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Encyclopedia > Roman Jacobson

Roman Osipovich Jakobson (October 11, 1896 - July 18, 1982) was a Russian thinker who became one of the most influential linguists of the 20th century by pioneering the development of structural analysis of language, poetry, and art.

Jakobson was born to a well-to-do family in Russia, where he developed a fascination with language at a very young age. As a student he was a leading figure of the Moscow Linguistic Circle and took part in Moscow's active world of avant-garde art and poetry. The linguistics of the time was overwhelming neogrammarian and insisted that the only scientific study of language was to study the history and development of words across time. Jakobson, on the other hand, had come into contact with the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, and developed an approach focused on the way in which language's structure served its basic function - to communicate information between speakers.

1920 was a year of political upheaval in Russia, and Jakobson moved to Prague to continue his doctoral studies. There he was, along with Nikolai Trubetzkoi, one of the founders of the "Prague school" of linguistic theory. There his numerous works on phonetics helped continue to develop his concerns with the structure and function of language.

Jakobson left Prague at the start of WWII for Scandinavia. As the war advanced west, he fled to New York City to become part of the wider community of intellectual emigrees who fled there. At the école Libre des Hautes Etudes, a sort of Francophone university-in-exile, he met and collaborated with Claude Levi-Strauss, who would also become a key exponent of structuralism. He also made the acquaintance of many American linguists and anthropologists such as Franz Boas, Benjamin Whorf, and Leonard Bloomfield.

In 1949 Jakobson moved to Harvard University, where he remained for the rest of his life. In the early 1960s Jakobson shifted his emphasis to a more embracing view of language and began writing about communication sciences as whole.

Jakobson distinguishes six communication functions each associated with a dimension of the communication process:

 Dimensions 1 context 2 message 3 sender --------------- 4 receiver 5 channel 6 code 
 Functions 1 referential (= contextual information) 2 aesthetic (= auto-reflection) 3 emotive (= self-expression) 4 conative (= vocative or imperative addressing of receiver) 5 phatic (= checking channel working) 6 metalingual (= checking code working) 
(Middleton 1990, p.241)

Jakobson's three major ideas in linguistics play a major role in the field to this day: linguistic typology, markedness and linguistic universals. The three concepts are tightly intertwined: typology is the classification of languages in terms of shared grammatical features (as opposed to shared origin), markedness is (very roughly) a study of how certain forms of grammatical organization are more "natural" than others, and linguistic universals is the study of the general features of languages in the world. He also influenced Nicolas Ruwet's paradigmatic analysis.


  • Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0335152759.



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