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reed magazine logoWinter 2008

Dell Hymes 50 revolutionized the field of sociolinguistics by paying attention to the form stories take.

By Rebecca Koffman

Perhaps the most influential of all the linguists and anthropologists trained up in the rich milieu of David and Kay French’s Warm Springs Project (see page 12), Dell Hymes ’50 has spent a lifetime exploring what he calls the border country between anthropology, linguistics, poetry, and folklore. In particular, he has focused his intense intellectual gaze on the multiple relationships between language and culture. His key insight—that language must be studied as a social phenomenon, embedded in its cultural context, rather than as a self-sufficient, isolated grammatical system—was central to the development of sociolinguistics, a field of which he is often considered the founder.

Another major strand of his large and complex body of work is his pioneering work in ethnopoetics, the study of linguistic structures in oral literature: myths, folktales, songs, and ceremonial speech. Hymes has produced penetrating re-readings of myths told by Columbia River Indians in their dying languages, restoring to them some of the poetic form, artistry, and meaning lost when they were transcribed as prose and “tidied up” by earlier anthropologists. A concern for social justice has been evident in both his rigorous documentary work and his theoretical reflections.

Hymes was born in Portland in 1927 and raised in a working-class Southeast Portland neighborhood. His father’s family lived in the small town of Summit near Corvallis and his mother was from Washington State. In an interview for the Reed Oral History Project, conducted by fellow linguist Suzanne Wong Scollon ’69, Hymes recalled his decision to go to Reed in 1944, at the age of 17, as one of simple financial necessity:


reed magazine logoWinter 2008