Roman Jakobson Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: A prominent and founding member of the linguistic circles of Moscow and Prague, Jakobson was instrumental in the European development of structuralism in linguistics and in literary theory. Arriving in the United States in 1941, he brought extensive knowledge of European linguistics to the American scene, and, through his teaching at Columbia and Harvard universities and his prolific scholarship, he profoundly influenced Slavic studies, poetic analysis, and the development of American phonology.

Early Life

Born to Anna Volpert Jakobson and the chemist Osip Jakobson in 1896, Roman Osipovich Jakobson grew up in the intellectual circles of Moscow, where French and Russian were the normal languages of the intelligentsia and conversation often focused on poetry and art. By the time he entered high school at the Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages in Moscow in 1906-1907, he was already engaged in writing and analyzing poetry. The curriculum at the institute included studies of Russian folk poetry and folklore, as well as literary theory, French poetry, and Russian grammar.

Jakobson’s friends were the young painters and poets of Moscow, and he saw in the emerging Russian Futurist poetry relationships to French Postimpressionism and cubism. Jakobson exchanged writing and ideas with the poets Velemir Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchonykh, and the latter eventually published three experimental “supraconscious” poems that Jakobson wrote in 1914 under the pseudonym Alyagrov.

Entering the University of Moscow in 1914, Jakobson was enrolled in the Department of Slavic and Russian of the Historico-Philological Faculty, where linguistics was a required subject. His earliest readings in linguistics were a recent study of Russian vowels by Lev Vladimirovich Shcherba, a book not approved by his teachers because of its departure from traditional Russian linguistics, and a forgotten work on sound alternations from 1881 by the Polish linguist Mikołaj Kruszewski. Although dissatisfied with the orthodoxy of the Moscow linguistic school, Jakobson was very much interested in his studies of Old Russian language and literature, particularly in folk poetry. In 1914, with six other students from the faculty, he drafted the statutes of the Moscow Linguistic Circle; young Moscow linguists began meeting in spring 1915, combining insights from linguistics, poetics, and metrics for the analysis and discussion of the verse of Russian folk epics (byliny in Russian).

The Moscow Linguistic Circle remained Jakobson’s intellectual home until he left for Prague in 1920. At meetings of the circle, he tested his analysis of Khlebnikov’s verse, and that analysis in turn was the beginning of his lifelong work on phonology, the structure of sounds in human language. A draft of his first book, Noveshaya russkaya poeziya (1921; recent Russian poetry), a slim volume of sixty-eight pages published in Prague, was read in 1919 at the Moscow Linguistic Circle.

Life’s Work

Linguistics, the science of human language, is at the core of Jakobson’s life work. His most significant contributions to the discipline involved phonology, but he was far from a narrow specialist. In fact, perhaps more than any other linguist of the twentieth century, Jakobson brought to the field a wide range of perspectives, from poetry and folk literature to acoustic science, medicine, and child language acquisition. He also extended linguistics into other fields—Slavic history and culture, literary criticism, and semiotics. Many of these interests were already present in his Moscow years, but others evolved during his two decades in Czechoslovakia (1920-1939), two years in Scandinavia (1939-1941), and finally throughout his forty years of teaching and research in the United States (1941-1982).

Heading for Prague in 1920, on a boat between Tallin and Stetin, Jakobson passed the time reading Czech poetry. Intrigued by elements that he encountered in the verse, he decided to conduct a study comparing Czech and Russian verse from the medieval period to the avant-garde. What he sought was a universal theory of metrics, applicable to all human languages. Jakobson came to view metrics not only in the traditional terms of stress, length, and syllable but also in terms of the phonetic properties of consonants and vowels and the presence and absence of the boundaries between words. Indeed, his studies of poetry expanded over the years to grammatical, as well as metrical, analysis, and by the end of his career he had published essays on poetic texts from more than a dozen languages with poetic traditions spanning a thousand years. Jakobson brought linguistic analysis to poetry and poetry to linguistic analysis.

Complementing Jakobson’s interests in poetry was his continuing study of both modern and ancient sound systems and how they are structured. From work on the phonology of Czech and Russian, conducted in Prague during the 1920’s, Jakobson developed in the 1930’s a theory that phonemes (the sounds of a language) are not unanalyzable entities, but...

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