The Legacy of Dell Hymes: Ethnopoetics, Narrative Inequality, and Voice

The Legacy of Dell Hymes: Ethnopoetics, Narrative Inequality, and Voice

The Legacy of Dell Hymes: Ethnopoetics, Narrative Inequality, and Voice

The Legacy of Dell Hymes: Ethnopoetics, Narrative Inequality, and Voice

Synopsis

The accomplishments and enduring influence of renowned anthropologist Dell Hymes are showcased in these essays by leading practitioners in the field. Hymes (1927-2009) is arguably best known for his pioneering work in ethnopoetics, a studied approach to Native verbal art that elucidates cultural significance and aesthetic form. As these essays amply demonstrate, nearly six decades later ethnopoetics and Hymes's focus on narrative inequality and voice provide a still valuable critical lens for current research in anthropology and folklore. Through ethnopoetics, so much can be understood in diverse cultural settings and situations: gleaning the voices of individual Koryak storytellers and aesthetic sensibilities from century-old wax cylinder recordings; understanding the similarities and differences between Apache life stories told 58 years apart; how Navajo punning and an expressive device illuminate the work of a Navajo poet; decolonizing Western Mono and Yokuts stories by bringing to the surface the performances behind the texts written down by scholars long ago; and keenly appreciating the potency of language revitalization projects among First Nations communities in the Yukon and northwestern California. Fascinating and topical, these essays not only honor a legacy but also point the way forward.

Excerpt

Anthony K. Webster and Paul V. Kroskrity

This volume addresses the legacy, enduring impact, and future reach of Dell Hymes’s ethnopoetics project. the authors take up various strands of Hymes’s ethno poetic interests and reveal how this focus on verbal art, far from being a marginal pursuit of the occasional Americanist, is actually central to many contemporary issues in folklore, linguistics, and linguistic and cultural anthropology. Indeed, a growing number of scholars have pushed for a rethinking of the importance of ethnopoetics research, from its concerns with language documentation and endangered languages to tacit forms of power that erase or deny local ways of speaking (see Blommaert 2009; Dobrin 2012; Kataoka 2012). All the essays in this volume take up the Hymesian legacy in their concerns with ethnopoetics, voice, and narrative inequality as matters of central concern to anthropology and folklore.

Though anthropologists in the Boasian tradition had already made the verbal art texts of various cultures a staple of cultural analysis, they were more concerned with these texts as sources of cultural evidence than as works of verbal art. Against this historical backdrop, Hymes began publishing pioneering studies of Native American verbal art in 1958 that related their linguistic and rhetorical forms to new appreciations of their aesthetic form and cultural significance. He first called this type of work anthropological philology but later rebranded the field of study that emerged under his and Dennis Tedlock’s (1972, 1983) influence as ethnopoetics. While Hymes’s (1981, 2003) early work in ethnopoetics focused on poetic devices in Native American verbal art, his later (1996) work also engaged with a variety of narrative traditions and explored fundamental issues of “narrative inequality” and “voice.” This was not, however, a breakthrough for Hymes, but rather a continuation of a longstanding concern with the inequalities of languages (Hymes 1973).

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