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Dell Hymes

Dell Hathaway Hymes (June 7, 1927, Portland, Oregon – November 13, 2009, 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.


  • Early life and education 1
  • Influences on his work 2
  • Significance of his work 3
  • The "S-P-E-A-K-I-N-G" model 4
    • Setting and Scene 4.1
    • Participants 4.2
    • Ends 4.3
    • Act Sequence 4.4
    • Key 4.5
    • Instrumentalities 4.6
    • Norms 4.7
    • Genre 4.8
  • Publications 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8

Early life and education

He was educated at Reed College, studying under David H. French, and graduated in 1950 after a stint in prewar Korea. His work in the Army as a decoder is part of what influenced him to become a linguist. Hymes earned his Ph.D. from Indiana University in 1955,[1] and took 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.

Hymes remained at Harvard for five years, leaving in 1960 to join the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley. He spent five years at Berkeley as well, and then joined 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 became Dean of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education in 1975.

He served as president of the Linguistic Society of America in 1982, of the American Anthropological Association in 1983, and of the American Folklore Society - the last person to have held all three positions. He was a member of the Guild of Scholars of The Episcopal Church. 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.[2]

His spouse, Virginia Hymes, is also a sociolinguist and folklorist.

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, anthropologist Ray L. Birdwhistell, 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”.[3] 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, Claude Lévi-Strauss.[4]

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 in use, which he termed "speech events." Embedded in the acronym is an application and extension of 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.[5][6]

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.[7][8]

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.[9] 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” (Hymes 2003:vii). He created the Dell Hymes Model of Speaking and coined the term communicative competence within language education.

In addition to being entertaining stories or important myths about the nature of the world, narratives also convey the importance of aboriginal environmental management knowledge such as fish spawning cycles in local rivers or the disappearance 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 (Hymes 1981:6-7). He feels that the translated versions of the stories are inadequate for understanding their role 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.[10]

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

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.[11]

Hymes constructed the acronym SPEAKING, under which he grouped the sixteen components within eight divisions:[12]

Setting and Scene

"Setting refers to the time and place of a speech act and, in general, to the physical circumstances".[13] 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.[14] 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.[15] 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.[16] 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.[17] 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.[18] 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.[19]


  • Cazden, C.B., John, V.P., & Hymes, D.H. (Eds.). (1972). Functions of language in the classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Gumperz, J. J., & Hymes, D. (Eds.). (1964). The Ethnography of Communication. Special issue of American Anthropologist, 66 (6), Part II: 137-54.
  • Gumperz, J. J., & Hymes, D. (1972). Directions in sociolinguistics: The ethnography of communication. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.
  • Hymes, D.H. (1961). Functions of speech: An evolutionary approach. In F. Gruber (Ed.), Anthropology and education. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.
  • Hymes, D. (1962). The Ethnography of Speaking. In T. Gladwin & W. C. Sturtevant (Eds.), Anthropology and Human Behavior (pp. 13–53). Washington, DC: Anthropology Society of Washington.
  • Hymes, D.H. (1963). Toward a history of linguistic anthropology. Anthropological Linguistics, 5(1), 59-103.
  • Hymes, D.H. (1964a). Directions in (ethno-)linguistic theory. In A.K. Romney & R.G. D’Andrade (Eds.), Transcultural studies of cognition (pp. 6-56). American Anthropologist, 66(3), part 2.
  • Hymes, D. (Ed.). (1964) Language in Culture and Society: A Reader in Linguistics and Anthropology. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Hymes, D.H. (1967). Models of the interaction of language and social setting. Journal of Social Issues, 23(2), 8-38.
  • Hymes, D.H. (1967). The anthropology of communication. In F.E. Dance (Ed.), Human communication theory: Original essays. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  • Hymes, D.H. (1970). Linguistic method in ethnography: Its development in the United States. In P. Garvin (Ed.), Method and theory in linguistics. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Hymes, D. (1971). Sociolinguistics and the ethnography of speaking. In E. Ardener (Ed.), Social anthropology and language (pp. 47-93). London: Routledge.
  • Hymes, D. (1971). On linguistic theory, communicative competence, and the education of disadvantaged children. In M.L. Wax, S.A. Diamond & F. Gearing (Eds.), Anthropological perspectives on education (pp. 51-66). New York: Basic Books.
  • Hymes, D. (Ed.). (1971). Pidginization and Creolization of Languages. London: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hymes, D.H. (1972). On communicative competence. In J.B. Pride & J. Holmes (Eds.), Sociolinguistics (pp. 269-293). London: Penguin.
  • Hymes, D.H. (1972). Editorial introduction. Language in Society, 1, 1-14.
  • Hymes, D. (Ed.). (1972). Reinventing Anthropology. New York: Pantheon.
  • Hymes, D.H. (1972). Toward ethnographies of communication. In P.P. Giglioli (Ed.), Language and social context (pp. 21-44). Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Hymes, D.H. (1973). Toward linguistic competence. Working Papers in Sociolinguistics, No. 16.
  • Hymes, D.H. (1974). Ways of speaking. In R. Bauman & J. Sherzer (Eds.), Explorations in the ethnography of speaking (pp. 433-452). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hymes, D.H. (Ed.). (1974). Studies in the history of linguistics: Traditions and paradigms. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Hymes, D. (1974). Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Hymes, D.H. (1974). An ethnographic perspective. New Literary History, 5, 187-201.
  • Hymes, D.H. (1974). Review of Noam Chomsky. In G. Harman (Ed.), "On Noam Chomsky: Critical essays" (pp. 316-333). Garden City, NY: Anchor.
  • Hymes, D.H. (1975). Breakthrough into performance. In D. Ben-Amos & K. Goldstein (Eds.), Folklore: Performance and communication (pp. 11-74). The Hague: Mouton.
  • Hymes, D.H. (1976). Toward linguistic competence. Sociologische Gids, 4, 217-239.
  • Hymes, D.H. (1976). Discovering oral performance and measured verse in American Indian narrative. New Literary History, 8, 431-457.
  • Hymes, D. (1980) In five year patterns. In B. H. Davis & R. K. O'Cain (Eds.), First Person Singular (pp. 201-213). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Hymes, D. (1980). Language in Education: Ethnolinguistic Essays. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.
  • Hymes, D., & Fought, J. (1981). American Structuralism. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Hymes, D. (1981). "In Vain I Tried to Tell You": Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Hymes, D. (1983). Essays in the History of Linguistic Anthropology. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Hymes, D.H. (1984). Vers la compétence de communication. (Trans. F. Mugler). Paris: Hatier.
  • Hymes, D.H. (1985). Toward linguistic competence. AILA Review/Revue de l’AILA (Association Internationale de Linguistique Appliquée), 2, 9-23.
  • Hymes, D.H. (1992). Inequality in language: Taking for granted. Working Papers in Educational Linguistics, 8(1), 1-30.
  • Hymes, D.H. (1993). Inequality in language: Taking for granted. In J.E. Alatis (Ed.), Language, communication, and social meaning (pp. 23-40). Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.
  • Hymes, D. (1996). Ethnography, Linguistics, Narrative Inequality: Toward an Understanding of Voice. London: Taylor & Francis.
  • Hymes, D.H. (1998). When is oral narrative poetry? Generative form and its pragmatic conditions. Pragmatics, 8(4), 475-500.
  • Hymes, D.H. (1999). Boas on the threshold of ethnopoetics. In R. Darnell & L. Valentine (Eds.), Theorizing the Americanist tradition. University of Toronto Press.
  • Hymes, D.H. (2000). The emergence of sociolinguistics: A reply to Samarin. Dialogue, 312-315.
  • Hymes, D.H. (2001). Poetry. In A. Duranti (Ed.), Key terms in language and culture. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Hymes, D.H. (2001). Preface. Textus, 14, 189-192.
  • Hymes, D. (2003). Now I Know Only So Far: Essays in Ethnopoetics. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.


  1. ^ A fellow folklore graduate student at Indiana was his former Reed classmate, the poet Gary Snyder
  2. ^ Sally A. Downey, Dell Hathaway Hymes, 82, Penn education dean Retrieved on November 19, 2009.
  3. ^ Hymes (2003), p.x.
  4. ^ Hymes (2003), pp.ix-x.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Hymes, D. (1964). Two types of linguistic relativity: Some examples from American Indian ethnography. Sociolinguistics. WilliamBright, ed, 114-167.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Hymes (1974), p.53-62.
  12. ^ Note that the categories are simply listed in the order demanded by the mnemonic, not by importance
  13. ^ Hymes (1974), p.55.
  14. ^ Hymes (1974), pp.55-56.
  15. ^ Hymes (1974), pp.54 and 56.
  16. ^ Hymes (1974), pp.56-57.
  17. ^ Hymes (1974), p.57.
  18. ^ Hymes (1974), pp.58-60.
  19. ^ 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).

Further reading

  • Bauman, R., & Sherzer, J. (Eds.). (1974). Explorations in the ethnography of communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Blommaert, J. (2006). Ethnopoetics as functional reconstruction: Dell Hymes narrative view of the world. Functions of Language, 13(2), 255-275.
  • Blommaert, J. (2010). Obituary: Dell H. Hymes (1927-2009). Journal of Sociolinguistics, 14(5), 693-697.
  • Cazden, C.B. (2011). Hymes’ construct of communicative competence. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 42(4), 364-369.
  • Coste, D., de Pietro, J.-F., & Moore, D. (2012). Hymes et le palimpseste de la compétence de communication: Tours, détours et retours en didactique des langues. Langage & Société, 139, 103-123.
  • Darnell, R. (2006). Keeping the Faith: A Legacy of Native American Ethnography, Ethnohistory, and Psychology. In S. A. Kan & P. T. Strong (Eds.),New Perspectives on Native North America: Cultures, Histories, and Representations, (pp. 3–16). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  • Hornberger, N.H. (2009). Hymes’s linguistics and ethnography in education. Text & Talk, 29(3), 347-358.
  • Hornberger, N.H. (2011). Dell H. Hymes: His scholarship and legacy in anthropology and education. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 42(4), 310-318.
  • Johnson, K., & Johnson, H. (1998). Communicative competence. Encyclopedic dictionary of applied linguistics (pp. 62-67). Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Johnstone, B. (2010). Remembering Dell. Language in Society, 39(3), 307-315.
  • Johnstone, B., & Marcellino, W. (2010). Dell Hymes and the ethnography of communication. In R. Wodak, B. Johnstone & P. Kerswill (Eds.), The Sage Handbook of Sociolinguistics (pp. 57-66). London: Sage.
  • Keating, E. (2001). The ethnography of communication. In P. Atkinson, A. Coffey, S. Delamont, J. Lofland & L. Lofland (Eds.), Handbook of ethnography (pp. 286-301). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • 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 (pp. 235-270). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
  • Masquelier, B., & Trimaille, C. (2012). Introduction Dell Hymes: Heritages, débats, renouvellements, branchements. Langage & Société, 139, 5-19.
  • Winkin, Y. (1984). Education et ethnographie de la communication. Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, 52/53, 115-116.
  • Winkin, Y. (1984). Hymes’ theory of ethnography. Research on Language in Social Interaction, 17(1), 43-51.

External links

  • Dell Hymes' personal web site
Educational offices
Preceded by
Neal Gross
Dean of the
Succeeded by
Marvin Lazerson
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