Jan Niecislaw Baudouin de Courtenay

Jan Niecislaw Baudouin de Courtenay (March 13, 1845 - November 3, 1929) was a Polish linguist and Slavist, best known for his theory of the phoneme and phonetic alternations. For most of his life he worked at Imperial Russian universities: Kazan (1874-1883), Yuryev (as Tartu, Estonia was then known) (1883-1893), Kraków (1893-1899) and St. Petersburg (1900-1918). In 1919-1929, he was a professor at the re-established Warsaw University in a once again independent Poland. Baudouin de Courtenay's view of language as structural entities anticipated later interest in the connection between structure and meaning, as well as directly influencing the structuralist theory of Ferdinand de Saussure. He was also fascinated by the relationship between language and nationality, advocating the peaceful co-existence and cooperation of all ethnic groups and nationalities, without the dominance or cultural assimilation of any group by another.



Jan Niecislaw Baudouin de Courtenay was born March 13, 1845, in Radzymin, near Warsaw, Poland to a family of distant French extraction. One of his ancestors had been a French aristocrat who immigrated to Poland during the reign of Polish King August II the Strong.

In 1862, Baudouin entered the "Main School," a predecessor of Warsaw University. In 1866, he graduated in history and philology and won a scholarship from the Russian Imperial Ministry of Education. Leaving Poland, he studied at various foreign universities, including those of Prague, Jena, and Berlin. In 1870, he received a doctorate from the University of Leipzig for his Russian language dissertation On the Old Polish Language Prior to the 14th Century.

Baudouin established the Kazan School of Linguistics in the mid-1870s and served as the professor at the Kazan university from 1875. He was the head of linguistics faculty at the University of Yuryev (now Tartu, Estonia) (1883-1893). Between 1894 and 1898, he served in the same post at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków only to be appointed to St. Petersburg, where he continued to refine his theory of phonetic alternations.

After Poland regained her independence in 1918, he returned to Warsaw, where he formed the core of the linguistics faculty of the Warsaw University. Since 1887, he had a permanent seat in the Polish Academy of Skills and since 1897 he was a member of the Petersburg Academy of Sciences. In 1925 he was one of the co-founders of the Polish Linguistic Society.

His daughter, Cezaria Baudouin de Courtenay Ehrenkreutz Jędrzejewiczowa was one of the founders of the Polish school of ethnology and anthropology as well as a professor at the universities of Wilno and Warsaw.

Outside of his scientific work, Baudouin de Courtenay was also a strong supporter of revival of various national minorities and ethnic groups. In 1915, he was arrested by the Okhranka, Russian secret service, for publishing a brochure on autonomy of peoples under Russian rule. He spent three months in prison, but was released. In 1922, without his knowledge, he was proposed by the national minorities of Poland as a presidential candidate, but was defeated in the third round of voting in the Polish parliament and eventually Gabriel Narutowicz was chosen.

Baudouin de Courtenay died in Warsaw on November 3, 1929, and was buried at the Reformed Evangelical cemetery.


Throughout his life, Baudouin de Courtenay published hundreds of scientific works in Polish, Russian, Czech, Slovenian, Italian, French, and German.

His work had a major impact on twentieth century linguistic theory, and it served as a foundation for several schools of phonology. Together with his student, Mikołaj Kruszewski, de Courtenay coined the term phoneme.

He was an early champion of synchronic linguistics, the study of contemporary spoken languages, and he had a strong impact on the structuralist linguistic theory of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, among whose notable achievements is the distinction between statics and dynamics of languages and between a language, that is an abstract group of elements) and speech (its implementation by individuals).

Quantitative linguistics

The origin and development of modern quantitative linguistics is associated with the structuralist revolution of the first decades of the twentieth century, and particularly with the work of Baudouin de Courtenay. While he did not apply mathematical methods himself, he did, while conducting field studies, realize the virtues of a quantitative description of language. He foresaw the advent of rigorous investigations into the laws of language, and articulated them in his 1927 Quantity as a Dimension of Thought about Language.

Baudouin de Courtenay's concept principally involved the semantic, syntactic, and morphologic representations of the number, dimensions, and intensities of the attributes. Thus he did not touch upon the concept of statistical linguistics operating with frequencies or other expressly numerical features of the language elements. Nonetheless, he perceived analogies between the physical domain, defined by precise and formalized laws, and language. He realized that the contemporary level of linguistic and mathematical knowledge was inadequate for the formulation of exact linguistic laws:

I, personally, having considered the rigor and functional dependency of the laws of the world of physics and chemistry, would hesitate to call that a ‘law’ which I consider merely an exceptionally skillful generalization applied to phenomena at large (de Courtenay 1927 p.547).

However, he anticipated such laws also being formulated for linguistic relationships in the future:

the time for genuine laws in the psycho-social realm in general, and first and foremost in the linguistic realm, is approaching: laws which can stand proudly beside those of the exact sciences, laws expressed in formulae of the absolute dependency of one quantity on another (de Courtenay 1927 p. 560).

Relationship between language and nationality

Jan Baudouin de Courtenay devoted much of his attention to the mutual relationships and affinities between East Slavonic languages and the specific characteristic features of each of them (Great Russian, Belarusian, and Little Russian or Ukrainian).

He observed that in small villages along the Polish-Belarusian border areas, people were using both languages. Polish more often in some, while in others Belarusian dominated. In any case, Belarusian seemed to prevail in these regions. In spite of this, the gentry tended to consider itself Polish, and not only on account of religion, for they were almost all Catholic, but also because of the traditions of Polish gentry. The Polish language used there was quite standard, though the local population were also speaking quite good "peasant" language, namely Belarusian.

Taking into account the above observations, he wrote:

Although the local villagers and parishioners tend to identify "Polishness” with "Catholicism,” "Germanness” with "Protestantism” and "Russianness” with "Greek Orthodoxy” ... it does not require much effort, even on the part of the narrow minded and quite unenlightened, to understand that even a non-Catholic could be Polish, while Catholicism is not totally located within the confines of the Polish village (De Courtenay 1983).

Baudouin treated religion and creed as a personal and exceedingly intimate matter:

What right has any ruffian from the street to rummage in my soul and to paw around for my religious affiliation? Hands off! And that goes also for my beliefs, for what I hold holy, for what I cherish in the depths of my spirit! [...] I personally treat any question about my religious affiliation as a personal insult, as humiliation, as an offence against human dignity (De Courtenay 1923).

Baudouin de Courtenay, who strongly condemned the official imperial Russian policy of Russification of Poles, Belarusians, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians, could also not accept attempts to Polonize Belarus, Ukraine, and Lithuania:

Panpolonism or ultra-Polishness have set before themselves the task of forcing all non-Poles who live among Poles or in, so called, ‘Polish’ lands, to recognize themselves as Poles or to retreat (De Courtenay 1923).

He saw that view as treating Lithuanians and others are merely "ethnographic material" who may be granted the privilege of cultural assimilation into "Polishness."

In consequence, Baudouin distinguished two types of patriotism:

  1. "The patriotism of hoodlums and international expropriators, that is nationalistic patriotism, with its slogan of ‘national egoism’, slogan of mutual extermination of bipeds differing in creed, language, traditions, convictions, a patriotism which transforms ‘fatherland’ into a prison for convicts, a cage for different species of wild beasts, into hell populated by madmen obsessed with nationalism." (De Courtenay 1911)
  2. "Territorial patriotism, under the banner of equal rights for all citizens, a common fatherland for all people of different creeds, different languages, different convictions, under the slogan of solidarity in the name of common work for the benefit of common fatherland, work in the sphere of material possessions and all the things which could be attained here on earth." (De Courtenay 1911).


Jan Baudouin de Courtenay made a lasting contribution to phonology and foreshadowed the development of mathematical linguistics. He pioneered the scientific approach to contrastive and applied linguistics, inspired new theoretical and cognitive trends in lexicology, semantics, onomastics and anthroponymy, as well as in dialectology, sociolinguistics, and logopedics.

Baudouin de Courtenay’s role in the struggle for a civic and open society, both in imperial Russia and later in the Republic of Poland, which had regained its independence, could be hardly overdramatized. Jan Baudouin de Courtenay as a thinker, social activist, and journalist was engaged both in the central dilemmas of his time and in the mundane problems of everyday life. He strongly objected to any form of national exclusiveness and earned himself the reputation of a staunch spokesman for peaceful and brotherly coexistence, cooperation and development of all ethnic groups, nations and nationalities, and in particular Poles, Russians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Germans, and Jews. Recognition of this role was evidenced in 1922, when representatives of national minorities in the Polish parliament, after consultation each other, proposed him as their candidate for President of Poland.

Major Works

  • de Courtenay, J. N. B. 1895. Vessuch einer Theorie phonetischer Alternationen; ein Kapital aus der Psychophonetic, Truebner, Strassburg.
  • de Courtenay, J. B. N. 1902. Sravnitel'naja grammatika slavjanskix jazykov v svjazi z drugimi indoevropejskimi jazykami, Saint-Petersburg
  • de Courtenay J. N. B. 1911. W sprawie «antysemityzmu postepowego» [On so called „progressive antisemitism”]. Sklad Glówny w Ksiegarni G. Gebethnera i Spólki [The Main Warehouse of G. Gebethner and Company Bookstore], Kraków p. 43.
  • de Courtenay J. B.N. 1923. Tolerancja. Równouprawnienie. Wolnomyslicielstwo. Wyznanie paszportowe, Biblioteka Stowarzyszenia Wolnomyslicieli Polskich [Tolerance. Equal rights. Freethinking. Passport creed, Library of the Association of Polish Freethinkers], no. 1, Warszawa p. 18.
  • de Courtenay, J. N. B. 1927. "Quantity as a dimension of thought about language" in Symbolae gramaticae in honor J. Rozwadowski, Vol.I, Drukarnia Uniwersytetu Jagielloñskiego, Kraków pp. 3-18.
  • de Courtenay, J. B. N. 1972 A Baudouin de Courtenay anthology: The beginnings of structural linguistics. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0253311209
  • de Courtenay, J. N. B. [1983] 1990. Dziela wybrane [Selected works], vol. VI, PWN, Warszawa p.221


  • Rozwadowski J. M. 1960. "O pewnym prawie ilo¶ciowym rozwoju jêzyka [On a certain frequency law of language development]." In Jan Micha³ Rozwadowski Wybór pism [Selected writings]. vol.3. Warszawa: b.d., 96-105.


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