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  • Dell Hathaway Hymes
  • Michael Silverstein

Dell Hymes, President of the Linguistic Society of America in 1982, one of the principal organizers of the modern social-scientific study of language, succumbed in his eighty-third year to kidney failure on November 13, 2009, in Charlottesville, Virginia, after several years of declining health due to Alzheimer’s disease. At the time of his death, he was Commonwealth Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and of English at the University of Virginia, where he had been a faculty member from 1987 until his retirement in 1998.

From early in his professional career, Hymes was an energetic and indeed ubiquitous figure in a range of enterprises that shaped many of the specific scholarly areas of sociolinguistics: organizing symposia and conferences, presiding over supervisory committees and organizational boards, consulting in every corner of language-affiliated academia, editing field-defining and -transforming volumes, and founding and for two decades editing an interdisciplinary journal, Language in Society. In 1975, he took on the Deanship of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, where, over the next twelve years, he infused an applied linguistics and ethnography perspective into research and curriculum there and more widely. At the same time, Hymes pursued his own agenda of research and publication that, over the decades, spanned a wide range: history of Native American languages, especially those of Sapir’s ‘Penutian’ stock (centered in the American Northwest of Hymes’s youth); the ethnography of speaking or ethnography of communication, theorizing how discursive events (broadly seen) should be studied in their sociocultural contexts—a perspective that he essentially called into being in collaboration with John J. Gumperz; the nineteenth-and twentieth-century history of North American linguistics and anthropology, seeking (with his Penn co-author John G. Fought) both to stimulate and to render historiographic justice to earlier schools of linguistic thought; and—perhaps with deepest commitment and greatest pleasure—especially from mid-career onward, ‘ethnopoetics’, the recuperative restudy of the textual organization of originally oral literary forms of Native Americans and other peoples so as to make patent and to explicate their rhetorical power as verbal art.

Hymes was born in Portland, Oregon, on June 7, 1927, to Howard Hathaway and Dorothy (née Bowman) Hymes, the first of two sons in a family soon hit hard by the Depression. After attending public schools in that city, in 1944–45, at the age of seventeen, he matriculated at Reed College, where his studies were interrupted after a year for a two-year service in (South) Korea with the U.S. Army’s 7th Infantry Inspector General’s office. Resuming studies in 1947 on the G.I. Bill, he eventually received a bachelor’s degree in 1950 combining anthropology and English, having begun a long association with the anthropologist David H. French (1918–1994), a Reed figure of notable influence who introduced Hymes to the Kiksht (Chinookan)-speaking people of the Warm Springs Reservation in central Oregon (see Koffman 2008, Moore 2008).

Hymes intended to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology and folklore, for which he wound up at Indiana University precisely at a time when Bloomington was a great intellectual crossroads of innovative, non-Bloomfieldian American and European currents in linguistics [End Page 933] in relation to the social and behavioral sciences. First psycholinguistics (Osgood & Sebeok 1954) and then sociolinguistics (Lieberson 1967) were, in a real sense, born in Bloomington from conferences, faculty seminars, and courses at LSA Institutes held there in the summers of 1952, 1953, and 1964 (see, inter alia, Paulston & Tucker 1997). Charles F. (‘Carl’) Voegelin (1906–1992), then the chair of Indiana’s Department of Anthropology and editor of the International Journal of American Linguistics, steered Hymes toward linguistics for his M.A. (1953) and Ph.D. (1955), and was the first of a series of distinguished patrons and influences in this next phase of his life. For example, Hymes served as note-taker and audiotape-transcriber for the famous Conference of Anthropologists and Linguists of July 21–30, 1952 (Levi-Strauss et al. 1953), giving him early career prominence as a rising star.1 In the summer of 1953 he took a course from noted poet...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-0665
Print ISSN
0097-8507
Pages
pp. 933-939
Launched on MUSE
2010-12-30
Open Access
No
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