Roman Jakobson – Patron Saint of October, 2019

It is October! And today is Saturday the 5th of October, meaning that it is the first weekend of a new month! You know what that means!

Allow me to introduce you to Roman Osipovich Jakobson.

A Russian-American linguist and literary theorist, Professor Jakobson was born in Russia on the 11th of October, 1896. He lived there until 1920 when he moved to Czechoslovakia. Unfortunately, professor Jakobson lived in turbulent times and was forced to flee Czechoslovakia in 1939.

He eventually wound up in Norway and, in 1940, he walked across the border to Sweden. Unfortunately, Sweden proved to be a poor choice and Professor Jakobson fled to the United States in 1941.

Once in New York, professor Jakobson taught at The New School. In 1949, he moved on to teach at Harvard University, where he stayed until his retirement in 1967.

Professor Jakobson was a pioneer in structural linguistics. Together with colleague Nikolai Trubetzkoy, he pretty much founded the modern discipline of phonology!

Among his substantial achievements, we find a pretty remarkable one: together with colleagues Nikolai Trubetzkoy and Si.I. Karcevskij, Professor Jakobson further developed the concept of the phoneme, by suggesting that it has binary features. What this means is that phonemes are, for example, either voiced or unvoiced, aspirated or unaspirated. Today, we know that to be true; a truly momentous discovery in the world of phonology.

However, this is actually not what Professor Jakobson is most famous for.

Instead, Professor Jakobson’s most famous work might be claimed to be on the communicative functions. That is, the elements that make up any verbal act.

Any act of verbal communication, Jakobson claimed, is dominated by one of six functions:

ContextReferential - describes a situation, object or mental state
AddresserEmotive - relates to the Addresser (the one who is talking), internal state, usually with the help of interjections, such as "Wow, what a view!"
AddresseeConative - these are forms that addresser the hearer directly, for example, by use of vocatives and imperatives
ContactPhatic - is language for the sake of interaction - like saying "Hello" to strangers
CodeMetalingual - also known as metalinguistic, this is the use of language to describe itself.
MessagePoetic - is the focus on the message more than anything else. This is common in, for example, poetry and slogans.

His work proved very influential. Influenced by the organon model, developed by Karl B├╝hler, Jakobson’s own model was published in 1960. It was widely adopted, but, like anything in research, it also received its share of criticism.

In the end, Professor Jakobson’s valuable contributions to the field still play a major role in linguistic typology, markedness and the study of linguistic universals. There can thus be no doubt that Professor Jakobson certainly earned his place in the linguistic Hall of Fame and his (newly) appointed title as Patron Saint of October for the HLC!



If you want to know more about Professor Jakobson’s work on the functions of language – check out this link.

For the general information found here, check out Wikipedia’s entry on Professor Jakobson (which also includes some information about his work).

For work that Professor Jakobson did on the phoneme – check out Britannica’s entry.