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Still learning from Dell Hymes

I join Leila in expressing my enthusiasm for this year’s Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association. As always, there was much to see, much to learn, and many friends and colleagues to catch up with.

I was particularly moved by a memorial for Dell Hymes, who passed on November 13th. There was no prepared eulogy; rather individuals who wished to were invited to share their remembrances of Hymes. A great many distinguished anthropologists, mostly from linguistic or sociocultural anthropology, spoke about the influence he had on their lives and careers. These speakers ranged from former students at Virginia, Penn, and Cal, to colleagues from other universities and institutions, and scholars whose relationships with Hymes were primarily through his written responses to their work. A great many speakers described voluminous and detailed letters he had written suggesting new directions for study or otherwise effecting the course of their careers.

My own connections to Hymes were entirely indirect. I only wrote to him once, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, when my fellow graduate students at the University of Colorado joined me in thanking him for his contributions the fields of linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics. I also thanked Hymes, along with my former adviser Bill Bright, at my dissertation defense for helping to construct the field in which I work.

Hymes founded the ethnography of speaking, later renamed the ethnography of communication, which treats interpersonal communication as a complex of verbal, non-verbal, and contextual elements. His critique of the distinction between competence and performance in mid-twentieth century linguistics led to the concept of communicative competence, which has had important effects far beyond linguistic anthropology. He also pioneered the study of ethnopoetics, which treats oral narratives as both folkloristic and linguistic performances. If Hymes did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

I did not speak at the memorial event – I think I would have been embarrassed adding my voice to such a distinguished chorus. At one point, when the assembled audience was asked to move forward in order to make room for the throng of people wishing to pay their respects, I carried Virginia Hymes’ chair a few steps toward the front of the room. I thought that this was an apt metaphor for what I see as my role in the field of linguistic anthropology – being of service to other scholars who I value and respect. I was therefore pleased when some of those valued colleagues asked me to contribute to the SLA blog, a service I will endeavor to perform to the best of my ability.