In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Prague Linguistic Circle

  • Introduction
  • Programmatic Works
  • Witnesses
  • General Issues
  • Semiotics
  • Language Planning and Language Standardization

Linguistics The Prague Linguistic Circle
Giorgio Graffi
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0247


The Prague linguistic circle was founded in 1926 by Vilém Mathesius (b. 1882–d. 1945), professor of Anglistics at the Charles University of Prague, who acted as its president until his death. Other members of the circle were the Russian Roman Jakobson (b. 1896–d. 1982) and the Czechs Bohuslav Havránek (b. 1893–d. 1978) and Bohumil Trnka (b. 1895–d. 1984), the latter its first secretary. Among the foreign members, those most connected with the circle were the Russian Sergej Karcevskij (b. 1884–d. 1955), a former student of Ferdinand de Saussure’s and Charles Bally’s in Geneva, and Nikolai S. Trubetzkoy (also transliterated as Troubetzkoy or Trubeckoj; b. 1890–d. 1938), professor at the University of Vienna. About Trubetzkoy and his work, see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Linguistics article “Nikolai Trubetzkoy.” Several other linguists were also in close contact with the Prague circle: for example, the Dutchman Albert Willem de Groot (b. 1892–d. 1963) or the Frenchmen Lucien Tesnière (b. 1893–d. 1954) and André Martinet (b. 1908–d. 1999). Two younger Czech members of the circle were Vladimir Skalička (b. 1909–d. 1991) and Josef Vachek (b. 1909–d. 1996), the latter of whom became the first historiographer of the circle. The Prague linguists also held mutual relationships with other scholars, among whom Karl Bühler (b. 1879–d. 1963), professor of psychology at the University of Vienna. Prague circle members also devoted much attention to the problem of literary and poetic language; the most-outstanding contributions in this field are by Jan Mukařovský (b. 1891–d. 1975). The “golden age” (or “classical period”) of the Prague linguistic circle ended in 1939, after Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. The activity of the circle did not completely stop even during war years (1939–1945), but it was severely hindered after 1948, when it was charged as being of a “bourgeois” character by the Communist regime. The circle virtually ceased to operate in 1952, without formally dissolving. Some of its research topics have been renewed since the 1960s by its original members still living in Czechoslovakia, and by a new generation of scholars. The circle was restored in 1990 and is still active. Prague linguists (often also labeled “Prague linguistic school” or just “Prague school”) are normally considered as the initiators of linguistic functionalism; namely, of the attempt to explain the structures of language on the basis of its function as a means of communication. This article almost exclusively refers to the “classical” period of the activity of the circle, only occasionally mentioning the subsequent years. The first sections list and describe the “programmatic” works by the Prague linguists; the following sections present their contributions to the general theory of language and to specific linguistic domains (phonology, syntax, etc.), and the final sections deal with the critical literature on the Prague school.

Programmatic Works

The Prague linguistic circle appeared on the international linguistic stage at the end of the 1920s, with two pieces of collective work: Jakobson, et al. 1971 and, especially, the Theses, presented at the congress of Slavists held in Prague in 1929. In the first paper, the Prague scholars assume Ferdinand de Saussure’s doctrine as their starting point and discuss which of its aspects should be revised in their opinion. The Theses develop these topics, by especially stressing the following points, among others. (1) Language is “a system of purposeful means of expression.” (2) Saussure’s sharp opposition between synchrony and diachrony should be overcome. (3) Language changes should be viewed in a systematic and teleological way. (4) Sound as a physical phenomenon should be kept distinct from sound as an element of the functional system (i.e., the phoneme). (5) The study of language, both in terms of synchrony and diachrony, cannot be adequate unless the different linguistic functions (communicative, referential, poetic, etc.) are taken into account. Such points represented the guidelines for all subsequent work by the Prague scholars. Principes de transcription phonologique and Projet de terminologie phonologique standardisée are based on point 4. Havránek, et al. 1978 outlines a program of what we would call “applied linguistics,” based on the functionalist approach presented in the Theses.

  • Havránek, Bohuslav, Roman Jakobson, Vilém Mathesius, Jan Mukařovský, and Bohumil Trnka. 1978. By way of introduction. In Recycling the Prague linguistic circle. Edited by Marta K. Johnson, 32–46. Ann Arbor, MI: Karoma.

    The original Czech version appeared in 1935 as an introduction (“Úvodem”) to the journal Slovo a Slovenost 1 (1935): 1–7. It presents the goals and the conceptual settings of the journal. The description and the standardization of Czech and Slovak, as well as the nature and functions of the poetic language, are presented as the main topics to investigate.

  • Jakobson, Roman, Sergej Karcevskij, and Nikolai Trubetzkoy. 1971. Quelles sont les méthodes les mieux appropriées à un exposé complet et pratique de la grammaire d’une langue quelconque. In Selected writings. Vol. 1. By Roman Jakobson, 3–6. The Hague: Mouton.

    Originally published in Actes du premier congrès international de linguistes (Leiden, The Netherlands: Sijthoff, 1929), pp. 33–36. In French. The authors first stress the importance of Saussure’s conception of langue “as a system of reciprocal values”; hence the structural conception of language. However, they also maintain that a “teleological” and “systematic” view of linguistic change should replace Saussure’s “atomistic” view.

  • Principes de transcription phonologique (Propositions du Cercle linguistique de Prague). In Réunion phonologique internationale tenue à Prague (18–21/XII 1930). 323–326. Travaux du Cercle linguistique de Prague 4. Prague: Jednota československých matematiků a fysiků, 1931.

    In French. The main headings are the difference between phonological and phonetic transcription, goals of the phonological transcription, and the designation of phonemes.

  • Projet de terminologie phonologique standardisée. In Réunion phonologique internationale tenue à Prague (18–21/XII 1930). 309–326. Travaux du Cercle linguistique de Prague 4. Prague: Jednota československých matematiků a fysiků, 1931.

    In French. It contains eight sections, as translated to English: (1) “Phonetics and phonology,” (2) “Basic phonological notions,” (3) “Relationships between phonological units” (e.g., “correlation property,” “correlation mark,” “marked correlative series” versus “unmarked correlative series,” “archiphoneme”), (4) “Examples of phonological correlations,” (5) “Vowel systems,” (6) “Extraphonological variations” (e.g., “combinatory variant” versus “stylistic variant”), (7) “Divisions of phonology,” and (8) “Basic morphological notions” (“morphonological alternation,” “alternants,” “morphoneme,” and “combinatory alternant”).

  • Theses: Prague linguistic circle. Theses presented to the First Congress of Slavists, held in Prague in 1929. In Praguiana: Some basic and less known aspects of the Prague linguistic school. Edited by Josef Vachek and Libuše Dušková, 77–120. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: Benjamins, 1983.

    They firstly appeared (in French) in Travaux du Cercle linguistique de Prague 1 (1929): 5–29. The original Czech version (on which the English translation is based) was published in 1970, in U základů pražské jakyvovĕdné školy, edited by Vachek. The first three theses are especially relevant for general linguistics; the others deal with problems that are more relevant to Slavic studies.

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