John J. Gumperz

Peter Auer, Monica HellerCelia Roberts
Table of contents

John Gumperz (1922–2013) has for a long time been acknowledged as one of the founders of sociolinguistics – together with Charles Ferguson, Joshua Fishman, William Labov, Basil Bernstein, Dell Hymes, and perhaps a few others (Gordon 2011). However, the theory of language as social practice which Gumperz developed from the 1970s onwards does more than merely lay the groundwork for a hyphenated linguistic subdiscipline devoted to the ‘social’ as an addendum to the ‘linguistic’. Rather, starting with communicative practices instead of structuralist systems, Gumperz developed an approach to language as social practice in the construction of meaning, an approach in which the central question is not how linguistic knowledge is structured in systematic ways, but in which the core notions are interpretation and understanding and how they are intertwined with the construction of shared common ground. Gumperz’s work therefore implies a strong critical stance toward influential schools of linguistic thinking such as structuralism or generative grammar. These, Gumperz argued, neglect linguistic diversity of all kinds (including multilingualism), and, perhaps most importantly, the social construction of meaning, not because they are outside their field of interest, but because these approaches to linguistics are inherently inadequate to deal with them. Further, as a result, he saw linguistic variability as a clue to the construction of social difference and social inequality. As he and Jenny Cook-Gumperz (2005: 271) put it:

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