Along with The Economist and The Telegraph, the best obituaries can regularly be found at the New York Times, particularly those written by the brilliant Margalit Fox (read everything by her). This week she tells us about the life and work of John Gumperz, a professor of linguistics. This is how the piece opens:
The conflict hinged on a single word: “gravy.”
The place was Heathrow Airport, the time the mid-1970s. The airport had recently hired a group of Indian and Pakistani women to work in its employee cafeteria, and trouble had arisen between them and the British baggage handlers they served.
The baggage handlers complained that the servers were rude, and the servers complained that the baggage handlers were discriminating against them. Neither group knew why the other felt the way it did.
Fox goes on to tell us that Gumperz was one of the first linguists to get interested in how people used language in their every day lives; at how we routinely encode layers of subtle social and cultural meanings into our conversation while barely realising we are doing so. This is how she closes out the piece:
Summoned to Heathrow that mid-’70s day, tape recorder in hand, Professor Gumperz discovered the following: when diners ordered meat, they were asked if they wanted gravy. The English women who had previously worked behind the counter had posed the question with a single word — “Gravy?” — uttered, per cultural convention, with rising intonation.
When the Indian and Pakistani women joined the staff, they too asked the question with a single word. But in keeping with their cultural conventions, they uttered it with falling intonation: “Gravy.”
Professor Gumperz played the recorded exchanges for diners and staff members. His explanation of the subtle yet powerful difference in intonation, and the cultural meaning it carried, helped the groups achieve a mutual understanding.
“He pointed out that the rising intonation versus falling intonation made it a very different statement, even though the word was the same,” Professor Tannen said. “So rising intonation sounded like, ‘Would you like gravy?’ And falling intonation sounded like: ‘This is gravy. Take it or leave it.’ ”