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Dell Hymes’ Passing

While no obituary has appeared yet, there seems to be conclusive understanding via the moccasin telegraph that Dell Hymes has passed away. So soon after the death of Claude Lévi-Strauss, this is another significant loss in the fields of Native American studies, anthropology and folklore studies. Dell Hymes was a amazingly influential folklorist, anthropologist, and linguist who revolutionized the study of language in (/and) culture in general, and of Native American narrative traditions in particular. He made important contributions to the history of anthropology, to descriptive and theoretical linguistics, to sociolinguistics, to folkloristics, and to Native American studies. He essentially created the areas on inquiry known as (1) the ethnography of speaking and (2) ethnopoetics and he played a key role reshaping linguistic anthropology from the 1960s onward. His work is at the root of the performance orientation central in contemporary folklore studies and he directly influenced the work of a great many folklorists, including Richard Bauman, Henry Glassie, and Lee Haring, among many others. His influence in the field as practiced in the United States is pervasive.

Dell Hymes was an especially central figure for his fields of study at Indiana University, where I earned my Ph.D. and to which I returned in 2004 to join the faculty in Folklore and Ethnomusicology. At Indiana, Hymes earned his Ph.D. in 1955, studying under Carl Voegelin, a student of Alfred Kroeber and Edward Sapir, both themselves students of Franz Boas. He was deeply immersed in the Americanist tradition and he took the task of understanding, enriching, and conveying that tradition to new generations to be a key task. When he left Indiana for jobs at Harvard, California, Pennsylvania and Virginia, his impact and influence kept flowing back and influencing the faculty and students here. At Pennsylvania in particular, he worked closely with scholars that have gone on to play a key role in shaping the IU Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology. Evidence of the breadth of his influence and his commitment to the Boasian vision for the study of language, culture and society can be seen in the fact that he served as president of the American Folklore Society, the American Anthropological Association, and the Linguistic Society of America.

More coherent and elaborate remembrances will be written by scholars and friends who knew him well, but I wanted to acknowledge his passing and record my appreciation for his many contributions that have enriched the fields of study in which I work.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thank you for posting this. I hadn’t seen this elsewhere yet.

    November 16, 2009
    • Daniel Suslak #

      For anyone who might be interested, here’s the most recent message from Joe Errington (current president of the Society for Linguistic Anthropology):

      I write to relay sad news and a provide some related information about activities at the upcoming AAA convention. Last Friday our distinguished colleague Dell Hymes passed away peacefully in his sleep.

      Eve Danziger and the Anthropology Department at the University of Virginia have arranged for a memorial gathering during the upcoming meetings in Philadelphia.

      This gathering will be on Saturday December 5, 2009 from 7:30-9:30 in Grand Ballroom III at the courtyard Marriott.

      With hopes you are able to attend,

      Joe Errington

      November 16, 2009
  2. Rex #

    What a loss — he didn’t just fill the niche between anthropology, linguistics, and folklore, he exemplified a deeply human anthropology. Lévi-Strauss saw people as the unfortunate byproducts of his precious structures, but Dell Hymes was the kind of guy who would just as much sit around a table eating marionberries with friends as he would be picking apart the stories they told. In fact he did the later to honor the former. It is a loss.

    November 16, 2009
  3. This news makes me very sad. Dell mentored me when I was a young scholar in the ethnography of communication and narrative theory, and always supported my work. His own work was very important to an understanding of language and politics in education as well as to folklore, anthropology, and sociolinguistics. I will miss his presence.

    November 17, 2009
  4. I studied with Dell at the University of Pennsylvania, having taken a year off from my graduate studies at the University of Chicago. It was the best thing I could have done to round out my career. Dell was a superb mentor who broadened my perspective, and fostered a whole generation of superb scholars almost too numerous to mention. The world is greatly enriched by his research and his teaching.

    November 17, 2009
  5. Eve Danziger #

    Here is the official announcement, now going out.

    It is with sadness that we announce the death of our distinguished colleague Dell Hathaway Hymes, Commonwealth Professor of Anthropology and English (Emeritus) at the University of Virginia. Professor Hymes died peacefully on Friday November 13, 2009 in Charlottesville, VA. A memorial service will be held on Saturday November 21 at 1:00 at Peace Lutheran church, 1510 Broad Crossing Rd, Charlottesville, VA. A memorial gathering has also been organized at the upcoming meetings of the American Anthropological Association in Philadelphia, PA. The gathering will take place on Saturday December 5, 2009 from 7:30-9:30 pm in Grand Ballroom III of the Courtyard Marriott hotel (downtown). Condolences may be addressed to Virginia Hymes care of the Department of Anthropology, PO Box 400120, Charlottesville, VA, 22904-4120. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the Charlottesville Center for Peace and Justice ( or a charity of choice.

    November 17, 2009
  6. Like many others, I feel quite sad about this loss, but I also feel grateful for having known him and his work. Dell Hymes was such a key figure in sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology that I found myself turning to his writings throughout my career. In fact, his work was the primary inspiration for my Ethnolinguistic Chicago books, and he kindly wrote a foreward for the first one. Although I never studied in his classes, I have learned so much–and continue to learn–from him. May you rest in peace, Dell.

    November 18, 2009
  7. Yes, this is sad news. I also had the delight of studying with Professor Hymes at Penn during the late 60s. His exchanges with Erving Goffman and Sol Worth are particularly memorable. As part of inviting students to venture beyond spoken modes of discourse toward an ethnography of communication, he was encouraging me to see what could be done with pictorial events, specifically vernacular photography. I have re-read his papers countless times and have always been grateful for his support and model of academic mentorship. A very good man.

    Richard Chalfen

    November 18, 2009
    • Jan Blommaert #

      A great loss indeed. I recall fondly how a letter I sent to Dell while I was a modest PhD student led to a reply of about 15 pages long, full of generous advice, detailed analyses and references. He did similar things to some of my PhD students later, and he had a tremendous impact on them by such gestures of generosity.

      Earlier this year, I edited a special issue of TEXT & TALK called ‘On Hymes’ (Text & Talk 29/3, 2009). It was and is intended as a tribute to his work and his impact in our fields, and papers were written by the Late Ron and Suzie Scollon, Jim Collins, Sue Ervin-Tripp, Rob Moore, Ben Rampton and Nancy Hornberger. I had hoped to give Dell a copy of the volume during the AAA meetings in Philadelphia, but alas.

      November 19, 2009
  8. Anthony Webster #


    Thanks for posting this. Let me just say, also, thank you to Dr. Hymes. I would not be a linguistic anthropologist had I not read In Vain I Tried to Tell You. He had been supportive of my early attempts in ethnopoetics and that inspired me to keep at it. I too received an ample letter with suggestions about my analysis.

    What he did for linguistic anthropology, the ethnography of speaking and ethnopoetics, would have been enough, but the social responsibility and the deep and perduring humanism that animated all his work as well, that was an inspiration for me personally and a model too for anthropology more generally.

    It is his book Ethnography, Linguistics, Narrative Inequality that I turn to most often these days.

    November 20, 2009
  9. Motoko Hori #

    It is really a shock to me to find the news of the death of Dell Hymes. I only know him through his books, so I cannot offer any personal condolence to him. However, his name has been so familiar to me from the time I began studying sociolinguistics.
    Since there were very few books on sociolinguistics in 1970s in Japan, his “Directions in Sociolinguistics” was like a textbook for me.
    Although I have retired from the academic activities now, I vividly remember the days when his book inspired me into the field of language.
    Thank you, Professor Dell Hymes, for your big contribution to the linguistic society in Japan. Your name will be remembered in our heart for ever.

    November 20, 2009

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Dell Hymes (1927-2009) | Savage Minds
  2. Virtual Issue: The Anthropology of Knowledges « Erkan's Field Diary
  3. Anthropology Club » Sad News About Dell Hymes
  4. AAA Mourns Passing of Dell Hymes, Past President « American Anthropological Association
  5. Vale Dell Hymes roundup and more from the Anthro world… « Erkan's Field Diary

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