Jakobson, Roman

Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), one of the foremost students of linguistics, literature, and culture of the twentieth century, was born and educated in Moscow. In 1920 he moved to Czechoslovakia, where he remained until the Nazi occupation in 1939. During 1939 - 1941 Jakobson was in Scandinavia, and in 1941 he emigrated to the United States, where he served on the faculties of Columbia University (1946 - 1949), Harvard (1949 - 1966), and MIT (1958 - 1982).

The eight published volumes of Jakobson's Selected Writings reflect the impressive breadth and variety of his contributions. These include, in addition to linguistics proper, discussions of the foundations of literary theory; research into formal devices of literature, including pioneering inquiries into the principles governing meter in poetry; analyses of poetic texts in many languages; philological investigations into literary monuments; studies of Slavic folklore and comparative mythology; inquiries into the cultural history of the Slavs; and some of the finest literary criticism of modern Russian poetry. A bibliography of Jakobson's writing is Jakobson (1990).

Jakobson's chief contribution to linguistics concerns the nature of the speech sounds (phonemes). It has been ac-cepted for well over a century that the phonemes that make up the words in all languages differ fundamentally from other, acoustically similar sounds that humans produce with the lips, tongue and larynx, for example yawns, burps, or coughs. (See, e.g., chap. 5 of Sievers 1901, the standard phonetics text of the time.) It was also understood that the sounds of a given language are not a random collection, but are made up of various intersecting groups of sounds; for example, [p t k] or [p b f v m] or [m n]. What was not understood was the basis on which speech and nonspeech sounds are differentiated, and how, short of listing, phonemes can be assigned to groups. It was Jakobson who proposed an answer to these fundamental questions.

In a 1928 paper written by Jakobson and co-signed by the Russian linguists N. S. Trubetzkoy (1890-1938) and S. Karcevskij (1884 - 1955), Jakobson proposed that the phonemes of all languages are complexes of a small number of DISTINCTIVE FEATURES such as nasal, labial, voicing, fricative, and so on. Although many features were used by phoneticians, they were viewed as somewhat accidental attributes of sounds. By contrast, for Jakobson the features are the raw material of which the phonemes -- and only phonemes -- are made. The fact that only phonemes, but no other sounds, are feature complexes differentiates phonemes from the rest, and this fact also explains the grouping of phonemes into intersecting sets, each defined by one or more shared features; for example, [m n] are nasal, [p b f v m] are labial, and [p t k] are voiceless. This conception of phonemes as feature bundles is fundamental to subsequent developments in PHONOLOGY.

In exploring the consequences of this proposal, Jakobson was joined by Trubetzkoy, whose important Grundzüge der Phonologie (1939) summarizes many results of these early investigations. Jakobson's own contributions to feature theory are reflected in such papers as Jakobson (1929), where the evolution of the phoneme system of modern Russian is reviewed in light of the feature concept; Jakobson (1939), where it is shown -- contra Trubetzkoy (1939) -- that such apparently multivalued features as "place of articulation" can be reanalyzed in terms of binary features, and that this makes it possible to analyze both vowels and consonants with the same set of features; Jakobson (1941), where facts of phoneme acquisition by children, phoneme loss in aphasia, phoneme distribution in different languages, and other phonological phenomena are reviewed in feature terms; and Jakobson, Fant, and Halle (1952), where the acoustic correlates of individual features were first described and many consequences of these new facts discussed. Jakobson also made enduring contributions to the phonological study of individual languages, for instance Russian (Jakobson 1948), Slovak (Jakobson 1931), Arabic (Jakobson 1957a), and Gilyak (Jakobson 1957b).

In addition to phonology, Jakobson's major contributions to linguistics were in the area of MORPHOLOGY, the study of the form of words and their minimal syntactic constituents, the morphemes. Among the new ideas in these studies (collected in Jakobson 1984) is Jakobson's attempt to extend the feature analysis to morphemes, which, like its phonological counterpart, has been adopted in subsequent work.

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-- Morris Halle


Jakobson, R. (1929). Remarques sur l'évolution phonologique du russe comparée à celle des autres langues slaves. SW 1:7-116.

Jakobson, R. (1931). Phonemic notes on standard Slovak. SW 1:221-230.

Jakobson, R. (1939). Observations sur le classement phonologique des consonnes. SW 1:272-279.

Jakobson, R. (1941). Kindersprache, Aphasie, und allgemeine Lautgesetze. SW 1:328-401.

Jakobson, R. (1948). Russian conjugation. SW 2:119-129.

Jakobson, R. (1957a). Mufaxxama -- the "emphatic" phonemes in Arabic. SW 1:510-522.

Jakobson, R. (1957b). Notes on Gilyak. SW 2:72-97.

Jakobson, R. (1962-88). Selected Writings. (SW) 8 vols. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Jakobson, R. (1984). Russian and Slavic Grammar. L. R. Waugh and M. Halle, Eds. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Jakobson, R. (1990). A Complete Bibliography of His Writings. Ed. S. Rudy. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Jakobson, R., C. G. M. Fant, and M. Halle. (1952). Preliminaries to speech analysis. SW 8:583-660.

Jakobson, R., S. Karcevskij, and N. S. Trubetzkoy. (1928). Quelles sont les méthodes les mieux appropiées à un exposé complet et pratique de la phonologie d'une langue quelconque? SW 1:3-6.

Sievers, E. (1901). Grundzüge der Phonetik. 5th ed. Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel.

Trubetzkoy, N. S. (1939). Grundzüge der Phonologie. Travaux du Cercle linguistique de Prague 7 .