Jakobson, Roman (1896–1982)

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JAKOBSON, ROMAN (1896–1982)


Russian-born American linguist.

The first son of an upper-middle-class Moscow family, Roman Jakobson showed extraordinary talent and interest in languages and literature from early on in his school years. Prior to 1914, the year he started his studies at Moscow University, he established contacts with the painter Kazimir Malevich (1878–1935), the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893–1930), the painter and poet Alexei Kruchenykh (1886–1969), the poet Velemir Khlebnikov (1885–1922), and other authors and artists of the Russian avant-garde, and himself wrote radical "transrational" phonetic poetry (zaum) in the style of Russian futurism. At the same time, he pursued his interests in Russian dialectology and folklore and, increasingly, emerging structural linguistics. In 1915 he was a cofounder of the Moscow Linguistic Circle.

The change of regime in 1917 brought opportunities for Jakobson in the emerging Soviet foreign service. In 1920 he was assigned to a diplomatic outpost in Tallinn (Estonia) and, the same year, to the Soviet Red Cross Mission in Prague, where he went in July 1920, eventually living in Czechoslovakia until April 1939. His Czechoslovak years parallel his early years in Moscow. While closely allied with the Czech avant-garde, he intensively pursued academic interests, participating, among others, in founding the Prague Linguistic Circle in 1926, a group of linguists and literary theorists who made a major contribution to the foundations of European structuralism. A key area was the study of poetic language; another focus was on sound structure of languages. Together with another émigré Russian linguist, Nikolai Trubetskoy (1890–1938), who lived in Vienna, Jakobson worked on the development of phonology, a discipline concerned with the statement of laws governing the structure of sound systems across languages. In the 1920s Jakobson was active in Prague, pursuing his projects as an employee of the Soviet representation in Prague, but he moved to Brno in 1933 to become a professor at the new Masaryk University.

It was from Brno that Jakobson and his second wife fled to Scandinavia after the occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Jakobson first lived in Denmark, was then forced to flee further, to Norway, and eventually left for the United States from Sweden in the summer of 1941. Despite extreme circumstances, his Scandinavian years yielded the classic of European structural phonology, the monograph Kindersprache, Aphasie, und allgemeine Lautgesetze (1941; Child Language, Aphasia, and Phonological Universals, 1968). A substantial part of the study consists in working out a theory of markedness, rooted in the concept of a layered structure of systems. Echoing ideas of the founder of phenomenology, the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859–1938), laws of markedness are stated in the form of unilateral implications of the form If A, then B. Basing his reasoning on facts of language acquisition (child language) and language loss (aphasia), Jakobson generalized this approach to a panchronic analysis that later inspired the study of language universals.

Jakobson arrived in New York in June 1941 to first teach at the French émigré institution, École Libre des Hautes Études, where he met the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908); he later moved to Columbia University and, in 1950, to Harvard University. In 1957 he was also appointed a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Linguistics and poetics continued to be the foci of Jakobson's American years, while the development of United States Slavic studies was a distinct organizational project with a significant institutional impact. Together with his student and later collaborator Morris Halle, and initially in collaboration with the Swedish phonetician Gunnar Fant, he worked out the modern theory of phonological features, a cornerstone of phonological theory (Preliminaries to Speech Analysis, 1952).

At the same time, Jakobson continued to work on poetics and literary theory, extending the scope of his investigations well beyond the limits of Slavic studies and addressing authors as diverse as the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), the German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843), and the English playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616). Likewise, The Sound Shape of Language (1979), written with Linda Waugh, aims at general properties of sound structure. Jakobson became increasingly interested in the structure of the brain as relevant for the study of language. Last but not least, in his numerous interviews and conversations he left invaluable testimony of the life of the Soviet avant-garde that he actively witnessed and shaped in his early years. His legacy forms a unique amalgam of a philological approach that sees language as embedded in culture and society, to an advocacy of formal approaches in linguistics, especially in phonology, to contributions to the philosophy of language, and, eventually, to forays into cognitive science.

See alsoBrecht, Bertolt; Lévi-Strauss, Claude; Saussure, Ferdinand de.


Jakobson, Roman. Selected Writings. 8 vols. Places of publication vary, 1962–.

——. Language in Literature. Edited by Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy. Cambridge, Mass., 1987.

Rudy, Stephen, ed. Roman Jakobson, 1896–1982: A Complete Bibliography of His Writings. Berlin, 1990.

Toman, Jindrich. The Magic of a Common Language: Jakobson, Mathesius, Trubetzkoy, and the Prague Linguistic Circle. Cambridge, Mass., 1995.

Jindrich Toman