The Prague Linguistic Circle (French: Cercle linguistique de Prague; Czech: Pražský lingvistický kroužek) or Prague school was an influential group of literary critics and linguists who came together in Prague with the common desire to create a new approach to linguistics. The most well-known period of the Circle is between 1926, its official launch, and the beginning of World War II, the time when Prague offered hope of freedom and democracy for artists and scholars in Central Europe. Their spirit of collective activity, vision of a synthesis of knowledge, and emphasis on a socially defined commitment to scholarship defined and motivated the Prague Circle.
Along with its first president, Vilém Mathesius, they included Russian émigrés such as Roman Jakobson, Nikolai Trubetzkoy, and Sergei Karcevsky, as well as the famous Czech literary scholars René Wellek and Jan Mukařovský. Their work constituted 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. The functionality of elements of language and the importance of its social function were key aspects of its research program. They developed methods of structuralist literary analysis during the years 1928–1939. After the war, the Circle no longer functioned as a meeting of linguists, but the Prague School continued as a major force in linguistic functionalism (distinct from the Copenhagen school or English linguists following the work of J. R. Firth and later Michael Halliday). It has had significant continuing influence on linguistics and semiotics.
A diverse group of Czech, Russian, Ukrainian, and German scholars in the mid-1920s found themselves together in Prague, Czechoslovakia—the "isles of freedom and democracy in Central Europe" (Doubravová 1999). They came together with the common desire to create a new approach to linguistics. Their collaboration was the foundation of the Prague Linguistic Circle.
In 1920, Roman Jakobson moved from Moscow to Prague to continue his doctoral studies. There he met Vilem Mathesius and other Czech and Russian linguists, including his colleague, Nikolai Trubetzkoy. Also among them was Sergei Kartsevsky, a professor of Russian at Geneva University who introduced the work of influential Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure to Prague. These linguists were soon joined by others including Jan Mukarovsky. They decided to establish a discussion group and, on October 26, 1926, following a lecture by Henrik Becker entitled Der europaische Sprachgeist, the Prague Linguistic Circle held its first official meeting (Doubravová 1999).
Their meetings began irregularly, but soon developed into a consistent schedule of lectures and discussions. Their first public presentations were in 1929 at the First International Congress of Slavicists held in Prague, published in the first volume of the series Travaux du Cercle Linguistique de Prague. Later lectures included presentations by such scholars as Edmund Husserl and Rudolf Carnap. Altogether, the Circle members included eight Czech, five Russian, two French, and one German, with one Englishman who was teaching at the University of Brno loosely connected (Doubravová 1999).
The Circle concerned itself not only with linguistics but also with aesthetics, literary theory, ethnography, and musicology. In 1935 they began publication of a magazine entitled Le mot et l'art du mot (Word and Art of the Word).
The ideal of collective activity, the vision of a synthesis of knowledge, and an emphasis on a socially defined commitment to scholarship which were part of "the spirit of the age" became the foundation of the Prague Circle's program (Toman 1995). Their continued presentations at conferences and publications made it one of the most influential schools of linguistic thought of the twentieth century.
However, the occupation of Czechoslovakia was almost the death of the Circle: Jakobson emigrated to the United States, Trubetskoy died in 1942, and Malthesius died in 1945.
The Prague Linguistic Circle included Russian émigrés such as Roman Jakobson, Nikolai Trubetzkoy, and Sergei Karcevsky, as well as the famous Czech literary scholars René Wellek and Jan Mukařovský. The instigator of the Circle and its first president was the eminent Czech linguist Vilém Mathesius (president of PLC until his death in 1945).
Vilém Mathesius (August 3, 1882 – April 12, 1945) was a Czech linguist, who lived and worked in Prague during the early part of the twentieth century, when the city, and indeed the nation of Czechoslovakia, functioned as a haven for intellectuals in Central Europe. His early work pioneered the synthesis of the synchronic approach to studying a language as it exists at one point in time, and the diachronic approach studying the history and development of a language over time. In this way, Mathesius was able to maintain the importance of function in communication, and was not limited to Ferdinand de Saussure's static structural model of language.
In 1920, Mathesius met Roman Jakobson and other Russian émigrés and came into contact with a different tradition. Together with other linguists including Jakobson and Nikolai Trubetzkoy, Mathesius developed "topical structure analysis" as a method of studying the semantic relationships between sentence topics and the overall topic of the discourse. In this way Mathesius' work maintained a dynamic, or interactive, component, as the listener or reader is in a continuous relationship with the text, interpreting each individual sentence or unit in the context of the whole discourse.
Roman Osipovich Jakobson (Russian, Роман Осипович Якобсон) (October 11, 1896 – July 18, 1982), was a Russian linguist and literary critic, one of the most important intellectuals in the humanities during the twentieth century. He began as a founding member of the Moscow Linguistic Circle, 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 became a co-founder of the Prague Linguistic Circle. One of his most enduring contribution was his development of the model of the communication theory of language based on his delineation of language functions.
Prince Nikolay Sergeyevich Trubetskoy (Russian: Николай Сергеевич Трубецкой (or Nikolai Trubetzkoy) (April 15, 1890 – June 25, 1938) was a Russian linguist whose teachings formed a nucleus of the Prague School of structural linguistics.
Having graduated from Moscow University (1913), Trubetskoy delivered lectures there until the revolution in 1917. He left Moscow, moving several times before finally taking the chair of Slavic Philology at the University of Vienna (1922–1938). On settling in Vienna, he became a geographically distant yet significant member of the Prague Linguistic School.
Trubetzkoy's chief contributions to linguistics lie in the domain of phonology, particularly in analyses of the phonological systems of individual languages and in search for general and universal phonological laws. His magnum opus, Grundzüge der Phonologie (Principles of Phonology), issued posthumously, was translated into virtually all main European and Asian languages. In this book he famously defined the phoneme as the smallest distinctive unit within the structure of a given language. This work was crucial in establishing phonology as a discipline separate from phonetics. He is widely considered to be the founder of morphophonology.
René Wellek (August 22, 1903 – November 10, 1995) was a Czech-American comparative literary critic. Wellek, along with Erich Auerbach, is remembered as an eminent product of the Central European philological tradition. He studied literature at the Charles University in Prague, and was active among the Prague School linguists, before moving to teach in the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in 1935, later part of University College, London.
Jan Mukařovský (November 11, 1891 – February 8, 1975) was a Czech literary theoretician and aesthetician. During his time as professor at the Charles University of Prague he became well known for his association with early structuralism as well as with the Prague Linguistic Circle, and for his development of the ideas of Russian formalism. Mukařovský had a profound influence on structuralist theory of literature comparable to that of Roman Jakobson.
The basic approach to the study of linguistics of the Prague Circle sees language as a synchronic and dynamic system. The functionality of elements of language and the importance of its social function have been key aspects of its research program.
In 1928, the Prague Linguistic Circle group of Jakobson, Mathesius, Trubetzkoy, and Kartsevsky 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.
The Prague School stresses the function of elements within language, their contrast to one another, and the system formed by these elements. They developed distinctive feature analysis, by which each sound is regarded as composed of contrasting articulatory and acoustic features, with sounds perceived as different having at least one contrasting feature.
While they were known for their identification of the "distinctive features" of language, these theorists also explored culture and aesthetics. In fact, Jakobson considered language to be a means of the expression and development of culture.
Thus, the general approach of the Prague school can be described as a combination of functionalism—every component of a language, such as phoneme, morpheme, word, sentence, exists to fulfill a particular function—and structuralism—the context not just the components is what is important. In addition, synchronic and diachronic approaches are seen as interconnected and influencing each other. They regard language as a system of subsystems, each of which has its own problems but these are never isolated since they are part of a larger whole. As such, a language is never in a state of equilibrium, but rather has many deviations. It is these deviations that allow the language to develop and function as a living system (Doubravová 1999).
The group's work before World War II was published in the Travaux Linguistiques and its theses outlined in a collective contribution to the World's Congress of Slavists. The Travaux were briefly resurrected in the 1960s with a special issue on the concept of center and periphery and published again by John Benjamins Publishing Company. American scholar Dell Hymes cited his 1962 paper, "The Ethnography of Speaking," as the formal introduction of Prague functionalism to American linguistic anthropology. English translations of the Circle's seminal works were published by the Czech linguist Josef Vachek in several collections. Many individual publications by members of the Circle also present the school's contributions to linguistics.
Since 1989 under the leadership of Oldřich Leška, the Prague School's activity was renewed, resulting in the publication of the new Travaux in 1995 and a successful conference on 70 Years of PLC in 1996 which also commemorated the 100th anniversary of Roman Jakobson's birthday.
In addition, Prague has become the site of many conferences on linguistics, in particular those organized by the Institute for Applied and Formal Linguistics (UFAL) at Charles University. Eva Hajicova, the director of UFAL, also became co-editor of the Cicle's Travaux.
The Circle, profoundly influential in the earlier part of the twentieth century, still has much to offer. With the freedom experienced in much of Europe at the end of the twentieth century came new opportunities for publication which confirmed that
”the traditions of cooperation, especially those in Central Europe, had not died out. Remaining hidden for the forty years of adversity they are still alive and under the new conditions they may obviously be able to make in their field an important contribution to the unification of Europe” (Doubravová 1999).
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