Applicable

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