In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Roman Jakobson

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographical Materials
  • Festschriften and Collected Essays
  • Bibliographical Works
  • Selected Writings

Linguistics Roman Jakobson
Margaret Thomas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0253


Roman Osipovich Jakobson (1896–1982) famously characterized himself as a “Russian philologist. Period.” He arranged for his gravestone to be engraved simply with the words “Roman Jakobson—RUSSKIJ FILOLOG.” Jakobson’s Russianness, and his love of language and literature, are beyond dispute. However, his intellectual contributions far exceed the intersection of the two terms of his self-description. Jakobson was a dynamic and protean scholar, who wrote about Poetics, Phonology, historical linguistics (especially Slavic), morphosyntax, semiotics, psycholinguistics, and cultural and literary history. He participated avidly in a succession of scholarly collaboratives which generated ideas about language and literature that radiated outward to other thinkers and disciplines. In a first and formative instance, Jakobson was a precocious member of the avant garde literary-artistic Futurist movement in Moscow in the 1910s. In 1926, he co-founded the Prague Linguistic Circle, which developed a distinctive response to the structuralist linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure (b. 1857–d. 1913) that was then spreading across Europe. Following his immigration to America in 1941, Jakobson co-founded the Linguistic Circle of New York and taught at the French-Belgian university in exile, the École Libre des Hautes Études, before joining the faculty of Columbia University (in 1946), Harvard (in 1949), and MIT (in 1957, concurrent with his appointment at Harvard). Working steadily into his eighties through these successive dislocations, Jakobson produced a flood of texts and lectures addressed to diverse audiences, often coauthored with colleagues or former students. Much of his attention went to close linguistic analysis of literature, with a special focus on the formal linguistic features and sound patterns of poetry. A second theme was his work in phonology, especially in his collaboration with fellow Russian émigré and Prague Circle member Nikolai Trubetzkoy (b. 1890–d. 1938). Jakobson resolved phonemes into bundles of hierarchically organized distinctive features, emphasizing acoustic over articulatory definitions, in which one member has default or “unmarked” status relative to the other. The notion of distinctive features influenced generative phonology and other approaches in the 1960s, although Jakobson’s contributions are not always acknowledged. Another of Jakobson’s most significant accomplishments was his role in transmitting structuralism from Europe to the United States, especially during his residence in New York when his lectures on Saussure at the École Libre influenced anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908–d. 2009). Through Jakobson, structuralist ideas passed to Lévi-Strauss, and then to sociology, philosophy, literary criticism, and 20th-century humanities in general, before meeting opposition from poststructuralism in the late 1960s.

General Overviews

At present, there is no single comprehensive synthesis of Jakobson’s research, but there are texts at various levels of detail which summarize facets of his work by way of introduction. Stankiewicz 1987 gives a capsule overview of the main branches of Jakobsonian linguistics; Holquist 2010 is even more concise. Waugh 1976 walks readers through Jakobson’s signature theoretical constructs. Waugh and Monville-Burston 1990 fuses a short chronologically organized review of Jakobson’s major contributions to linguistics with general reflections on his legacy. Bradford 1994 introduces readers to Jakobson’s Poetics and his contributions to literary theory. The papers in Gadet and Sériot 1997 place Jakobson’s early career in the History of Linguistics. Toman 1995 depicts the sociointellectual context of Prague in the 1930s, one of Jakobson’s most creative periods, while Kubíček and Lass 2014 reflects on Jakobson’s legacy to poetics and semiotics with special reference to his impact on Czech scholarship.

  • Bradford, Richard. 1994. Roman Jakobson: Life, language, art. London: Routledge Press.

    A readable, informative analysis of Jakobson’s literary-theoretical work. Bradford first presents the core principles of Jakobson’s Poetics, then indicates how he applied them in the analysis of many samples of literature, or what Jakobson called “verbal art.” Bradford argues for the coherence and continuing relevance of Jakobson’s oeuvre, and for the centrality of poetry within it.

  • Gadet, Françoise and Patrick Sériot, eds. 1997. Jakobson entre l’Est et l’Ouest (1915–1939): Un épisode de l’histoire de la culture européenne. Actes du colloque de Crêt-Bérard, les 5, 6 et 7 septembre 1996. Lausanne, France: L’Institute de Linguistique et des Sciences du Langage de l’Université de Lausanne.

    A stimulating collection of papers, about half in French, half in English, presented at a 1996 conference. They explore the sources and development of Jakobson’s ideas up to 1939, against the backdrop of earlier and contemporaneous intellectual trends in Europe, Russia, and Eastern Europe. Chief among the figures discussed with respect to Jakobson are Trubetzkoy and Saussure—and also Husserl, Khlebnikov, Kruszewski, Karcevskij, and others.

  • Holquist, Michael. 2010. Roman Jakobson and philology. In Critical theory in Russia and the West. Edited by Alastair Renfrew and Galin Tihanov, 81–97. London: Routledge.

    An inviting introductory synthesis of Jakobson’s accomplishments from the point of view of the 21st century. Marred by an understandable but serious misuse of the term ‘marked’ in the place of ‘unmarked’ in the last paragraph on p. 89.

  • Kubíček, Tomáš, and Andrew Lass, eds. 2014. Roman O. Jakobson: A work in progress: Papers presented at Olomouc (Czech Republic) at Palacký University’s School of Humanities under the auspices of the Department of Czech Studies 10–11 December 2012. Olomouc, Czech Republic: Univ. Palackého.

    A collection of thirteen papers from a 2012 conference, which looked back on Jakobson’s legacy, especially his work in semiotics, rhetoric, Slavic Philology, and poetics. The emphasis is on his impact on Czech culture and literary history. Some contributions re-read, from the vantage point of 21st century, classic Jakobsonian texts including “Closing statement: Linguistics and poetics” and “What is poetry?”

  • Stankiewicz, Edward. 1987. The major moments of Jakobson’s linguistics. In Language, poetry, and poetics, The generation of the 1890s: Jakobson, Trubetzkoy, Majakovskij: Proceedings of the First Roman Jakobson Colloquium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 5–6 October 1984. Edited by Krystyna Pomorska, Elżbieta Chodakowska, Hugh McLean, and Brent Vine, 81–94. Berlin: Mouton.

    Discusses Jakobson’s place in 20th-century linguistics, touching on Jakobson the phonologist, Slavicist, semiotician, philologist, and literary critic. Stankiewicz seeks coherence in the diverse facets of Jakobson’s work, and argues that he aimed to harmonize Saussurean polarities.

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

    Absorbing and well-researched sketch of the Prague Linguistic Circle: its scientific accomplishments; major figures; and how it emerged, developed, and both shaped and was shaped by the culture of Prague from the mid-1920s to the late 1930s. Includes fourteen photographs or drawings that communicate the group’s lively collaborative ambiance.

  • Waugh, Linda R. 1976. Roman Jakobson’s science of language. Lisse, The Netherlands: The Peter de Ridder Press.

    Short monograph that reviews, at a high level of abstraction, the core principles of Jakobson’s linguistics, often arrayed as pairs or sets, whose members are in tension with each other: static/dynamic; similarity/contiguity; code/message; invariance/variation; the six facets of speech events (addresser, addressee, context, message, contact, code); and the correlative six functions of language (emotive, conative, referential, poetic, phatic, metalinguistic).

  • Waugh, Linda R., and Monique Monville-Burston. 1990. Introduction: The life, work, and influence of Roman Jakobson. In Roman Jakobson: On language. Edited by Linda R. Waugh and Monique Monville-Burston, 1–45. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110860290.1

    A forty-page overview of Jakobson’s major preoccupations. Begins with a brief intellectual biography mentioning in chronological order the accomplishments of his Moscow, Prague, and American periods, then continues with discussion of themes in Jakobson’s work: reliance on dialogue as a stimulus; functionalist, context-dependent analyses; language typology and universals; resolution of phonemes into distinctive features; and his influence on other fields. Reprinted in Jakobson’s Selected writings, Vol. 1, 3rd ed. (The Hague: Mouton, 2002: v-lxiii).

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