In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nikolai Trubetzkoy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collections
  • Biographical Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Political Writings
  • On Religion
  • On Literature
  • Folklore Studies
  • The Intellectual Background of Trubetzkoy’s Work
  • Trubetzkoy’s Phonological Theory
  • Language Contact
  • Morphophonology
  • Studies of Trubetzkoy’s Political Writings
  • Trubetzkoy’s Literary Work

Linguistics Nikolai Trubetzkoy
Edwin Battistella
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0179


Nikolai Sergeyevich Trubetzkoy is regarded by many as the creator of the science of phonology. His posthumously published Grundzüge der Phonologie (Principles of Phonology) elaborates his observations on the linguistic function of speech sounds, the role of oppositions, and markedness, influenced by his rejection of neogrammarian principles and his extension of Saussearean insights. Grundzüge der Phonologie became the classic statement of part of the Prague School linguistics, which later influenced both European and American linguistics, most notably in Chomsky and Halle’s The Sound Pattern of English. Trubetzkoy was born on 15 April 1890 in Moscow. His family was part of the Russian nobility, which traced its lineage to the 12th-century Grand Duchy of Lithuania. His family was also part of the religious and academic establishment in pre-Soviet Russia. Trubeztkoy’s father Sergei Nikolaevich Trubetzkoy (b. 1862–d. 1905) was professor of religious philosophy at Moscow University and the first elected rector of that university, though he died without being able to assume the post. One uncle, Evgeny Nikolaevich (b. 1863–d. 1920), was also a professor of philosophy and the author of a work on Russian iconography. Another uncle, Girgorii Nikolaevich Trubetzkoy (b. 1873–d. 1929), was a diplomat and political writer. The Trubetzkoys were politically liberal pan-slavists and were involved in reform movements in the Orthodox Church. Nikolai Trubetzkoy was a prodigy and a polyglot fascinated by language and folklore and began publishing work in Finno-Ugrian at the age of fifteen. In his early twenties, he traveled to Leipzig University to study comparative linguistics and in 1915 joined the faculty of Moscow University. Trubetzkoy left Russia in 1920 and eventually settled in Austria in 1922, where he became Head of Slavic Linguistics at the University of Vienna, participating as a long-distance member of the Prague Linguistics Circle. Trubetzkoy died of heart disease on 25 June 1938, shortly after the Gestapo searched his home and confiscated the draft of his book On the Pre-History of Slavic Languages. He was just forty-eight. In his relatively short life, Trubetzkoy published nearly 150 works on phonology and prosody, on comparative linguistics, linguistic geography and chronology, folklore, literature, history, and political science. The surname Трубецкой is variously Romanized as Trubetzkoy, Trubetskoy, Trubetzkoi, Trubetskoi, Troubetzkoy, Troubetskoy, Troubetzkoi, Troubetskoi, Trubet͡skoĭ, and Trubeckoj.

General Overviews

The most accessible general work is Anderson 1985, which describes the influence of Trubetzkoy on the Prague Circle. An earlier but important work is Baltaxe 1978, which focuses on phonological issues. Toman 1995 includes a chapter on Trubetzkoy that places his linguistic interests in the larger context of his Eurasianism, while Liberman 1990 offers an in-depth survey of Trubetzkoy’s literary and folkloric scholarship, and the second and third parts of Liberman 1991 survey Trubetzkoy’s Eurasianist ideas.

  • Anderson, S. R. 1985. Phonology in the twentieth century: Theories of rules and theories of representations. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Pages 85–119 discuss Trubetzkoy and the development of phonology and morphophonology. The book places Trubetzkoy’s work in broad phonological context.

  • Baltaxe, C. A. M. 1978. Foundations of distinctive feature theory. Baltimore: Univ. Park Press.

    A discussion of Trubetzkoy’s role in the foundations of phonology and distinctive feature theory, with a comparison of his ideas to those of Roman Jakobson and of Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle (in their Sound Pattern of English).

  • Liberman, A. 1990. Trubetzkoy as a literary scholar. In N. S. Trubetzkoy: Writings on literature. Edited, translated, and introduced by A. Liberman, xi–xlvi. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

    Survey covering both Trubetzkoy’s folkore and literary studies, showing how linguistic ideas applied to literary study and influences. Includes a bibliography of work related to Trubetzkoy’s literary work.

  • Liberman, A. 1991. Postscript: N. S. Trubetzkoy and his works on history and politics. In The legacy of Genghis Khan and other essays on Russia’s identity. Edited by A. Liberman, 295–375. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic.

    Parts two and three of the essay (pp. 338–375) explore Trubetzkoy as a Eurasianist.

  • Toman, J. 1995. The magic of a common language: Jakobson, Mathesius, Trubetzkoy, and the Prague Linguistic Circle. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    Toman’s richly documented study situates the Czech avant-garde in larger discourses about collective activity and social commitment. Chapter 10 (pp. 185–210) offers a readable assessment of Trubetzkoy’s thought with reference to his ideas about Sprachbund and Eurasia.

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