Roman Osipovich Jakobson (1896-1982)


  • European Structuralism, The Prague School of Linguistics

Research Interests

  • General linguistics, structural analysis

Notable Ideas

  • Theory on the distinctive features of phonology



Russian-born American linguist, Jakobson was an assistant professor of Russian language and literature in Moscow. In 1941 he moved to America, where he was a professor at Columbia and Harvard between 1946 and 1967. He was professor of Slavic languages and literature and of general linguistics at Harvard University (1949-1967).

In 1926, he became one of the founders of the "Prague School" of linguistic theory, together with his friend N. Trubetzkoy. Here, Jakobson further developed his concerns with the structure and function of language.

Contribution to Linguistics

At that time, linguistics was largely neo-grammarian and insisted that the only scientific study of language was to study the history and development of words across time (the diachronic approach, in Saussure's terms).

In 1928, Jakobson announced a radical departure from the classical structural position of Ferdinand de Saussure. He suggested that the methods of studying the function of speech sounds could be applied both synchronically, to a language as it exists, and diachronically, to a language as it changes.

Central Knowledge

Jakobson's three principal ideas in linguistics play a major role in the field to this day:

  • linguistic typology: the classification of languages in terms of shared grammatical features (as opposed to shared origin);
  • markedness: the study of how certain forms of grammatical organization are more "natural" than others;
  • linguistic universals: the study of the general features of languages in the world.

Main Publications

  • Jakobson, Roman. Fundamentals of Language (with M. Halle). The Hague: Mouton, 1956.

  • Jakobson, Roman. “Remarques sur l'évolution phonologique du russe comparée à celles des autres langues slaves“. Roman Jakobson Selected Writings: Phonological Studies. Berlin; New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1962. pp.7-116.

  • Jakobson, Roman. Kharakteristichke yevrazi-yskogo yazykovogo soyuza (1931; Characteristics of the Eurasian Language Affinity). Roman Jakobson Selected Writings: Phonological Studies. Berlin; New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1962. pp.144-201.

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