Linguistics, anthropology scholar

By Emily Langer
Friday, November 20, 2009

Dell Hymes, an influential scholar of linguistics and anthropology who helped pioneer the study of how people use language in their everyday lives, died of kidney failure Nov. 13 at a nursing home in Charlottesville. The retired University of Virginia professor was 82 and had Alzheimer's disease.

Dr. Hymes was a "giant" in both fields, said Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and a best-selling author. While scholars such as Noam Chomsky studied the abstract ways that people acquire grammar and other language skills, Dr. Hymes pursued a simpler question: How do people communicate?

Dr. Hymes used the phrase "communicative competence," which simply means that people use more than just words to express themselves. That idea, crucial to the development of the field of linguistics, was typical of Dr. Hymes's innovations. He was the sort of scholar who put his finger on phenomena that seem obvious, but only after he named them.

In the 1960s, Dr. Hymes helped found sociolinguistics, the study of how social class and culture affect language, a strand of his work closely related to his commitment to social justice. Nancy Hornberger, whom Dr. Hymes recruited to the University of Pennsylvania when he was dean of the graduate school of education there, explained it this way:

"Say I'm an immigrant from Nicaragua. I go in McDonald's, and I want to buy something. . . . The person on the other side notices first my appearance and my accent, and it kind of prevents them from hearing what I say. This is true for all of us. . . . People do it all the time."

Dr. Hymes thought that if linguists could break down and understand such judgments, they could significantly improve education for immigrant children, for example. In that way, Hornberger said, his work provides an important background for contemporary debates on the use of Spanish in schools or the teaching of ebonics, or nonstandard English spoken in some African American communities.

"He didn't have much patience wasting your time in academic endeavors that wouldn't have a direct relevance for the world and for righting some of the inequalities in the world," Hornberger said. Or as Dr. Hymes himself put it, describing his approach to anthropology:

"I am always interested in combating elitism and narrowness. . . . The justification for the existence of anthropology is to find out about the world, not produce third-rate philosophers."

Dell Hathaway Hymes was born June 7, 1927, in Portland, Ore. He had a particular interest in the languages and cultures of Native Americans living in the Pacific Northwest.

Dr. Hymes was a freshman at Reed College in Portland in 1945 when he was drafted into the Army and sent to occupied Korea. He returned to Reed and graduated in 1950. One of his best friends in college was Gary Snyder, who went on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.

Dr. Hymes received his doctorate in linguistics in 1955 from Indiana University, where he met Virginia Dosch Wolff, whom he married. Besides his wife of 55 years, of Charlottesville, survivors include four children, Robert Hymes of New York City, Vicky Unruh of Lawrence, Kan., and Alison and Kenneth Hymes, both of Charlottesville; a brother; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Dr. Hymes's career took him to Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley, in addition to the University of Pennsylvania and U-Va., where he taught from 1987 until his retirement in 1998. He was the president of several professional associations, including the American Anthropological Association and the American Folklore Society. His most important books include "In Vain I Tried to Tell You: Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics" and "Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach."

Dr. Hymes considered becoming a poet like his college friend Snyder, but he pursued a different path, either because of his greater fascination with anthropology or perhaps because he feared he had insufficient talent, his son Robert said. Dr. Hymes never lost his love for the art form, however, and continued writing throughout his life. In one poem, he summed up his philosophy of linguistics:

Now, all allow, even the most dogmatic,

One should be at least a bit "pragmatic."

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