Roman Jakobson : biography
Roman Osipovich Jakobson () (October 11, 1896Kucera, Henry. 1983. "Roman Jakobson." Language: Journal of the Linguistic Society of America 59(4): 871–883. – July 18, 1982) was a Russian linguist and literary theorist.
As a pioneer of the structural analysis of language, which became the dominant trend in linguistics during the first half of twentieth-century, and into the present through its descendent versions associated with the work of Noam Chomsky, 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 Lévi-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 and work
Jakobson was born in Russia on 11 October 1896 to a well-to-do family of Jewish descent, the industrialist Osip Jakobson and chemist Anna Volpert Jakobson, and he developed a fascination with language at a very young age. He studied at the Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages and then at the Historical-Philological Faculty of Moscow University.Jakobson, Roman (1997). My Futurist Years, pp. 5, 30. trans. Stephen Rudy. Marsilio Publishers. ISBN 1-56886-049-8. 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. Jakobson received a master’s degree from Moscow University in 1918.
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. Jakobson received his Ph.D. from Charles University in 1930. He became a professor at Masaryk University in Brno in 1933. He also made an impression on Czech academics with his studies of Czech verse. In 1926, together with Vilém Mathesius and others he became one of the founders of the "Prague school" of linguistic theory (other members included Nikolai Trubetzkoi, René Wellek, Jan Mukařovský). 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 protégé Michael Silverstein in a series of foundational articles in functionalist linguistic typology.