Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Dell Hymes Obituary

Dell Hathaway Hymes Dell Hathaway Hymes, 82, a founding figure in the field of sociolinguistics and Commonwealth Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, at the University of Virginia, died Friday, November 13, 2009. An innovative thinker, an energetic researcher and writer, and a tireless intellectual advocate, Hymes worked for more than five decades at the intersection of linguistics and anthropology, exhorting linguists to move beyond treating language as a purely formal system and to study its mutual interactions with culture and society. His work has had an impact not only on his own dual fields of anthropology and linguistics but on the study of folklore, literature, and education. Hymes, the son of Howard Hathaway Hymes and Dorothy Bowman Hymes, was born and grew up in Portland, Oregon, where he first developed his lifelong interest in the study of Native American language and culture, conducting his first field research on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon while he was still an undergraduate at Reed College, and beginning friendships and collegial relationships with members of the Wasco, Wishram, and Sahaptin peoples that he would maintain throughout his life. Interrupting his college education, Hymes served in the army in American-occupied Korea, working as a decoder and reaching the rank of staff sergeant, and returned to Reed to graduate in 1950. Hymes and his close friend the poet, Gary Snyder, were the first two Reed students to combine majors in literature and anthropology. Hymes went on to graduate work in linguistics at Indiana University, where he met fellow student Virginia Wolff, nĂ‚‚e Dosch, whom he married in 1954. He earned his Ph.D. in 1955 with a dissertation on the Kathlamet language, formerly spoken near the mouth of the Columbia River. Between 1955 and 1987 Hymes taught successively at Harvard University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a member of the departments of Anthropology and Folklore and then served as Dean of the Graduate School of Education for 12 years. In 1987, Hymes moved to Virginia, taking up a joint appointment in anthropology and English, and remained at Virginia until his retirement in 1998. Throughout his life Hymes was a writer of poetry alongside his academic work, and many of his poems have been published. He was also a man of strong political views and engagements, a lover of music and amateur pianist, an excellent joke-teller, and an avid reader across a multitude of fields, in his later years especially including theology and the history of religion. Since he arrived in Charlottesville 22 years ago, he has been a congregant of St. Paul Memorial Church and more recently of Peace Lutheran Church. His love of his native Pacific Northwest was a deep theme not only in his work but in his life, and for more than three decades, while living and working in Philadelphia and then Charlottesville, he spent every summer on Mt. Hood, which lies between Portland where he was born and Warm Springs where he did his fieldwork. He is survived by his wife of 55 years, Virginia Dosch Hymes, a researcher and teacher in her own right in linguistics, anthropology, and the study of narrative; a brother, Corwin Hymes; and by four children, Vicky Unruh, Robert Hymes, Alison Hymes and Kenneth Hymes; as well as five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. A memorial service will take place 1 p.m. Saturday, November 21, 2009, at Peace Lutheran Church, Charlottesville. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the Charlottesville Center for Peace and Justice (CCPJ) or a charity of choice.

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