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Dell Hymes (born 1927 in Portland, Oregon) is a sociolinguist, anthropologist, and folklorist whose work has dealt primarily with languages of the Pacific Northwest. He was educated at Reed College, studying under David H. French, and graduated in 1950 after a stint in pre-war Korea. His work in the United States Army as a decoder is part of what influenced him to become a linguist. Hymes earned his Ph.D. from Indiana University in 1955 (a fellow folklore graduate student there was his former Reed classmate, the poet Gary Snyder), and took a job at Harvard University. Even at that young age, Hymes had a reputation as a strong linguist; his dissertation, completed in one year, was a grammar of the Kathlamet language spoken near the mouth of the Columbia River and known primarily from Franz Boas’s work at the end of the 19th century. Hymes remained at Harvard for five years, leaving in 1960 to join the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley. He spent five years at Berkeley as well, and then joined the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in 1965. In 1972 he joined the Department of Folklore and Folklife and became Dean of Graduate Studies in Education in 1975. He has been President of the Linguistic Society of America in 1982, the American Anthropological Association in 1983, and the American Folklore Society - the last person to have held all three positions. While at Penn, Hymes was a founder of the journal Language in Society. Hymes later joined the Departments of Anthropology and English at the University of Virginia, where he became the Commonwealth Professor of Anthropology and English, and from which he recently retired. He is now emeritus faculty. His wife, Virginia Hymes, is also a sociolinguist and folklorist.

Influences on his work

Hymes was influenced by a number of linguists who came before him, notably Boas and Edward Sapir. Hymes believes that there was a critical connection between language and ways of thinking. This is the crux of his theoretical position. Hymes considers literary critic Kenneth Burke his biggest influence, saying, “My sense of what I do probably owes more to KB than to anyone else” (Hymes 2003:x). Hymes studied with Burke the 1950s. Burke's work was theoretically and topically diverse, but the idea that seems most influential on Hymes is the application of rhetorical criticism to poetry. Hymes has included many other literary figures and critics among his influences, including Robert Alter, C.S. Lewis, A.L. Kroeber, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Harry Hoijer (Hymes 2003:ix-x).

Significance of his work

As one of the first sociolinguists, Hymes helped to pioneer the connection between speech and human relations and human understandings of the world. Hymes is particularly interested in how different language patterns shape different patterns of thought, which puts him very much at odds with the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky. Hymes is a proponent of what he and others call “ethnopoetics,” an anthropological method of transcribing and analyzing folklore and oral narrative that pays attention to poetic structures within speech. In reading the transcriptions of Indian myths, for example, which were generally recorded as prose by the anthropologists who came before, Hymes noticed that there are commonly poetic structures in the wording and structuring of the tale. (He also had to master the grammars of several Native American languages in the process, and is probably the last person alive who can recite texts in the Chinookan language, a sleeping language.) Patterns of words and word use follow patterned, artistic forms. Hymes’ goal, in his own mind, is to understand the artistry and “the competence… that underlies and informs such narratives” (Hymes 2003:vii). In fact, he created the Dell Hymes Model of Speaking and coined the term communicative competence within language education.

In addition to being entertaining stories or important myths about the nature of the world, narratives also convey the importance of aboriginal environmental management knowledge such as fish spawning cycles in local rivers or the disappearance of grizzly bears from Oregon. Hymes believes that all narratives in the world are organized around implicit principles of form which convey important knowledge and ways of thinking and of viewing the world. He argues that understanding narratives will lead to a fuller understanding of the language itself and those fields informed by storytelling, in which he includes ethnopoetics, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, rhetoric, semiotics, pragmatics, narrative inquiry and literary criticism.

Hymes clearly considers folklore and narrative a vital part of the fields of linguistics, anthropology and literature, and has bemoaned the fact that so few scholars in those fields are willing and able to adequately include folklore in its original language in their considerations (Hymes 1981:6-7). He feels that the translated versions of the stories are inadequate for understanding their role in the social or mental system in which they existed. He provides an example that in Navajo, the particles (utterances such as "uh," "So," "Well," etc. that have linguistic if not semantic meaning), omitted in the English translation, are essential to understanding how the story is shaped and how repetition defines the structure — in the Lévi-Straussian sense — that the text embodies.

External links

Major works

  • (1964) Language in Culture and Society
  • (ed.) (1972) Reinventing Anthropology
  • (1974) Foundations in sociolinguistics
  • (1980) Language in Education: Ethnolinguistic Essays
  • (1981) "In Vain I Tried to Tell You": Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • (1983) Essays in the History of Linguistic Anthropology
  • (1996) Ethnography, Linguistics, Narrative Inequality: Toward an Understanding of Voice
  • (2003) Now I Know Only So Far: Essays in Ethnopoetics
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