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reed magazine logoWinter 2008
Winishut family house at Warm Springs

Winishut family house at Warm Springs

Hymes later made an acclaimed ethnopoetic retranslation of the Sun’s myth and presented it as part of his presidential address to the American Folklore Society in 1974. The myth is about a chief who is married to the sun and has all the riches he needs, but still wants more. Eventually he is cursed and destroys entire villages of his own people. Hymes interprets the myth as an allegory representing the epidemics that decimated the tribes of the Lower Columbia in the 1800s. He read his most recent translation of the myth to a group of linguists in 2003, just after the invasion of Iraq.

It was at Indiana that Hymes met Virginia Margaret Dosch, an anthropologist and folklorist who was doing graduate work there. They married in 1954 and went to Warm Springs for the summer. Over the next ten years, while Hymes was teaching at Harvard and then Berkeley, they continued to visit the reservation. In 1965, Hymes began a 22-year tenure at the University of Pennsylvania, serving variously as professor of anthropology, sociology, linguistics, and folklore, and later as dean of the university’s graduate school of education. He moved to the University of Virginia in 1987, where he was Commonwealth Professor of Anthropology and English (he became emeritus in 2000).

In the early 1970s, Dell and Virginia bought a small house in Rhododendron, Oregon, to use as a base for their summer research on two of the three major languages of the Warm Springs Reservation. While Dell concentrated on Wasco, Virginia worked on Sahaptin. They were also raising four children. Their youngest son, Ken, says some of his fondest childhood memories are of summers in Oregon, and of the people his parents knew on the reservation. He recalls, in particular, Hiram Smith, “a friend and informant with whom my Dad spent much time over many summers. He was part Wasco and part Chinese. He was a charming and wily person in my memory, who taught me curse words in Wasco. He fished on the river from the rickety scaffolding.”

Dell Hymes’ ethnographic work at Warm Springs led to a series of books and articles which are central to the field of ethnopoetics. In them, he demonstrated that most Native American narrative performances (taken from texts gathered by Boas and Sapir and presented in prose, and also collected from Hymes’ own informants, such as Hiram Smith) are actually organized in complex verse forms. Virginia, who analyzed Sahaptin texts, later noted in her scholarship that those early prose transcriptions obscured “a vast world of poetry waiting to be released by those of us with some knowledge of the language.” Such retranslation requires enormous technical skill, and Hymes developed techniques of what he called “verse analysis” to bring out hidden meanings and relations and restore imaginative life to the texts. His understanding of the aesthetic organization of these texts drew inspiration from Kenneth Burke, a literary critic whom he cites as one of his main influences.

But Hymes’ intense drive to understand the texts on their own terms went beyond the aesthetic. According to Jan Blommaert, chair of languages at the Institute of Education, University of London, “Hymes’ ethnopoetic analysis is predicated explicitly on concerns of justice and equality. Hymes sees ethnopoetic analysis as a tactic for restoring, reconstructing, and repatriating the functions of narratives.”

It wasn’t only in ethnopoetics that Hymes was breaking new ground. In 1962, he published an essay titled “The Ethnography of Speaking” that opened up a whole new field of inquiry in sociolinguistics.

Hymes, says John Gumperz, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California–Berkeley, was one of the first to systematically critique the dominant paradigm in linguistics—the Chomskyan (or, in those early days, “generative”) approach, which takes as its object of study “well-formed sentences” produced by “ideal speakers and hearers.” Hymes’ essential point, says Gumperz, is that people never actually speak those kinds of sentences. Hymes proposed that instead of looking at language as an ideal, closed grammatical system, we should instead study language as it is actually used by real people, embedded in its social and cultural context. Hymes proposed that language use in any actual community was an organized set of practices, a series of speech-acts, making up speech events—happenings with beginnings and ends. It was an insight that redefined the primary unit of study for linguists and allowed for the application of ethnographic methods to the study of language.

Joel Sherzer, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas, says this of Hymes’ call to study language as a practice rooted in social and cultural context: “Especially in the ’60s, a lot of students and professors felt the need for a term, a discipline, an approach that went beyond the traditional focuses of pure linguistics and anthropology. It was an area that needed to be attended to.”


reed magazine logoWinter 2008