Jakobson, Roman

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JAKOBSON, ROMAN (1896–1982), philologist and literary historian. Born in Moscow, Jakobson studied and did research at Moscow University before settling in Czechoslovakia in 1921. In 1926 he was co-founder of the Cercle Linguistique de Prague, which pioneered major advances in modern linguistics. He was among the first to perceive that speech sounds are not atomic entities but complexes of a small number of universal phonetic properties ("distinctive features"). Jakobson left Czechoslovakia in 1939 and two years later reached the U.S., where he held professorships at the Ecole Libre des Hautes Etudes, nyc (1942–46), Columbia University (1946–49), Harvard (1949–67), and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (from 1960). In the 1940s Jakobson's central interest was the 12th-century Russian epic, Slovo o polku Igoreve ("Tale of the Host of Igor"), whose authenticity had been questioned. In a series of brilliant philological studies he fully established the medieval origin of the poem. The Igor studies renewed Jakobson's long-standing interest in the language, culture, and history of the Slavs in the Middle Ages, and the culture and language of the Jews living among the Slavs (Rus. and Eng. with commentary, in Annuaire de l'Institut de Philologie et d'Histoire Orientale et Slave, 8, 1948).

In general linguistics and in Slavic studies there are few areas to which Jakobson did not make fundamental contributions. Outside these disciplines, he contributed to developments in anthropology, art history, literary criticism, philosophy, and communication science. His publications include Kindersprache, Aphasie und allgemeine Lautgesetze (1941), Russian Epic Studies (with E.J. Simmons, 1949), Fundamentals of Language (1956), and Selected Writings (2 vols., 1962–66).


For Roman Jakobson: Essays on the Occasion of his Sixtieth Birthday (Eng., Fr., Ger., Rus., 1956), bibl. on pp. 1–12; To Honor Roman Jakobson: Essays on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday, 3 vols. (multilingual, 1967), bibl. on pp. xi–xxxiii.

[Morris Halle]