Saturday, November 28, 2009

Dell Hymes, Linguist With a Wide Net, Dies at 82

Dell H. Hymes, a prominent anthropologist, linguist and folklorist whose work mined the rich, often overlooked territory where language and culture intersect, died on Nov. 13 in Charlottesville, Va. He was 82 and lived in Charlottesville.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, his son Robert said.

At his death, Professor Hymes was the Commonwealth professor of anthropology emeritus at the University of Virginia, where he had taught from 1987 till his retirement in 1998.

Professor Hymes’s academic net was so wide that a single name for his field is hard to come by: he has been described variously as a sociolinguist, an anthropological linguist and a linguistic anthropologist. He himself came to call his vast, ecumenical discipline “the ethnography of communication.”

“He was an anthropologist through and through and a linguist through and through, and he didn’t see an enormous barrier between the two,” Joel F. Sherzer, emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Texas, said in a telephone interview on Friday.

As an anthropologist, Professor Hymes pressed his colleagues not to lose sight of language.

“You’ve got the anthropologists who are archaeologists and the ones who are looking at cultural phenomena through kinship systems or through artifacts,” Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University linguist and the author of popular books about communication, said on Thursday. “They might study a phenomenon like potlatch without looking at, How do people talk when they’re at the potlatch?”

As a linguist, Professor Hymes pressed those colleagues not to lose sight of culture. This was a contrarian position in the late 1950s, when he began his career, but that, by all accounts, suited him just fine.

In 1957, with the ascent of a young linguist named Noam Chomsky, the direction of linguistics changed drastically. Suddenly, the field had little interest in language as a form of social behavior, its focus for decades. Now it was about biology — about language as a window onto the workings of the mind.

The aim of linguists, Professor Chomsky argued, should be to describe an idealized speaker’s inborn predisposition for language — also known as “linguistic competence” — by means of abstract, quasi-mathematical algorithms.

Professor Hymes preferred speakers of flesh and blood. To him and like-minded scholars, the Chomskyan approach disregarded the question of how people actually use language in everyday life. With his colleague John J. Gumperz, he developed the notion of “communicative competence” as a bigger, alternative quarry for scholars of language.

“ ‘Communicative competence’ embraces the larger context of society and culture — the language the way it’s used, not just the language itself,” Roger W. Shuy, an emeritus professor of linguistics at Georgetown, said by telephone on Thursday.

Professor Hymes encouraged his disciples to study every living, breathing form of discourse they could lay their hands on, things like table talk; myths, legends and riddles; courtroom testimony, political oratory, funeral laments and leave-taking conversations. Part of his aim was to discover the ways in which these differ across cultures.

“They’re not universal,” Professor Sherzer said. “The way you take leave among the Kuna” — an indigenous people of Panama and Colombia — “is not the same as in middle-class Anglo-Saxon society.”

Dell Hathaway Hymes was born on June 7, 1927, in Portland, Ore.; by the time he was a young man, he was already deeply interested in Northwest American Indian languages. He earned a bachelor’s degree in literature and anthropology from Reed College in 1950 and a Ph.D. in linguistics from Indiana University in 1955.

Before joining the Virginia faculty, Professor Hymes taught at Harvard; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of Pennsylvania, where he became dean of the Graduate School of Education. He was a past president of the American Anthropological Association, the Linguistic Society of America and the American Folklore Society and the inaugural editor of the journal Language in Society.

After a brief early marriage that ended in divorce, Professor Hymes married Virginia Dosch Wolff in 1954. He is survived by his wife, now known as Virginia Dosch Hymes; four children, Vicky Unruh and Robert, Alison and Kenneth Hymes; a brother, Corwin; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

His books include “Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach” (University of Pennsylvania, 1974) and “Ethnography, Linguistics, Narrative Inequality: Toward an Understanding of Voice” (Taylor & Francis, 1996). He edited many anthologies, among them “Reinventing Anthropology” (Pantheon, 1972) and, with Professor Gumperz, “Directions in Sociolinguistics: the Ethnography of Communication” (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1972).

Professor Hymes was also known for his work in ethnopoetics, which studies the traditional literature, much of it oral, of indigenous peoples. Where Western scholarship had long dismissed this literature as the formless burblings of primitive peoples, Professor Hymes helped demonstrate that much of it — including American Indian stories and African legends — has sophisticated internal structure in its own right.

In the introduction to his book “‘In Vain I Tried to Tell You’: Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics” (University of Pennsylvania, 1981), Professor Hymes summarized his approach to the study of traditional texts. It could as readily describe his approach to language as a whole:

“As with ‘Beowulf’ and ‘The Tale of Genji,’ the material requires some understanding of a way of life,” he wrote. “The joy, the language, the understanding are all of a piece. They come together, because they were put together by the people who made the texts.”

Fox, Margalit. 2009. "Dell Hymes, Linguist with a wide net, dies at 82". New York Times. Posted: November 23, 2009. Available online:

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