Remembering Dell Hymes

I only just learned that Dell Hymes died two weeks ago at the age of 82. I am so sad to hear that. For those who don’t know who Dell Hymes was, he was a sociolinguist who also had a special interest in the Native languages of the Northwest, most particularly with Chinookan languages. He came down the Oregon coast in the early 1950s, and did do a little work on the Siuslaw/Umpqua language and wrote a paper on Siuslaw phonology. In the 1990s, he and his wife Virginia would come down to Coos Bay to visit our family, and made it to a salmon ceremony or two.

One of his interests was analyzing Native language texts and translated them into lines of poetry. Since Native stories are originally oral tales, he looked for patterns, repetitions and other textual clues to translate the stories.

In 1991, he translated the Coos creation story as told by James Buchanan to Leo Frachtenberg 100 years ago (and published in Frachtenberg’s Coos Texts). So, in memory of Dell Hymes, here is his translation of the creation story “The Arrow Young Men”:

[I] [Earth from water]
[i] [disks of blue clay
There were two young men.
The two each came traveling.
Each came halfway on his journey.
There they stopped.
“What if we two should try it?
“What do you think?”
It should be good indeed,
“That we two try it.
“It should be with that blue clay
“That we two try it.”

They had made five disks of blue clay.
The two stopped.
They dropped one into the ocean.
The world had no land.
Indeed it was entirely ocean.

The two dropped one again
The ocean rolled over it back and forth.

The next day they dropped one again.
They just stopped at a small place.

Now they dropped one again.
They kept looking at it from above.
They looked down at it.
It began to rise.
The two saw land there.
They were very glad
as it began to rise.

The next day the two dropped one again [the fifth].
Land sticks out.
The two kept looking at the heavy waves.
The water just continued to go over back and forth, so (pointing)

They just continued to keep looking at it from above.]
“What do you think?
“Should we try it again?”
“What kind of thing shall we try it with?”

And the water continued to go over it back and forth, so (pointing).
–“We should split that matting there in two.”
—“We shall try it with that.”

Sure enough, the two tried it with that.
The two put it down there (over the blue clay) from above.
The two put that down there joined together.
The two were afraid for it.
They went down there.
The land they had made was still not solid enough,
As the two put that matting down there.
Now (the waves) held back [somewhat, from covering the land.]

The water just continued to go over the matting, so (pointing.)]
Now he told him, so:
Let us split that basket there in two.
“Wouldn’t that be good?”
Now sure enough they split it in two.

Sure enough the two put that down there.
The two put that down there joined together.
Now the two put that down on ocean beach
The land they had made was ocean beach sand.
The two put that down there.
The basket split.

Now the waves held back (from covering the land).
Now indeed it was so
As these (waves) held back.
The water had been made to go down that way through (the basket).

Now the two went down there.
Again it held back.
Again that water was made to go down through (the basket).

The two went down.
They examined it for some while.
“Now it will continue to be that way.
“Now it is good that way.”

[II]Living things

Now the two looked around the land they had made.
The world had no wood.
“What do you think?
“Shall we stand one everywhere?”
“It certainly ought to be good that way.”

Now sure enough they stood eagle feathers everywhere.
They grew in the land they had made.
They grew high already in the land they had made.
“Now we shall just watch.”
Sure enough the two watch.
Those fir trees there are the feathers of the eagle.

“Every (kind of) thing shall grow.”
That is how they spoke.
Sure enough, every (kind of) thing grew up.

“What do you think,
“Should there be things that walk?
“That (world) won’t be good without things that walk.
“That (world) will be good with things that walk.”
“The people behind us will always look at them.”

[III][red berry?]
Early in the morning the two go to see the land they had made.
Tracks go on the beach of the land they had made.
“Who can it be that went there?”
Now the two follow him.
They over take him—
The back of someone was on top (of a snag).
They climbed up there.

“You have to be the one who must have come.
“What kind of a person are you?”
“I am a medicine-man, make no mistake.”
His face was marked with red paint.
“You are indeed!
“You are not to travel around here.
“That land there is one I made.
“Are you sure you’re a medicine-man?”

The person was seized.
The person was beaten.
The person was killed.
“You will not be anything.”
His blood was spattered everywhere.
“The last people will see you.”

Sure enough, from there the two turned back.
Indeed, suddenly one of them became pregnant.
The child had no way to get out.
“I wonder what will become of us?
“It would be good if we had wives.”

But he had done nothing at all.
But the two had done nothing at all.
But even so that one became pregnant.
And that child is (pushing) hard to the outside.
The child just had no place to get out.

Now he sent someone.
He sent someone to the ocean.
“A man will be living there.
“A good man.
“You shall go and get him.”
Now sure enough someone went to get him.

[ii][getting ashore]
Sure enough they come (back) with a canoe on the ocean.
[—] “How can it be this way,
“It simply has no breakers?”

Sure enough, waves build themselves up.
[—] “We two shall have north winds five times.
“There shall be five rollers.”

Sure enough, it went on that way.
Sure enough, they waited and waited through five rollers.
They were counted.
At the fifth wave he will go ashore!

Sure enough, it went on that way.
Whatever way he happens to be thinking,
things sure enough went on that way.

Sure enough, he went ashore.
He saw the pregnant one.
Sure enough, he got the child to go out.
What do you know, it was a girl!

[iii][Peopling the world]
From that one it started,
From the girl child.
And it was not long (until) that one grew up.

From that one it started.
That is how the world has people

From that one the people multiplied.
They continue to marry each other.

[V][I][Their world begins to be beautiful]
Now the two began to travel.
They often examining the land they had made.
It was good indeed.
Everything began to look as it does (now).
“Now it will simply always be that way.”

[ii][an arrow chain]
Both of them had bows.
“What if we shoot these toward they sky?”
Now sure enough they shoot.
They look at the arrow often as it goes.
“You should shoot one too.
“You should hit the shaft.
“The two should become one.
“Don’t shoot it very hard.”
Sure enough he shot.
Sure enough he hit it.

“Now shoot it again.”
Their arrows joined.
Now he shot again.
Their arrows joined again.
Their arrows reached down to where they were standing,
as they made them join.

Now sure enough they two look often at their arrows joined together.
“What do you think,
“Should we climb up?”
“It would certainly be good.”

They shake the arrow chain.
“Is it firm?
“Won’t it come apart?”
“Why don’t you climb up?
“Try it.
“Now you will get almost on top.”
Now sure enough he climbed.
“But it is fine indeed!”

Now the other climbed up too.
Now both had gotten on top high up.
They looked down from above.
The land they had made is beautiful.
No one knows what became of them.
Only that much is known.

Now it stops right here.


About shichils

Just sharing some fun on language
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2 Responses to Remembering Dell Hymes

  1. Kaxauxt22 says:

    Dang:(…I would have loved to meet him…he spoke with some of my family that I never had the opportunity to meet:(

    • shichils says:

      Yes, he was a very nice fellow, and so is his wife Virginia. He worked very briefly with some speakers of Siuslaw in the early 1950s and wrote an article on Siuslaw phonology (fancy word for ‘sound system’ essentially). He was very interested in Native texts and issues of translation (which, as I’ve dabbled now in it myself, does present challenges – the way English and other languages can express a concept can be so different, trying to retain the original ‘flavor’ of a term or sentence in another language while putting into English can be quite difficult sometimes). They were kind of ‘absent minded professors’ types. In a good way. 🙂

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