Dell Hymes is considered by many to be the founder of the area known as Ethnography of Communication. In 1962 he proposed "ethnography of speaking" as a way to study how people talked. Later the name was changed to include other symbolic means of expression and called ethnography of communication.
One of his goals was to create a theory that helped researchers study language use in specific contexts (at that time, some researchers in the field of Linguistics were trying to study language by itself, removed from the times and places people talked). Hymes thought that by looking at how people actually use language, patterns could be discovered that otherwise would not be by just looking at the words themselves.
Hymes (1974) states that, "the starting point is the ethnographic analysis of the communication conduct of a community" (p. 9). Communication conduct is what people do when they communicate with each other. He set out to show that researchers could use his methods to study this communication (talk) systematically.
To study the communication of a particular culture, Hymes proposed basic units that indicate which area of the culture one is most interested in examining. He set forth the following 6 units: speech community, speech situation, speech event, communicative act, communicative style, and ways of speaking.
1. The primary unit, speech community, follows from the description of linguistic community proposed by John Gumperz (1962). A speech community is comprised of a group of people that often use common signs. Because they communicate in a particular way, they are different from other groups. Hymes (1972) also defined a speech community as people who share "rules" for when and how to speak (p. 54). In 1974, he said that for someone to be counted as a member of a speech community, he or she must share at least one "way of speaking" with others. Hymes later includes the meanings of what people say. For instance, users of a particular website may be considered a speech community if they share particular rules for speaking online. Or, perhaps those who ride skateboards may be considered a speech community if the way they communicate is distinct from how those who do not ride skateboards communicate.
2. Hymesí (1972) second unit, the speech situation, occurs within a speech community. You can find a speech situation by finding times when people talk or don't talk. A train ride or a class in school are two examples (Saville-Troike, 1982).
3. The third unit is the speech event. A speech event has a beginning and end. It also refers to activities that are governed by rules or norms for speech (Hymes, 1974, p. 52). For example, Hymes (1972) describes a party as a speech situation and a conversation at the party as a speech event.
4. Communicative acts, the fourth unit, are smaller units of speech. This unit describe what action is getting done when particular words are used. Examples within a speech event of checking out groceries could include requesting the price of an item and paying for the groceries.
5. The fifth unit, communicative style, refers to the way someone usually speaks. You could say that it is characteristic of someone to speak in a certain way. Someone's style also can be noted by patterns in their speech. For some women, the use of "troubles-talk" becomes the communicative style by which they are characterized. For users of this style talking about problems is common (Tannen, 1994). Another style is the use of Dugri for some Israeli speakers (Katriel, 1986). This style is considered more direct by those who prefer an indirect style of speech.
6. The sixth and final unit, ways of speaking, refers to speech not necessarily within one of the other units. Ways of speaking can refer to styles of speech that may be used in various situations and events. It can also be used to describe speech patterns that are characteristic of a culture. For example, answering a telephone in English can be considered a way of speaking because it is characteristically patterned. One often waits for the phone to finish the ring before picking up. The person who answers begins speaking first, as opposed to the one calling (Schegloff, 1968).