Dell Hymes
Born(1927-06-07)June 7, 1927
DiedNovember 13, 2009(2009-11-13) (aged 82)
Academic background
Alma materIndiana University (PhD), Reed College
Academic work
InstitutionsUniversity of Pennsylvania, University of California, Berkeley, Harvard University
Notable studentsRegna Darnell Richard Bauman

Dell Hathaway Hymes (June 7, 1927, in Portland, Oregon – November 13, 2009, in Charlottesville, Virginia) was a linguist, sociolinguist, anthropologist, and folklorist who established disciplinary foundations for the comparative, ethnographic study of language use. His research focused upon the languages of the Pacific Northwest. He was one of the first to call the fourth subfield of anthropology "linguistic anthropology" instead of "anthropological linguistics". The terminological shift draws attention to the field's grounding in anthropology rather than in what, by that time, had already become an autonomous discipline (linguistics). In 1972 Hymes founded the journal Language in Society and served as its editor for 22 years.[1]

Early life and education

He was educated at Reed College, studying under David H. French;[2] and after a stint in prewar Korea, he graduated in 1950. His work in the Army as a decoder is part of what influenced him to become a linguist. Hymes earned his PhD in linguistics from Indiana University in 1955.[3][4] As a young Ph.D graduate, Hymes carefully analyzed a corpus, within the publication by Melville Jacobs of the songs and stories of Victoria Howard, developing new approaches to the interpretation of oral narratives.[5] He went on to take 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 and known primarily from Franz Boas’s work at the end of the 19th century.


From 1955, Hymes taught at Harvard University for five years; leaving in 1960 to join the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley; where he spent another five years before joining the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in 1965 (where he succeeded A. Irving Hallowell). In 1972 he joined the Department of Folklore and Folklife and in 1975 he became Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

He served as president of the American Folklore Society in 1973, the Linguistic Society of America in 1982, and the American Anthropological Association in 1983—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 retired in 2000, continuing as emeritus professor until his death from complications of Alzheimer's disease on November 13, 2009.[6]

Sexual harassment allegations

Hymes was accused of sexual harassment in the later years of his tenure at the University of Pennsylvania.[7] According to The Daily Pennsylvanian, this included:

...his female graduate advisees being nicknamed 'Hymes' Harem,' female GSE faculty testifying against Hymes for sexual harassment, and Penn faculty in other schools severing their formal ties with GSE after multiple women filed sexual discrimination lawsuits for being denied tenure.[8]

Influences on his work

Hymes was influenced by a number of linguists, anthropologists and sociologists; notably Franz Boas, Edward Sapir and Harry Hoijer of the Americanist Tradition; Roman Jakobson and others of the Prague Linguistic Circle; sociologist Erving Goffman and anthropologist Ray L. Birdwhistell, both his colleagues at Penn; and ethnomethodologists Harold Garfinkel, Harvey Sacks, Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson.

Hymes' career can be divided into at least two phases. In his early career Hymes adapted Prague School Functionalism to American Linguistic Anthropology, pioneering the study of the relationship between language and social context. Together with John Gumperz, Erving Goffman and William Labov, Hymes defined a broad multidisciplinary concern with language in society.

Hymes' later work focuses on poetics, particularly the poetic organization of Native American oral narratives. He and Dennis Tedlock defined ethnopoetics as a field of study within linguistic anthropology and folkloristics. Hymes considers literary critic Kenneth Burke his biggest influence on this latter work, saying, "My sense of what I do probably owes more to KB than to anyone else."[9] Hymes studied with Burke in 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, and Claude Lévi-Strauss.[10]

Significance of his work

As one of the first sociolinguists, Hymes helped to pioneer the connection between speech and social relations, placing linguistic anthropology at the center of the performative turn within anthropology and the social sciences more generally.

Hymes formulated a response to Noam Chomsky's influential distinction between competence (knowledge of grammatical rules necessary to decoding and producing language) and performance (actual language use in context). Hymes objected to the marginalization of performance from the center of linguistic inquiry and proposed the notion of communicative competence, or knowledge necessary to use language in social context, as an object of linguistic inquiry.

Since appropriate language use is conventionally defined, and varies across different communities, much of Hymes early work frames a project for ethnographic investigation into contrasting patterns of language use across speech communities. Hymes termed this approach "the ethnography of speaking".

The SPEAKING acronym, described below, was presented as a lighthearted heuristic to aid fieldworkers in their attempt to document and analyze instances of language use, which he termed "speech events".[clarification needed] Embedded in the acronym is an application and extension of Roman Jakobson's arguments concerning the multifunctionality of language. He articulated other, more technical, often typologically oriented approaches to variation in patterns of language use across speech communities in a series of articles.[11][12]

As a result of discussions primarily with Ray Birdwhistell at the University of Pennsylvania, in his later work, Hymes renamed the "ethnography of speaking" the "ethnography of communication" to reflect the broadening of focus from instances of language production to the ways in which communication (including oral, written, broadcast, acts of receiving/listening) is conventionalized in a given community of users, and to include nonverbal as well as verbal behavior.[13][14]

With Erving Goffman and John Szwed, he established the Center for Urban Ethnography in 1969. The goal was to fund research by both faculty and students at Penn that used urban ethnography as the primary method, and much innovative research resulted. The first major grant came from the National Institute of Mental Health, funding much research emphasizing different racial and ethnic groups; the second from the U.S. National Institute of Education, funding classroom ethnography.[15] With Erving Goffman he co-edited the series Conduct and Communication for the University of Pennsylvania Press as a way to support research they considered most valuable.[16]

Hymes promoted 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.[17] 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".[18] He created the Dell Hymes Model of Speaking and coined the term communicative competence within language education.

Narratives can be entertaining stories or important myths about the nature of the world; in addition, narratives can 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.[19] He feels that the translated versions of the stories are inadequate for understanding the stories' roles 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 that the text embodies.

Hymes was the founding editor for the journal Language in Society, which he edited for 22 years.[1]

The "S-P-E-A-K-I-N-G" model

Main article: SPEAKING

Hymes developed a valuable model to assist the identification and labeling of components of linguistic interaction that was driven by his view that, in order to speak a language correctly, one needs not only to learn its vocabulary and grammar, but also the context in which words are used.

The model had sixteen components that can be applied to many sorts of discourse: message form; message content; setting; scene; speaker/sender; addressor; hearer/receiver/audience; addressee; purposes (outcomes); purposes (goals); key; channels; forms of speech; norms of interaction; norms of interpretation; and genres.[20]

Hymes constructed the acronym SPEAKING, under which he grouped the sixteen components within eight divisions:[21]

Setting and scene

"Setting refers to the time and place of a speech act and, in general, to the physical circumstances" - [22] The living room in the grandparents' home might be a setting for a family story. Scene is the "psychological setting" or "cultural definition" of a setting, including characteristics such as range of formality and sense of play or seriousness.[23] The family story may be told at a reunion celebrating the grandparents' anniversary. At times, the family would be festive and playful; at other times, serious and commemorative.


Speaker and audience - Linguists will make distinctions within these categories; for example, the audience can be distinguished as addressees and other hearers.[24] At the family reunion, an aunt might tell a story to the young female relatives, but males, although not addressed, might also hear the narrative.


Purposes, goals, and outcomes - [25] The aunt may tell a story about the grandmother to entertain the audience, teach the young women, and honor the grandmother.

Act sequence

Form and order of the event - The aunt's story might begin as a response to a toast to the grandmother. The story's plot and development would have a sequence structured by the aunt. Possibly there would be a collaborative interruption during the telling. Finally, the group might applaud the tale and move onto another subject or activity.


Clues that establish the "tone, manner, or spirit" of the speech act - [26] The aunt might imitate the grandmother's voice and gestures in a playful way, or she might address the group in a serious voice emphasizing the sincerity and respect of the praise the story expresses.


Forms and styles of speech - [27] The aunt might speak in a casual register with many dialect features or might use a more formal register and careful grammatically "standard" forms.


Social rules governing the event and the participants' actions and reaction - In a playful story by the aunt, the norms might allow many audience interruptions and collaboration, or possibly those interruptions might be limited to participation by older females. A serious, formal story by the aunt might call for attention to her and no interruptions as norms.


The kind of speech act or event; for the example used here, the kind of story - The aunt might tell a character anecdote about the grandmother for entertainment, or an exemplum as moral instruction. Different disciplines develop terms for kinds of speech acts, and speech communities sometimes have their own terms for types.[28]

Family and personal life

Hymes' spouse, Virginia Dosch Hymes, was also a sociolinguist and folklorist.[3] They had met at Indiana University and married in 1954.[29]

Religious associations

Hymes was a member of the Guild of Scholars of The Episcopal Church.

He was a congregant of St. Paul Memorial Church and Peace Lutheran Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.[29]


Hymes was awarded the Gold Medal of Philology in 2006.[30]



  1. ^ a b Dell Hymes. 1997. Language in Society. In The Early Days of Sociolinguistics: Memories and Reflections, ed. by Christina Bratt Paulston and G. Richard Tucker, pp. 243–245. Dallas: SIL International.
  2. ^ "Reed Magazine: Ways We Speak (1/4)". Retrieved 2022-01-01.
  3. ^ a b Bromley, Anne E. (November 18, 2009). "U.Va. Professor Emeritus Dell Hymes, Influential Linguistic Anthropologist, Has Died". UVA Today. Retrieved November 17, 2022.
  4. ^ A fellow folklore graduate student at Indiana was his former Reed classmate, the poet Gary Snyder
  5. ^ Howard, Victoria; Mason, Catharine; Jacobs, Melville (2021). Clackamas Chinook performance art: verse form interpretations. Studies in the anthropology of North American Indians series. Lincoln Bloomington: University of Nebraska Press American Indian Research Institute, Indiana University. ISBN 978-1-4962-2411-8.
  6. ^ Sally A. Downey, Dell Hathaway Hymes, 82, Penn education dean Retrieved on November 19, 2009.
  7. ^ O'Donnell, Patrick (December 1, 1988). "Administration tried to downplay allegations of sexism". The Daily Pennsylvanian. Archived from the original on March 15, 2020. Retrieved January 5, 2019.
  8. ^ Elegant, Naomi (April 11, 2018). "Penn removes portrait of former GSE dean with alleged history of sexual harassment". The Daily Pennsylvanian. Retrieved November 17, 2022.
  9. ^ Hymes (2003), p. x.
  10. ^ Hymes (2003), pp. ix-x.
  11. ^ Hymes, D. (1972). Models of the interaction of language and social life. In J. Gumperz & D. Hymes (Eds.), Directions in sociolinguistics: The ethnography of communication (pp. 35–71). New York: Holt, Rhinehart & Winston.
  12. ^ Hymes, D. (1964). Two types of linguistic relativity: Some examples from American Indian ethnography. Sociolinguistics. WilliamBright, ed, 114–167.
  13. ^ Leeds-Hurwitz, W. (1984). On the relationship of the 'ethnography of speaking' to the 'ethnography of communication.' Papers in Linguistics: International Journal of Human Communication, 17(1), 7–32.
  14. ^ Leeds-Hurwitz, W., & Sigman, S. J. (2010). The Penn tradition. In W. Leeds-Hurwitz (Ed.), The social history of language and social interaction research: People, places, ideas. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, p. 236.
  15. ^ Leeds-Hurwitz, W., & Sigman, S. J. (2010). The Penn tradition. In W. Leeds-Hurwitz (Ed.), The social history of language and social interaction research: People, places, ideas. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, p. 254-6.
  16. ^ Leeds-Hurwitz, W., & Sigman, S. J. (2010). The Penn tradition. In W. Leeds-Hurwitz (Ed.), The social history of language and social interaction research: People, places, ideas. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, p. 256-8.
  17. ^ He also had to master the grammars of several Native American languages in the process, and was probably the last person who could recite texts in Clackamas Chinook, an extinct language.
  18. ^ Hymes 2003:vii
  19. ^ Hymes 1981:6–7
  20. ^ Hymes, D. (1974). Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 53–62.
  21. ^ Note that the categories are simply listed in the order demanded by the mnemonic, not by importance
  22. ^ Hymes (1974), p. 55.
  23. ^ Hymes (1974), pp. 55–56.
  24. ^ Hymes (1974), pp. 54 and 56.
  25. ^ Hymes (1974), pp. 56–57.
  26. ^ Hymes (1974), p. 57.
  27. ^ Hymes (1974), pp. 58–60.
  28. ^ Anticipating that he might be accused of creating an (English language) "ethnocentric" mnemonic — and, thus, by implication, an (English language) "ethnocentric" theory — Hymes comments that he could have, for instance, generated a French language mnemonic of P-A-R-L-A-N-T: namely, participants, actes, raison (resultat), locale, agents (instrumentalities), normes, ton (key), types (genres) (1974, p. 62).
  29. ^ a b "Dell Hathaway Hymes's Obituary". November 17, 2009. Retrieved November 17, 2022.
  30. ^ "Ancient Medal Winners". International Society of Philology. Archived from the original on 2016-03-03. Retrieved 2018-06-22.

Further reading

Educational offices Preceded byNeal Gross Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education 1975–1987 Succeeded byMarvin Lazerson