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Another sociolinguistic concept developed by Hymes has become the foundation for a wide range of pedagogical approaches in language education: the notion of “communicative competence.” Hymes developed it to broaden Chomsky’s narrowly grammatical notion of linguistic competence, which he said failed to account for the full range of what is involved in “knowing” a language: “We learn when it is appropriate to speak, when not, what to talk about with whom and in what manner,” Hymes explained. In other words, a person needs to know not only what is grammatically correct but also what is appropriate.

Dell Hymes camping it up in the Frenchesí study in the 1950s

In the early 1970s, John Szwed, Erving Goffman, and Hymes founded the Center for Urban Ethnography at the University of Pennsylvania. Szwed recalls that Goffman, a renowned sociologist, was famously critical and acerbic in his judgments, but Hymes was never the victim of his coruscating tongue. One day, Szwed asked Goffman why. Goffman’s reply: “That’s because he’s a principled man and principled people are dangerous.”

Meanwhile, Hymes was writing poems. Szwed says Hymes often repeated a question posed by Sapir, who had also written poetry: “If you wrote a sonnet and put it in a drawer, was that culture?” Hymes often wrote poems he didn’t intend anyone to read—personal poems, written for one person. And because he believed narrative and story should be given more credit as forms of knowledge, he included poems and personal narratives in his own academic writing.

One of Hymes’ notable legacies, colleagues say, is his role as a galvanizer and fomenter of politically engaged scholarship. It is shown to maximum effect in the essay collection Reinventing Anthropology,a call to anthropologists to acknowledge that they are not engaged in a process of objective, value-free inquiry and to recognize the obligations they incur to the often marginalized communities where they do their work. In his editor’s introduction, Hymes wrote: “This book is for people for whom ‘the way things are’ is not reason enough for the way things are.”

Two Poems by Dell Hymes

Remembering Lewis & Clark

That summer my father went to camp
(Oregon National Guard)
while our mother installed us in a cabin,
near Seaside, near the beach—
One morning I came upon a memorial,
inscribed to Lewis & Clark—
here they had boiled bits of the Pacific,
made ocean potable.
No one around, I scrambled past the fence,
then out, a handful of sand
tucked in my pocket—as if it had been theirs.
Where now, I do not know.
But I can inhabit that boy, curious,
alone,
reaching out for some bits of an unknown world.


Originally published in Windfall, Spring 2005

A Poem to Erving Goffman

“I should like to close with a short poem. It is not
memorial in conception, but mock-heroic, something
that came to mind over the winter holiday before
Erving died. He seemed to like it. It has the virtue
at least of treating the same theme as these remarks.”


On First Looking into a Manuscript by Goffman*


Many speak of speaking, who were dumb
When rationalist Chomsky’s unrelenting thumb
Pressed hard on any antecedent –ist,
Behavioral-, structural-; they squirmed but raged
unmissed;
Social interaction went down the taps,
Conflated with fatigue and memory lapse.


Now, all allow, even the most dogmatic,
One should be at least a bit “pragmatic”;
But happy the few, in early sixties Berkeley,
Who saw the neglected situation starkly,
Whole, saw speaking tongue-tied at its core
Until exchanged, entwined, in something more,


Itself one strategic modality,
Framed, inseparable from the solidarity
Of interacting humankind. You sloughed
Methodologies, set out to tell what oft
Is done, but ne’er quite well expressed. And until
Well expressed, well christened, ill seen. Gentle


GOFFMAN, so much of such seeing we owe, we know,
To thy quick quirky quizzing of our status quo.


*Subtitled “Some problems in the ethnography of
discourse.” January 1982; revised 9 July 1983

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