Dell H. Hymes (1927–2009)


Address correspondence to:Jan Blommaert
Tilburg University
P.O. Box 90153
5000 LE Tilburg
The Netherlands

Dell Hymes died in November 2009. He was arguably – at least to my mind – the most central among the founders of our field, if only because of his pioneering and continuing public advocacy for sociolinguistics as an enterprise in a period when linguistics was notably inhospitable to such a view. Hymes was founder-editor of Language and Society, our elder-sister publication as a general journal in sociolinguistics, which he edited for 21 volumes (1972–92). As such, he could well have viewed the Journal of Sociolinguistics as a competitive upstart. But when Nikolas Coupland and I approached him in 1995 to join our inaugural Editorial Board, he was warm in his support and advice. We appreciated this generosity of spirit. With the ‘turn to ethnography’ of the past decade, his work has been of increasing interest to the current generations of sociolinguists. The theme issue on ‘Linguistic Ethnography’ (edited by Ben Rampton, Janet Maybin and Karin Tusting) which we published in 2007, was largely inspired by his work. The editorial team is indebted to Jan Blommaert for this memoir and commentary on Hymes and his significance in sociolinguistics. See also the previously unpublished Hymes article on p. 569.

Allan Bell


Upon the passing away of Dell Hymes in November 2009, several obituaries appeared in major journals documenting his life and career in great chronological detail. Several special issues were recently published paying tribute to Hymes, and more are in the making. It seems that Dell Hymes’ death triggered a wave of sympathy and recognition he did not receive in the last part of his life – an effect of the controversies and sensitivities surrounding this figure of power and influence during large parts of his career. It is good that the Journal of Sociolinguistics devotes space to him too. After all, Hymes was one of the genuine founding fathers of sociolinguistics, and his work remains an influence on what most of us practice today.

I only got to know Hymes personally during the very final days of his career as an almost retired professor at the University of Virginia. I was never part of the generation of scholars that had intense contact with Hymes during his heyday, when he gathered an extraordinary group of students and scholars around him at the University of Pennsylvania as Dean of Education in the 1970s, founded Language in Society and was President of the American Anthropological Association, the Linguistic Society of America, the American Folklore Association and the American Association for Applied Linguistics. In those days I was merely a student who avidly read his works, struggled with the theoretical and methodological complexity in them, and became devoted to an ethnographic and critical paradigm because of them. Hymes, to me, was an early discovery; I read him as an early undergraduate and, in retrospect, always considered that an advantage. I couldn't claim to understand much of his work at that point, but later when I developed myself in linguistics and anthropology, these early readings of Hymes’ work provided me with a model of synthesis – a frame in which so many things could fit and begin to make sense, not as isolated themes and approaches but as elements of a broad programmatic vision, sketched by Hymes, of the study of language in society.

This is how I prefer to remember him and to use his legacy: as a framework that enables the incorporation of a vast field of social-scientific angles, tools and instruments. Hymesian sociolinguistics – which he himself used to prefer to call ethnography – is a full-blown theoretical program, designed and constructed as an alternative for the Chomskyan hegemony in the 1970s, grounded in the traditions of anthropology, folklore and linguistics, and thus, concerned not with language in and for itself, but with language because it offers us a privileged understanding of society. Hymes’ anthropological roots are crucial for an understanding of the scope of his program and ambition. Hymes took anthropology literally as the ‘study of man’, and language studies had to tell us something about man, about human nature and human society, and in particular about that link between human nature and human society which we call culture. Hymesian ethnography is therefore profoundly humanistic, in the sense that it takes human life as its object and target, and it allows us to address the producers of language not just as ‘speaker/hearers’, but as subjects in the anthropological and broader social-scientific sense of the term. How people understand one another, why they want such a thing and why they spend such monumental efforts doing so, those were the questions Hymes took as his central heuristics. Voice – the capacity to make oneself understood – was always a central concern in this: understanding is never just a practical and instrumental phenomenon, it is a social, cultural and political praxis that creates, sustains or changes subjects, and places them in relations to one another. As a Marxist, Hymes would qualify these relations invariably as unequal, and both his ethnopoetic reconstructions of defunct native oral poetry from the Pacific Coast and his work in education were inspired and driven by a recognition that language is not just an opportunity but a problem for many people. His sociolinguistics was targeted at real and critical problems of language in society, it was, in other words, a fundamentally political approach to language. The humanism that was central to his work was a Marxist humanism that had an emancipatory and liberating political struggle as its finality. And just like Marx’ humanism, neither Hymes’ fundamental commitment to human development, nor his implicit view of what people are and how they relate to one another, have received the attention they deserved.

This, alas, counts for so much of his work. Hymes was not always an engaging author, and as a public speaker I have rarely come across anyone worse. I chaired the plenary lecture he gave at the 1998 International Pragmatics Conference in Reims, and I found myself sitting next to an utterly nervous, almost incapacitated speaker who delivered superb, fantastic contents in the most inadequate style of public oratory – a problem of voice he himself had so often documented in his own work, and of which, apparently, he had his own rich experiences. In a recent issue of Language in Society, several of Hymes’ former students testified about his challenging lecturing style, saying that unless one took a front-row seat and concentrated hard, much of what Hymes delivered during his lectures would be lost.

His written work, too, is often dense and complex. Hymes, of course, has written highly readable, sometimes almost pamphlet-like texts. The editorial notes (or rather, essays) he added, for instance, to the readings in his 1964 collection Language in Culture and Society are a marvel in didactic terms, and students interested in linguistic anthropology will find there a clear definition and delineation of the scope of this discipline. The same goes for the introduction to Reinventing Anthropology: the text is combative, almost militant, and brings fundamental insights to readers in an accessible, user-friendly way. A little-known brochure from 1963, in fact a published version of a lecture for the Voice of America called ‘A perspective for linguistic anthropology’, is a text that should be on the compulsory reading list of every Sociolinguistics 101 course. In just a dozen pages, Hymes summarizes the history of language as an anthropological object and of linguistics as a twentieth-century science. Having stated the gap between this object and the science that should address it, he then sketches a programmatic view for the approach he was then designing, linguistic anthropology. It's a jewel of solidly intellectual didactic writing, and it is my secret hope that some journal would reprint it in the near future.

But even in such accessible work, there is a layer of tremendous complexity, because Hymes draws on a massive amount of knowledge of the Boasian anthropological tradition, of philology and of linguistic structuralism, a phenomenal control of linguistic and narrative analytic detail, and a broad range of large theoretical and political issues palatable only for the very erudite. My second year undergraduates of some years ago will forever remember (and curse) me for having assigned Hymes’ essay ‘Two types of Linguistic Relativity’ to them – a paper of immense value for understanding that foundational point Hymes made, that languages are not just linguistic systems but also, and foremost, sociolinguistic systems. The paper was, to put it bluntly, unreadable. And consequently it was not read. The same goes for other landmark papers of his. ‘Models of the interaction of language and social life’, in the epochal Directions in Sociolinguistics Hymes edited with John Gumperz, is another case in point, as is the invaluable ‘Breakthrough into performance’, a paper that revolutionized the field of narrative analysis and, en passant, also makes some superb points about ethnographic technique and modes of research. I will not mention In Vain I Tried To Tell You, a book everyone should read regardless of race, class, age or gender, but which demands quite an effort to digest. The point is that those who really wish to enter into the theoretically more developed parts of Hymes’ oeuvre must come equipped and prepared, because it is tough reading.

Such work has laid the foundations for what we now know as linguistic anthropology, and in fact, for what we now understand as the ethnographic branch of sociolinguistics. Those who thoroughly read and studied it were invariably profoundly influenced by it, and it is impossible to read contemporary work without hearing the resonances of Hymes’ fundamental insights, even if such resonances are muffled or kept implicit. We see an increasing interest in ethnographic approaches in our fields of study, and one hopes that this increasing interest will be articulated in a renewed and serious attention to Hymes’ oeuvre. That means that people will have to talk about more than that S.P.E.A.K.I.N.G. mnemotechnic when they talk about Hymes, and do justice to the fullness of his work. That includes, in my view, at least the following points:

  • • One: language needs to be seen as a sociolinguistic system, i.e. a system that only exists and operates in conjunction with social rules and relations.
  • • Two: this sociolinguistic system needs to be understood not by reference to ‘Language’ with a capital L (the things that have a name, such as Latin, French, Russian), but by reference to repertoires. Such repertoires are an organized complex of specific resources such as varieties, modes, genres, registers and styles.
  • • Three: in every social unit, such resources are unevenly distributed; there are no identical repertoires among speakers, and inequality is the key to understanding language in society. Nobody is the perfect native speaker, because nobody possesses all the resources any language makes available. No one speaks all of the language. And, no, not all languages are equal. They should be, but they are not in actual fact.
  • • Four: repertoires can only be understood by attending to their functions, i.e. to their actual and contextual deployment, not to any abstract or a priori assessment of what they mean or of what they are worth. A standard variety of language is not always ‘the best’ variety, and a ‘sub-standard’ variety is not always a ‘bad’ variety (as HipHop makes so clear). The function of particular forms of speech is a contextual, empirical given, not an a priori.
  • • Five: this is why a sociolinguistic system requires ethnographic inspection, in which particular and unique instances can be related to larger patterns and to social structure – the key to finding out what there is to find is not to ask, but to observe and describe in relation to a general theory of social behavior. Ethnography is a ‘descriptive theory’ in Hymes’ words.
  • • Six: such an ethnography requires a historical awareness, and this clashes with the synchronic view of contemporary linguistics since Saussure. If we want to understand the actual functions of forms of language, we have to know where they come from, how they entered people's repertoires, and how they relate to larger patterns of social and cultural behavior.
  • • Seven: all of this is situated in a real world of real problems and issues, not in an abstract or ideal universe. Ethnography has mud on its boots.
  • • And eight: no social cause is served by poor work. Critical commitment demands a never ending attention to theoretical and methodological improvement. If we believe that languages and their speakers should be equal, we have to understand their actual inequalities precisely and in detail, and not be satisfied by reiterating the slogans of equality. We have to do the hard work of describing, understanding and explaining, and we have to do that over and over again.

I could add several other points, but the eight I have listed may do as an alternative for the eight points listed under S.P.E.A.K.I.N.G. If people (re)turn to Hymes’ work with these points in mind, which I firmly hope, I am convinced that they will find a treasure there – a theoretical and methodological treasure, surely, but also a selection and motivation of topics and fields of activity worth considering, and an ethos of being a student of language in society. No one who has ever ventured into his work left without nuggets in his/her pocket. May that tradition survive the man.