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Roman Jakobson

Roman Osipovich Jakobson () (October 11, 1896, Moscow July 18, 1982, Boston) was a Russian linguist and literary theorist.

As one of the first of the structural analysis of language, which became the dominant trend of twentieth-century linguistics, Jakobson was among the most influential linguists of the century. Influenced by the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, Jakobson developed, with Nikolai Trubetzkoy, techniques for the analysis of sound systems in languages, inaugurating the discipline of phonology. He went on to apply the same techniques of analysis to syntax and morphology, and controversially proposed that they be extended to semantics (the study of meaning in language). He made numerous contributions to Slavic linguistics, most notably two studies of Russian case and an analysis of the categories of the Russian verb. Drawing on insights from Charles Sanders Peirce's semiotics, as well as from communication theory and cybernetics, he proposed methods for the investigation of poetry, music, the visual arts, and cinema.

Through his decisive influence on Claude L vi-Strauss and Roland Barthes, among others, Jakobson became a pivotal figure in the adaptation of structural analysis to disciplines beyond linguistics, including anthropology and literary theory; this generalization of Saussurean methods, known as "structuralism", became a major post-war intellectual movement in Europe and the United States. Meanwhile, though the influence of structuralism declined during the 1970s, Jakobson's work has continued to receive attention in linguistic anthropology, especially through the ethnography of communication developed by Dell Hymes and the semiotics of culture developed by Jakobson's former student Michael Silverstein.


Life & work

Jakobson was born in Russia to a well-to-do family of Jewish descent, and he developed a fascination with language at a very young age. He studied at the Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages and then in the Historical-Philological Faculty of Moscow University.[1] As a student he was a leading figure of the Moscow Linguistic Circle and took part in Moscow's active world of avant-garde art and poetry. The linguistics of the time was overwhelmingly neogrammarian and insisted that the only scientific study of language was to study the history and development of words across time (the diachronic approach, in Saussure's terms). Jakobson, on the other hand, had come into contact with the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, and developed an approach focused on the way in which language's structure served its basic function (synchronic approach) to communicate information between speakers. Jakobson was also well known for his critique of the emergence of sound in film.

In Czechoslovakia

1920 was a year of political fights in Russia, and Jakobson relocated to Prague as a member of the Soviet diplomatic mission to continue his doctoral studies. He immersed himself both into the academic and cultural life of pre-war Czechoslovakia and established close relationships with a number of Czech poets and literary figures. He became professor at Masaryk University in 1933. He also made an impression on Czech academics with his studies of Czech verse. In 1926, together with Vil m Mathesius and others he became one of the founders of the "Prague school" of linguistic theory (other members included Nikolai Trubetzkoi, Ren Wellek, Jan Muka ovsk ). There his numerous works on phonetics helped continue to develop his concerns with the structure and function of language. Jakobson's universalizing structural-functional theory of phonology, based on a markedness hierarchy of distinctive features, was the first successful solution of a plane of linguistic analysis according to the Saussurean hypotheses. (This theory achieved its most canonical exposition in a book co-authored with Morris Halle.) This mode of analysis has been since applied to the plane of Saussurean sense by his prot g Michael Silverstein in a series of foundational articles in functionalist linguistic typology.

Escapes before the war

Jakobson escaped from Prague at the beginning of WWII daringly via Berlin for Denmark, where he was associated with the Copenhagen linguistic circle, and such intellectuals as Louis Hjelmslev. As the war advanced west, he fled to Norway, then was smuggled in a coffin by the Norwegian underground (with his wife, Czech anthropologist Svatava Pirkova, disguised as a peasant woman) over the border to Sweden, where he continued his work at the Karolinska Hospital (with works on aphasia and language competence). When Swedish colleagues feared for a possible German occupation, he managed to leave on a private yacht, together with Ernst Cassirer (the former rector of Hamburg University) to New York City to become part of the wider community of intellectual migr s who fled there.

Career in USA

In New York, he began teaching at The New School, still closely associated with the Czech emigre community during that period. At the cole libre des hautes tudes, a sort of Francophone university-in-exile, he met and collaborated with Claude L vi-Strauss, who would also become a key exponent of structuralism. He also made the acquaintance of many American linguists and anthropologists, such as Franz Boas, Benjamin Whorf, and Leonard Bloomfield. When the American authorities considered "repatriating" him to Europe, it was Franz Boas who actually saved his life. After the war, he became a consultant to the International Auxiliary Language Association, which would present Interlingua in 1951.

In 1949 Jakobson moved to Harvard University, where he remained until retirement. In his last decade he maintained an office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was an honorary Professor Emeritus. In the early 1960s Jakobson shifted his emphasis to a more comprehensive view of language and began writing about communication sciences as a whole.

The communication functions

Influenced by the Organon-Model by Karl B hler, Jakobson distinguishes six communication functions, each associated with a dimension or factor of the communication process [n.b. - Elements from B hler's theory appear in the diagram below in yellow and pink, Jakobson's elaborations in blue]:

Functions 1 referential (= contextual information) 2 aesthetic/poetic (= auto-reflection) 3 emotive (= self-expression) 4 conative (= vocative or imperative addressing of receiver) 5 phatic (= checking channel working) 6 metalingual (= checking code working)[2]  

Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music, p.241. Philadelphia: Open University Press. .

One of the six functions is always the dominant function in a text and usually related to the type of text. In poetry, the dominant function is the poetic function: the focus is on the message itself. The true hallmark of poetry is according to Jakobson "the projection of the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection to the axis of combination". [The exact and complete explanation of this principle is beyond the scope of this article.] Very broadly speaking, it implies that poetry successfully combines and integrates form and function, that poetry turns the poetry of grammar into the grammar of poetry, so to speak. A famous example of this principle is the political slogan "I like Ike." Jakobson's theory of communicative functions was first published in "Closing Statements: Linguistics and Poetics" (in Thomas A. Sebeok, Style In Language, Cambridge Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1960, pp. 350 377).


Jakobson's three principal ideas in linguistics play a major role in the field to this day: linguistic typology, markedness, and linguistic universals. The three concepts are tightly intertwined: typology is the classification of languages in terms of shared grammatical features (as opposed to shared origin), markedness is (very roughly) a study of how certain forms of grammatical organization are more "natural" than others, and linguistic universals is the study of the general features of languages in the world. He also influenced Nicolas Ruwet's paradigmatic analysis.[2]

Jakobson has also influenced Friedemann Schulz von Thuns four sides model, as well as Michael Silverstein's metapragmatic linguistics, Dell Hymes's ethnography of communication and ethnopoetics, the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan, and philosophy of Giorgio Agamben.


by Jakobson
  • Jakobson R., Remarques sur l'evolution phonologique du russe compar e celle des autres langues slaves. Prague, 1929
  • Jakobson R., K charakteristike evrazijskogo jazykovogo sojuza. Prague, 1930
  • Jakobson R., Child Language, Aphasia and Phonological Universals, 1941
  • Jakobson R., On Linguistic Aspects of Translation, essay, 1959
  • Jakobson R., "Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics," in Style in Language (ed. Thomas Sebeok), 1960
  • Jakobson R., Selected Writings (ed. Stephen Rudy). The Hague, Paris, Mouton, in six volumes (1971 1985):
    • I. Phonological Studies, 1971
    • II. Word and Language, 1971
    • III. The Poetry of Grammar and the Grammar of Poetry, 1980
    • IV. Slavic Epic Studies, 1966
    • V. On Verse, Its Masters and Explores, 1978
    • VI. Early Slavic Paths and Crossroads, 1985
  • Jakobson R., Questions de poetique, 1973
  • Jakobson R., Six Lectures of Sound and Meaning, 1978
  • Jakobson R., The Framework of Language, 1980
  • Jakobson R., Halle M., Fundamentals of Language, 1956
  • Jakobson R., Waugh L., The Sound Shape of Language, 1979
  • Jakobson R., Pomorska K., Dialogues, 1983
  • Jakobson R., Verbal Art, Verbal Sign, Verbal Time (ed. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy), 1985
  • Jakobson R. "Shifters and Verbal Categories." On Language. (ed. Linda R. Waugh and Monique Monville-Burston). 1990. 386-392.
on Jakobson
  • Roman Jakobson: Echoes of His Scholarship. Ed. by Daniel Armstrong and Cornelis H. van Schooneveld, 1977
  • Brooke-Rose, C., A Structural Analysis of Pound's 'Usura Canto': Jakobson's Method Extended and Applied to Free Verse,1976
  • Caton, Steve C. "Contributions of Roman Jakobson" Annual Review of Anthropology, vol 16: pp. 223 260, 1987.
  • Culler, J., Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature, 1975
  • Groupe , Rh torique g n rale, 1970. [A General Rhetoric, 1981]
  • Holenstein, E., Roman Jakobson's Approach to Language: Phenomenological Structuralism, Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1975
  • Ihwe, J., Literaturwissenschaft und Linguistik. Ergebnisse und Perspektiven, 1971
  • Kerbrat-Orecchioni, C., L'Enonciation: De la subjectivit dans le langage, 1980
  • ((W. A. Koch-Koch, W. A.)), Poetry and Science, 1983
  • Le Guern, M., S mantique de la metaphore et de la m tonymie, 1973
  • Lodge, D., The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy, and the Typology of Modern Literature, 1977
  • Riffaterre, M., Semiotics of Poetry, 1978
  • Steiner, P., Russian Formalism: A Metapoetics, 1984
  • Todorov, T., Po tique de la prose,1971
  • Waugh, L., Roman Jakobson's Science of Language, 1976



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