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Jakobson, Roman Osipovich

(1896–1982; convert to Orthodox Christianity in 1975), Russian linguist and philologist. One of the twentieth century’s most versatile and imaginative linguists and literary scholars, Roman Jakobson was born in Moscow. Already in his high-school days—he graduated in 1914 from the Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages in Moscow—three hallmarks of his long scholarly career were apparent. The first was a penchant for group research and collaborative work; as a student of Slavic philology at the University of Moscow, he cofounded the Moscow Linguistic Circle in March 1915, and joined with the Russian formalists in their efforts to redirect the attention of literary scholars to the construction and form of literary works. A second hallmark was his impressive range of interests, stretching from folklore and mythology through literature, the visual arts, linguistics, and semiotics.

Finally, Jakobson’s work was always marked by close ties between scholarship and art, particularly that of the avant-garde. During the 1910s, Jakobson made the acquaintance of major Russian avant-garde figures such as the artist Kazimir Malevich and the futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov. In 1914 Jakobson wrote his own futurist poems under the pseudonym of Aliagrov, and throughout his life he explored the ways in which linguistics and poetry could shed light on each other. The futurist poets’ experiments with sound, which restructured associations between phonic patterns and the elements of meaning, proved fertile ground for Jakobson’s early investigations into both linguistics and poetry (Noveishaia russkaia poeziia [Recent Russian Poetry]; 1919).

Following the Russian Revolution, Jakobson managed to avoid fighting in the bloody Civil War. In 1920 he left for Prague, initially as a translator for the Soviet Red Cross mission; ultimately he would become a professor of Russian philology in Brno. In Czechoslovakia, he once again initiated extensive collaborations with other scholars—he maintained close contacts with his friends and fellow émigrés Nikolai Trubetskoi and Petr Bogatyrev, became a founding member of the Prague Linguistic Circle in 1926, and was a key presence at international linguistics congresses. As he had in Russia, he also worked with numerous artists and writers; he joined the avant-garde group Devětsil and was good friends with the poets Vítězslav Nezval and Jaroslav Seifert, among others. As much as any Czech, Jakobson was one of the defining figures of Czech scholarship and artistic life between the wars.

In these years, Jakobson wrote extensively on linguistics, Czech and Russian literature, and literary theory, continuing to develop the ideas of the Russian formalists. His pioneering work in phonology, developed in collaboration with the Prague Linguistic Circle, advanced an understanding of the structure of sound systems. With the formalist Iurii Tynianov, Jakobson published the brief but seminal article “Problemy izucheniia literatury i jazyka” (Problems in the Study of Language and Literature; 1928), which called for studying literature as a system among other systems, paying attention to its social context and evolution over time. Jakobson put these dicta into effect in his own studies of old Czech literature. After the suicide of the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, Jakobson wrote his impassioned essay “O pokolenii, rastrativshem svoikh poetov” (On a Generation that Squandered Its Poets; 1931), investigating the connection between poets’ lives and their personal mythologies. He also considered the nature of literary and artistic representation in a number of key essays, including “O realismu v umění” (On Realism in Art; 1921) and “Co je poezie?” (What is Poetry?; 1934). In the latter he developed the idea that poetry’s primary function is to draw attention to the language it uses, rather than refer transparently to reality.

In 1939, after the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands, there began what Jakobson called “the years of homeless wandering from one country to another”—a wandering that in no way detracted from his prolific output and, indeed, contributed many new impulses to his thought. He escaped first to Denmark, then to Norway and Sweden, where he completed his study Kindersprache, Aphasie und allgemeine Lautgesetze (Child Language, Aphasia, and Phonological Universals; 1941), investigating parallels between children’s acquisition of language and its loss by patients suffering from brain damage. In June 1941, Jakobson arrived in the United States, where he taught first at the École Libre des Hautes Études in New York, then moved to Columbia University and ultimately to Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Jakobson’s extensive research in America included work on the language spoken by medieval Czech Jews, and continued his investigations into metaphor and metonymy, aphasia, poetic language, and semiotics. Perhaps his most influential, and provocative, work from this period was his 1958 lecture “Linguistics and Poetics,” a touchstone of twentieth-century literary theory. Jakobson had close ties to YIVO, writing, for example, a preface to the first edition of College Yiddish (1949). He and Max Weinreich contributed to each other’s Festschriften.

Jakobson’s close association of linguistic theory and poetic practice (laid out in the 1961 essay “Poetry of Grammar and Grammar of Poetry”) also led him to write a series of close readings of poems from some dozen languages, generally in collaboration with native speakers, in which he interpreted poetry based on the deployment of grammatical categories (examining, for example, the distribution of first-person and third-person verbs in a Baudelaire sonnet). In Dialogues (1980), a book-length interview with his wife, the scholar Krystyna Pomorska, he looked back on a lifetime of research, with a lively sense of what had been achieved and all that remained to be done.

Suggested Reading

Henryk Baran, Sergei Gindin, et al., eds., Roman Iakobson: Texty, documenty, issledovaniia (Moscow, 1999); Roman Jakobson, Language in Literature, ed. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy (Cambridge, Mass., 1987); Roman Jakobson and Krystyna Pomorska, Dialogues (Cambridge, Mass., 1983); Stephen Rudy, Roman Jakobson 1896–1982: A Complete Bibliography of His Writings (Berlin, 1990); Jindřich Toman, The Magic of a Common Language: Jakobson, Mathesius, Trubetzkoy, and the Prague Linguistic Circle (Cambridge, Mass., 1995).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1300, Rachel (Shoshke) Erlich, Papers, 1934-1984.