Roman Jakobson

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Roman Osipovich Jakobson (October 11, 1896 - July 18, 1982) was a Russian thinker who became one of the most influential linguists of the twentieth century by pioneering the development of structural analysis of language, poetry, and art. Jakobson was one of the most important intellectuals in the humanities during the twentieth century. He began as one of the founding members of the Moscow Linguistic Circle, which was one of two groups responsible for the development of Russian Formalism, which influenced the entire field of literary criticism. Jakobson then moved to Prague, where he helped to form the Prague Linguistic Circle, which helped to influence the development of structuralism, one of the dominant movements in the humanities and social sciences of the era. Perhaps Jakobson's most enduring contribution was his development of the model of the communication theory of language based on his delineation of language functions.


Biography and the foundation of the Prague Linguistic circle

Jakobson was born in Russia, to a well-to-do family of Jewish descent, developing a fascination with language at a very young age. As a student, Jakobson was a leading figure of the Moscow Linguistic Circle, one of the two movements constituting Russian Formalism, taking part in Moscow's active world of avant-garde art and poetry. His early work was grounded in structural linguistics, stressing that the aim of historical linguistics is the study not of isolated changes within the language but of systematic change. For a short time in 1920, Jakobson became a professor of Russian in Moscow.

That same year, Jakobson moved, with his Moscow colleague, N.S. Trubetskoy, to Prague to continue his doctoral studies. There he met Vilem Mathesius and other Czech and Russian linguists, among them S.I. Kartsevsky, a professor of Russian at Geneva University who introduced the work of influential Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure to Prague. While there, they all wanted to establish a discussion club or a group and, eventually, on October 26, 1926, the Prague Linguistic Circle (the predecessor of Prague School of Linguistics) was born.

Jakobson and colleagues from the Circle started as functionalists, analyzing semiotic systems in relation to social functions, such as communication rather than treating them purely as autonomous forms (in contrast to Saussure).

While they were known for their identification of the "distinctive features" of language, these theorists also explored culture and aesthetics. In fact, Jakobson (who, contrary to Trubetskoy, insisted that language is a way of the preservation and self-understanding of culture) considered language to be a means of the expression and development of culture.

Later, in 1933, Jakobson began his association with Masaryk University of Brno (Czechoslovakia) becoming professor of Russian philology (1934) and Czech medieval literature (1936). The European political situation, however, compelled him to flee successively to universities in Copenhagen, Oslo, and Uppsala, Sweden, where he served as a visiting professor. In 1941, he reached New York City, where he taught at Columbia University (1943-49). In New York, he met and collaborated with Claude Levi-Strauss, on whose work he had a profound influence. He was professor of Slavic languages and literature and general linguistics at Harvard University (1949-67) and MIT (1957-67).

Jakobson’s works

Jakobson vs. Saussure and a link between formalism and modern-day structuralism

In 1928, Jakobson, with his colleagues of the Prague Linguistic Circle, Vilem Mathesius, Nikolaj S. Trubetzkoy and S.I. Karcevskij, announced a radical departure from the classical structural position of Ferdinand de Saussure. They suggested that their methods of studying the function of speech sounds could be applied both synchronically, to a language as it exists, and diachronically, to a language as it changes.

Whereas Saussure had insisted that the study of the structural relations within and between languages as they exist at any given time (synchonistic study) and the study of the changes in sounds and their relations over time (diachronic study) were completely separate and mutually exclusive, Jakobson argued:

“…It is the structural analysis of language in the process of development—the analysis of children's language and its general laws—and of language in the process of disintegration—aphasic language—which enables us to throw light on the selection of phonemes, the distinctive features, and their mutual relations, and to get closer to the main principles of this selection and of this interdependence so as to be in a position to establish and explain the universal laws which underlie the phonological structure of the world's languages…”(Jakobson 1960).

Jakobson thus uses culturally interconnected signs to reconstruct systems of relationships rather than studying isolated, material things-in-themselves. Structuralists regard each language as a relational system or structure and give priority to the determining power of the language system (a principle shared by post-structuralists). They seek to describe the overall organization of sign systems as "languages"—as with Jakobson’s collaborators in America: Lévi-Strauss and myth, kinship rules, and totemism; Jacques Lacan and the unconscious; and Roland Barthes and Greimas and the "grammar" of narrative. The primary emphasis is on the whole system—which is seen as "more than the sum of its parts." Structuralists engage in a systematic search for "deep structures" underlying the surface features of the system.

Roman Jakobson explains: “…It is once again the vexing problem of identity within variety; without a solution to this disturbing problem there can be no system, no classification…”(Jakobson 1990).

This idea led modern-day Structuralists to believe that meaning could be treated like any other phenomena, as the expression of large universal principles that could be described in explicit, formal ways. The goal seems to be to generate a unique "logical form" for every possible sentence, into which encoded pre-existing meanings can be dropped by lexical insertion rules. At one time it was assumed that meanings ultimately consist of combinations of axiomatic, atomic particles of some kind. Linguists had only to look for the code which would represent the rules for their combination.

Some linguists, however, felt that opportunism was behind the fluctuation in Jakobson's estimate of Saussure's importance to Jakobson's career. Harris argues that while Jakobson was still in Europe, he felt obliged to pay tribute to Saussure; but when Jakobson emigrated to the U.S. and tried to establish himself as a linguist during a time when anti-mentalist, behaviorist doctrines were the rule, he shifted to an attack mode (Harris 2001).

Language functions and communication theory of language

Linguistic sounds, considered as external, physical phenomena, have two aspects, the motor and the acoustic. Of the two aspects of sound it is the acoustic aspect which has inter-subjective, social significance, whereas the motor phenomenon, or the workings of the vocal apparatus, is merely a physiological prerequisite of the acoustic phenomenon. The immediate goal of the phonatory act is the acoustic phenomenon which the speaker aims at producing. It is only the acoustic phenomenon which is directly accessible to the listener. When I speak it is in order to be heard. Yet phonetics in the neogrammarian period concerned itself in the first place with the articulation of sound and not with its acoustic aspect (Jakobson 1990).

With this in mind, Jakobson claimed that language must be investigated in all the variety of its functions. Before discussing the poetic function, one must define its place among the other functions of language. An outline of those functions demands a concise survey of the constitutive factors in any speech event, in any act of verbal communication.

The Addresser (speaker, author) sends a message (the verbal act, the signifier) to the Addressee (the hearer or reader). To be operative, the message requires a Context (a referent, the signified), seizable by the addresses, and either verbal or capable of being verbalized; a Code (shared mode of discourse, shared language) fully, or at least partially, common to the addresser and the addressee (in other words, to the encoder and decoder of the message); and, finally, a Contact, a physical channel and psychological connection between the addresser and the addressee, enabling both of them to enter and stay in communication. He claims that each of these six factors determines a different function of language. In brief:

  • the REFERENTIAL function is oriented toward the CONTEXT
  • the EMOTIVE (expressive) function is oriented toward the ADDRESSER
  • the CONATIVE (action-inducing, such as a command) function is oriented toward the ADDRESSEE
  • the METALINGUAL (language speaking about language) function is oriented toward the CODE
  • the POETIC function is oriented toward the MESSAGE for its own sake.

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…." 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 (Jakobson 1960, pp. 350-377).

Poetry in Jakobson’s analyses

Poetry was always closest to Roman Jakobson’s heart. Here are a few quotations—and Jakobson’s terse comments in the lecture in which he illuminates all the preceding texts—from E.A. Poe’s poem “Raven.”

Poe's famous poem The Raven with its melancholy refrain, "Nevermore." This is the only word uttered by the ominous visitor, and the poet emphasizes that “…what it utters is its only stock and store….” This vocable, which amounts to no more than a few sounds, is none the less rich in semantic content. It announces negation, negation for the future, negation for ever. This prophetic refrain is made up of seven sounds seven, because Poe insists on including the final r which is, he says, “…the most producible consonant….” It is able to project the reader into the future, or even into eternity. Yet while it is rich in what it discloses, it is even richer in what it secretes, in its wealth of virtual connotations, of those particular connotations which are indicated by the context of its utterance or by the overall narrative situation.

Abstracted from its particular context it carries an indefinite range of implications.

I betook myself to linking
fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore -
what this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird
of yore
meant in croaking "Nevermore."
This I sat engaged in guessing, …
This and more I sat divining.
(E.A. Poe, The Raven)

Given the context of the dialogue, the refrain conveys a series of different meanings: You will never forget her, you will never regain peace of mind, you will never again embrace her, I will never leave you!

Moreover this same word can function as a name, the symbolic name which the poet bestows upon his nocturnal visitor. Yet this expression's value is not entirely accounted for in terms of its purely semantic value, narrowly defined, i.e., its general meaning plus its contingent, contextual meanings.

Poe himself tells us that it was the potential onomatopoeic quality of the sounds of the word nevermore which suggested to him its association with the croaking of a raven, and which was even the inspiration for the whole poem. Also, although the poet has no wish to weaken the sameness, the monotony, of the refrain, and while he repeatedly introduces it in the same way ("Quoth the raven, 'Nevermore'") it is nevertheless certain that variation of its phonic qualities, such as modulation of tone, stress and cadence, the detailed articulation of the sounds and of the groups of sounds, that such variations allow the emotive value of the word to be quantitatively and qualitatively varied in all kinds of ways.

In short, only minimal phonic means are required in order to express and communicate a wealth of conceptual, emotive and aesthetic content. Here readers are directly confronted with the mystery of the idea embodied in phonic matter, the mystery of the word, of the linguistic symbol, of the Logos, a mystery which requires elucidation. Of course, we have known for a long time that a word, like any verbal sign, is a unity of two components. The sign has two sides: the sound, or the material side on the one hand, and meaning, or the intelligible side on the other. Every word, and more generally every verbal sign, is a combination of sound and meaning, or to put it another way, a combination of signifier and signified (Jakobson 1990/1).

Jakobson’s legacy

“…Jakobson has been pigeon-holed as a linguist unappreciative of the finer points of poetry on the basis of a small and misunderstood fragment of his total output, but even a brief perusal of the volume under review should persuade anyone that in terms of trenchancy, precision, versatility and cultural range, Jakobson's oeuvre is without rival in the modern age. He has been the central, if as yet unacknowledged, figure in the development of modern poetics; it is time for us to come to terms with his formidable legacy…” (Galan 1989).

"… No scholar of modern times has done more to revitalize the study what has come to be called 'the human sciences'—and particularly the science of language—than Roman Jakobson…” (Frank 1984).


  • Frank, J. The New York Review of Books. 1984, v31 p29.
  • Galan, F.W. The Times Literary Supplement. 1989, p.41.
  • Harris, Roy. Saussure and His Interpreters. New York: New York, UP, 2001.
  • Jakobson, R. Remarques sur l' évolution phonologique du russe, 1929.
  • Jakobson, R. Kharakteristichke yevrazi-yskogo yazykovogo soyuza, 1931.
  • Jakobson, R. Kinder-sprache, 1941.
  • Jakobson, R. Aphasie und allgemeine Lautgesetze, 1941.
  • Jakobson, R. Preliminaries to Speech Analysis (with G. Fant and M. Halle,), 1952.
  • Jakobson, R. "Closing Statements: Linguistics and Poetics." Thomas A. Sebeok, Style In Language, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1960.
  • Jakobson, R. Selected Writings, VII. Edited by S. Rudy, 113-121, The Hague: Mouton, 1985.
  • Jakobson, R. Style in language, Ed. by T. Sebeok, Wiley New York 1960, pp. 350-377
  • Jakobson, R. Essais de linguistique générale. Vol.2, Rapports internes et externes du langage, Les Editions de Minuit Paris 1973
  • Jakobson, R. On Language. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Russian Language Project, 1990.
  • Jakobson, R. “Lectures on Sound & Meaning,” in On Language. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990.
  • Jakobson, R. “Lectures on Sound & Meaning,” in: On Language. Camrbidge: MIT Press, 1990.


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