Roman Ossipowitsch Jakobson

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Roman Jakobson

Roman Jakobson ( Russian Роман Осипович Якобсон , scientific. Transliteration Roman Jakobson Osipovic ; ) (born 11 . Jul / 23. October  1896 greg. In Moscow , † 18 July 1982 in Boston , United States ) was a Russian philologist , linguist and semiotic .


Jakobson studied Slavic Studies in his hometown Moscow. He soon joined the Moscow linguists group, which is assigned to the Russian formalism , a school which, among other things, produced the first theory of the then new medium of film.

In 1920 Jakobson came to Prague as an employee of the Soviet embassy , but soon left this post to return to science. In 1926 he was a co-founder of the Prague Linguist Circle . In 1933 he received a professorship at the University of Brno . In 1939, before the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, he fled to Denmark and Norway, then to Sweden (Uppsala, Stockholm). In 1941 he followed a call to the École Libre des Hautes Études, a French university in exile in New York. There he met Claude Lévi-Strauss , whom he had a lasting influence. In 1943 he received a professorship at Columbia University ; In 1949 he was called to Harvard University . In 1950 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences . From 1957 he was the first Harvard professor to teach at the neighboring Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 1967 he retired and until 1974 was visiting professor at the Collège de France and at the universities of Yale , Princeton , Brown , Brandeis , Leuven and New York. In 1974 he was elected a corresponding member of the British Academy . In 1980 he received the international Antonio Feltrinelli Prize .


In addition to Nikolai Sergejewitsch Trubetzkoy , Jakobson played a prominent role as a representative of the Prague School of Structuralism , whose research subjects included the phonological foundations of natural language . Jakobson was particularly effective in studying the general laws by which language works. He dealt intensively with the development of children's language and the language of aphasia . Thanks to his numerous interdisciplinary approaches, he provided excellent knowledge in the fields of semiotics , communication theory and in the fields of philosophy and psychology. Jakobson has also published on folklore, film and painting and repeatedly on poetics .

The communication model

Building on the three-part Organon model of language by Karl Bühler (1934), Jakobson formulated a model in his essay Linguistics and Poetics (1960) according to which six factors and functions ( language functions ) are involved in every linguistic communication :

Scheme communication generale jakobson.png
  • The context , also called referent by Jakobson , is the prerequisite for communication to develop a referential function , namely to convey content;
  • the message , which in its poetic function can itself become the subject;
  • the sender whose attitude towards what is said is provided by the emotive function ;
  • the recipient to whom the message can send a request via its conative function ;
  • the contact , also called a physical channel based on communications technology, which is maintained by the phatic function of the message;
  • the code , the mutual comprehensibility of which becomes the topic in the metalingual function of the message.

Jakobson's application is literary text analysis. Jakobson may have contributed to popularizing a model that has now, often reduced to four ( 4-ear model ) or five ( Lasswell formula ) constituents, passed into the core of the reductionist psychology taught by "communication trainers" in countless seminars is.

Jakobson's contribution to literary studies and poetics

Based on findings from phonology , Jakobson applies linguistic concepts to poetry and explains: "Poetry is language in its aesthetic function". In his work, The Latest Russian Poetry , he writes: “The attitude towards expression, towards linguistic mass, is the only essential factor for poetry.” By expression, he means the meaning arising from the form. The function of language as social contact is reduced to a minimum in poetry. Jakobson always emphasizes the differences between practical and poetic language. According to Jakobson, the subject of literary studies and poetry is literariness (later he called it poeticity ). This describes the factor that turns a text into a literary work of art. Jakobson thinks the way in which the sounds are connected to one another, i.e. the phonetic material of the language, is decisive for the meaningfulness of a statement. The distinction between phonetics and phonology was the inspiration behind this idea.

When analyzing poetic texts, intersubjective validation plays an important role for him, ensuring comparability and verifiability. As with Humboldt , the subject is only of secondary importance, since language only obeys its own rules and can undermine or even devalue the conscious language behavior of the subject.

Of great importance for the history of linguistics was his introduction of the distinction (both on the lexical as well as on the semantic level) between characteristic and non-characteristic. While the term “cat” represents a term without a marker, the word “tomcat” is to be regarded as characteristic (with “cat” we refer to the animal itself, a gender-specific information is not clearly evident, while “tomcat” only refers to male cats describe). According to Jakobson, poetic language shows itself to be particularly distinctive compared to unmarked, "normal" language.

The poetic function of language that he established makes literary texts accessible for linguistic analysis. In his works on this subject, he sticks to formalism , which he has often been reproached for. Critics believed that this approach would prevent him from grasping the essence of poetry.

By identifying language as the carrier of the unconscious, he made an important preliminary contribution for the later development of psychoanalysis . Jakobson also thinks that we always choose the poetically appropriate words from many equivalent words. A decision is made on the basis of phonological criteria that color the meaning of the statement in a loud semantic way.

By identifying poetry as an art, which is supposed to be the starting point for any scientific analysis of the foundations of language, he clearly privileges it over all other literary forms, something that he has also often been criticized for.

“The source of poetry hidden in the morphological and syntactic structure of language, in short, the poetry of grammar and its literary product, the grammar of poetry, are seldom known to critics, have been almost completely overlooked by linguists and handled masterfully by creative writers. "

- Roman Jakobson : Jakobson 1979: p. 116

The text analysis according to Jakobson

Jakobson's analysis of literary texts is characterized by the following criteria:

  1. Inductive analysis (The text is broken down into its building blocks and a hierarchical structure is created from this, this is based on the previously mentioned binary semantics , i.e. on the interplay between similarities and differences. In addition, the different, interrelated language levels functionally and hierarchically analyzed.)
  2. Mythologization of semantics (striving for general validity, the differences between generic terms are eliminated, as in the example of the cat mentioned above).

Above all, the neglect of the context and the fading out of the observer's point of view are criticized in this approach.

Child speech and aphasia

His studies on the subject of child language and aphasia generally show that all languages share the extreme phonetic distinction - such as between maximally open and maximally closed vowels or between vowels and closed consonants . It is these phonetic distinctions that the child learns first and the aphasic loses last. In view of this, Jakobson's investigations can be seen as a kind of history of the development of language. He also tried to explain the so-called inner language (especially the language production in dreams) by means of sound laws.

In the case of aphasia, there are combination disorders that take place on the syntagmatic axis and which are metonymies . There are also word finding disorders on a paradigmatic axis in the form of a metaphor .

Structuralism according to Jakobson

Jakobson was a supporter of the structuralist school, including the Prague structuralist circle, and made valuable contributions to its further development. According to the structuralist way of thinking, objects are constituted by their relationship to other elements of the system, which could not exist without it and should be described in terms of their properties. Twentieth-century Prague structuralism regards functional explanations as immanent explanations and thus opposes the prevailing image of mechanical-causal relationships. It is alleged that Jakobson introduced the concept of structuralism in a speech at the first International Congress of Linguists in 1929, but this is also denied by several sides.

The consideration of the structure as a linguistic method of interpretation is to be seen as a turning away from the predominant positivism and atomism of the young grammarians . A characteristic of Prague structuralism between 1929 and 1939 is the way linguistics are viewed with regard to their embedding and their origins in everyday experiences and questions. Regarding the relationship between linguistics and other sciences, Jakobson said that the interrelationships between the human sciences are centered in linguistics and that, as the most progressive and precise of the human sciences, it functions as a model for all the rest of this discipline. In his works he repeatedly emphasizes this importance of the achievements of linguistics for other fields of science.

He sees ambiguity as the basis for the interpretation of poetic texts. Jakobson also coined the terms iconicity (similarity) and contrast (indexicality). These can finally be located on the paradigmatic or syntagmatic axis (see paradigm or syntagma ). Jakobson also differentiates between metaphor and metonymy. This so-called "basic binary structure" of language is common to all linguistic operations.

Differences to common concepts of structuralism

The structuralism advocated by Jakobson differs in essential points from de Saussure's views . For example, he contradicts Saussure with regard to the arbitrariness of the characters and advocates viewing the object when it is embedded in the system of rules, which restricts arbitrariness. He sees the rules of the linguistic code as characteristics of all languages, such as basic characteristics such as the separation of vowels and consonants. A radical difference to other perspectives can also be seen in the way of looking at the presence and absence of objects. These would not be determinable without the existence of the other (an example of this is the connection between nasal vowels and nasal consonants and oral vowels). In this sense, all signs according to Jakobson are motivated in a certain way, unmotivated signs do not exist. In addition, contrary to Saussure's views, he takes the view that synchrony and diachrony form an inseparable dynamic unit. The dual approach to code and message and the adherence to functionalism can be seen as a difference to American structuralism . By pointing out the dynamic aspects of both synchrony and diachrony, he suggests that synchrony and diachrony are not insurmountable antitheses.

“The elimination of the static, the expulsion of the absolute, that is the essential feature of the new age, the question of burning topicality. Is there absolute rest, even if it is only in the form of an absolute concept without real existence in nature, from the principle of relativity it follows that there is no absolute rest. "

- Roman Jakobson : Jakobson 1988: p. 44

From this statement one can see Jakobson's tendency to relativity , i.e. against things as we only see them from our particular perspective. A major difference from romantic structuralism is evident in Jakobson's views on the functions of the individual, in that he contradicts the current image of individual feelings and their orientation towards hermeneutics and mentions the subject only as one function among many.

Phenomenological structuralism

"Structuralism means, according to Jakobson, to consider phenomena as a structured whole and to expose the static or dynamic laws of this system." (Pichler 1991, p. 101) Thus, he follows on from Husserl's views on the phenomenology of language. In his works, Jakobson often refers to Holenstein when he thinks that phenomenology functions as a fundamental consideration for structuralism. He sees a phenomenological determination in every concept.

Jakobson takes into account, among other things, the subject-oriented questions and the dependence of the judges on their respective point of view. He advocates the “bracketing of the inessential” instead of the “accumulation and synthesis of existing knowledge” and believes that he can look at the object itself. However, the attitude of the observer plays a decisive role here. For Jakobson, this phenomenological attitude is an indisputable fact that is decisive for the dominance of one or the other language function. The strict adherence to phenomenology and the resulting fading out of the context ultimately gave rise to post-structuralism as a counter-movement.

Formalism - structuralism

The Prague theses postulated by Jakobson and Tynjanow in 1928 reject the mechanistic approaches of the Russian formalism, which replace analysis with classification and terminology, and thus represent the transition to structuralism. The desire for a fragmentation of knowledge should be abandoned and holistic procedures and approaches give way. Nevertheless, a certain tendency towards Hegelianism and thus a connection to Russian thought can be found in Jakobson's works . Time and again he distances himself from formalism, i.e. from one-sided consideration of a single aspect, but traces of his initial influence by this school can be seen in his work. Jakobson also draws attention to the need for holistic research in both linguistics and poetics. It replaces the mechanical process with the conception of a goal-oriented system. Furthermore, with regard to the teleological character of poetic language, he believes that it is evident in both poetry and everyday language.

On the relationship between art and science

Jakobson sees art and science as two areas that cannot be clearly defined. With regard to poetry and the creativity of language, he sees the boundaries becoming increasingly blurred. Since poetry does not claim any truth value, but only reveals the functionality of language in the act of speaking itself, it once again represents for him opportunities to develop the functional perfection of language. An analysis of poetry is therefore a possibility to discover the riddle of language . He thus reveals poetry as the purest art of language (see above).

For Jakobson, the questions that arise in his linguistic investigations are inextricably linked with those of modern art of the twenties. In this sense he is particularly fond of Cubism , which in his opinion is also the starting point for an analysis of Futurism . “The cubist multiplies an object in a picture, shows it from several perspectives and makes it tangible. That is a method of painting. "( Roman Jakobson : Jakobson 1979: p. 131)

Just as art emphasizes the solidarity of the parts that ultimately form a whole, it is the same process that, according to Jakobson, is also given to poetics. The Prague structuralists see art first and foremost as a structure, later they develop a concept of art as a system of signs . Thus, no isolated examinations are carried out, but rather the individual structures are always examined in correlation with other sign systems. For example, society, the psychology of the author / artist and the evolution of forms are included in the analysis. Jakobson insists on the communicative character also in art and the again separable union of meaning and expression. While the communicative sign has an arbitrary relation to reality, the aesthetic sign in art has several relationships to reality (by which it means the entire context that includes the recipient in the form of culture).

My futuristic years

This work is Jakobson's autobiography, in which he reports, among other things, about his encounters with important poets and scientists of his time. Here he represents a very turbulent and lively youth, which were of great importance for his subsequent work. He himself said that the contact with artists and poets opened up a new perspective and shaped his mind. The font not only provides interesting background information on the life of Roman Jakobson, but also helps to better understand many of his views and, above all, distancing himself from the views of other scientists and artists.


Jakobson published in German, English, French, Italian, Polish, Russian and Czech. His original articles in magazines, newspapers, edited volumes, conference reports, etc. The like are mostly difficult to grasp. A complete edition (Selected Writings) is laid out in 10 volumes.

Some essay and book titles in random selection:

  • Remarques sur l'evolution phonologique du russe comparée à celle des autres langues slaves (1929)
  • K characteristic evrazijskogo jazykovogo sojuza (1930)
  • Child language, aphasia and general phonetic laws (1941)
  • Preliminaries to Speech Analysis (with G. Fant and Morris Halle , 1952)
  • Fundamentals of Language (with M. Halle, 1956)
  • Linguistics and Poetics: Closing Statement (in Style in Language , Ed. Thomas Sebeok, 1960)
  • Child Language Aphasia and Phonological Universals (1968)
  • Phonological Studies (1971)
  • Dialogues (with his wife and colleague Krystyna Pomorska, 1983)


Primary literature

  • Jakobson, Roman / Halle, Morris: Basics of Language. Berlin. (Writings on phonetics, linguistics and communication research. No. 1). Berlin 1960
  • Jakobson, Roman: Form and Sense. Linguistic considerations. Wilhelm Fink Verlag, Munich 1974
  • Jakobson, Roman: Essays on linguistics and poetics . Munich 1974
  • Jakobson, Roman: The grammatical structure of children's language. Rhenish-Westphalian Academy of Sciences, Lectures G 218 (with contributions to the discussion) 1977
  • Jakobson, Roman / Holenstein, Elmar (ed.): Poetics. Selected articles 1921–1971. Frankfurt am Main 1979, ISBN 3-518-07862-3
  • Jakobson, Roman: Child Language, Aphasia and General Sound Laws. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1992, ISBN 3-518-10330-X
  • Jakobson, Roman / Holenstein, Elmar (ed.): Semiotics. Selected texts 1919–1982. Suhrkamp. Frankfurt am Main 1992, ISBN 3-518-28607-2
  • Jakobson, Roman / Jangfeldt, Bengt (ed.): My futuristic years. Friedenauer Presse, Berlin 1999, ISBN 3-932109-14-7
  • Jakobson, Roman / Birus, Hendrik / Donat, Sebastian (ed.): Poetry of grammar and grammar of poetry. All poetry analyzes. Annotated German edition . 2 vols. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin and New York 2007, ISBN 978-3-11-018362-7

Secondary literature

  • Adelbert Reif (ed.): Answers of the structuralists. Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Francois Jacob, Roman Jakobson, Claude Lévi-Strauss. Hoffmann and Campe, Hamburg 1973, ISBN 3-455-09053-2
  • Elmar Holenstein: About the ability to deceive language. Cognitive materials of language. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1980, ISBN 3-518-07916-4
  • Irene Pichler: Roman Jakobson's contribution to structural linguistics and poetics. On the history of science of structuralism. Dissertation University of Vienna, Vienna 1991
  • Stephan Grotz: On dealing with tautologies. Martin Heidegger and Roman Jakobson. Meiner, Hamburg 2000, ISBN 3-7873-1531-4
  • Tomás Glanc: Formalism forever. Roman Jakobson 1935. In: Nekula, Marek (Hrsg.): Prague structuralism. Winter, Heidelberg 2003, ISBN 3-8253-1486-3
  • Hendrik Birus, Sebastian Donat, Burkhard Meyer-Sickendiek (eds.): Roman Jakobsons poem analyzes. A challenge to the philologies. Wallstein, Göttingen 2003, ISBN 3-89244-637-7
  • Hendrik Birus: Roman Jakobson. In: Matías Martínez , Michael Scheffel (ed.): Classics of modern literary theory. From Sigmund Freud to Judith Butler (= Beck'sche series. 1822). Beck, Munich 2010, ISBN 978-3-406-60829-2 , pp. 127-147.

See also

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Deceased Fellows. British Academy, accessed June 13, 2020 .