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date: 22 October 2019

Jakobson, Roman

Encyclopedia of Semiotics

Charles Lock

Jakobson, Roman 


Russian‐born linguist, one of the most influential semioticians of the twentieth century. Jakobson's contribution to semiotics developed from his diverse studies of language, phonetics, dialectology, folkloristics, and poetics. When he was a student in philology at Moscow University in 1917, Jakobson turned to linguistics after being introduced to the work of Ferdinand de Saussure by Sergej I. Karcevskij, who had been a student of Saussure in Geneva. From 1915 to 1920, Jakobson was a leading member of the Moscow Linguistic Circle and of the Society for the Study of Poetic Language (OPOJAZ) based in Saint Petersburg. His early interest in poetics and the language of poetry led him to move to Prague in 1920 to pursue studies at Charles University. In 1926, Jakobson was one of the founders of the Prague Linguistic Circle, and it was there, in 1929, that Jakobson coined the word structuralism.

The specific meaning of structuralism, in its original context, was phonological. Where diachronic linguistics takes words to be differentiated according to philological rules, synchronists argue that words are to be distinguished phonetically within the phonological system of a given language. Differences between phonemes arise from the presence or absence of minimal sound units, named “distinctive features.” Thus, phonological systems are to be understood in terms of binary oppositions.

Binarism, shown by Jakobson to operate at the irreducibly minimal level of linguistic structure, was taken by researchers in other fields as a paradigm for analysis at higher levels. Jakobson developed a binary model of language, the two poles of which are the metaphoric and the metonymic. Such a model had been anticipated in Sigmund Freud's pairing of condensation and displacement and in James George Frazer's distinction between homeopathic (metaphoric) and contagious (metonymic) magic. The structuralist model was enormously influential: Claude Lévi‐Strauss in anthropology, Jean Piaget and Jacques Lacan in psychology, and Roland Barthes in poetics applied the binary paradigm in transforming their respective disciplines and bringing about a methodological shift in all the human and social sciences.

Jakobson's binarism found empirical and clinical support in the studies of aphasia conducted by American psychologist John Hughlings Jackson (1835–1911). In this research, Jakobson detected two types of aphasia, which corresponded neatly to the two poles of language. Each type results from an inability to operate linguistically, one lacking a sense of similarity, on the metaphoric axis, and the other lacking a sense of contiguity, on the metonymic. The positing of order in disorder, of the structural in the dysfunctional, might explain the attraction of Jakobson's model among psychiatrists.

One month after Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, Jakobson (who was Jewish by birth; in 1975, he converted to Orthodox Christianity) left Prague for Scandinavia; in 1941, he reached New York City. From 1943, he taught at Columbia University, and in 1949 he was appointed to a chair at Harvard University. It was only in North America that Jakobson came across the work of Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914); though not discovered by Jakobson, Peirce owes much of his contemporary prestige within semiotics to Jakobson's advocacy of his work.

The development of modern semiotics is unimaginable without Peirce; it is therefore worth asking what in Jakobson's background prepared him to recognize Peirce's importance. Saussure's ideas had been introduced to Russian students by Sergej Karcevskij in 1917; by 1922, S. I. Bernstejn had provided a detailed and systematic account in Russian of Saussure's Cours de linguistique générale. Yet it was apparently only in 1947—in an article by Rulon Wells, “De Saussure's System of Linguistics” in Word—that Saussure was introduced to North American linguistics. The parallels between Peirce and Saussure are now evident and virtually constitutive for structuralist semiotics. It was Jakobson who first connected and juxtaposed Saussure and Peirce; he subsequently made much rhetorical and heuristic use of an opposition between them. Peirce became an authority and rhetorical ally in Jakobson's struggle against and with Saussure.

Since the 1920s, Jakobson had contested three of Saussure's axioms. Instead of the Saussurean dichotomy between synchrony and diachrony, Jakobson (who remained devoted to philological research, notably of medieval Slavic texts) preferred to speak of “permanently dynamic synchrony.” Jakobson also rejected Saussure's insistence on the linearity and sequentiality of the semiotic chain. The force of Jakobson's theory of the poetic function—that the axis of selection (parataxis, metaphor) is projected onto the axis of combination (syntaxis, metonymy)—is that the lingustic chain must admit the simultaneity of equivalent terms: the one term present invokes absent terms, those unchosen on the parataxis. It is precisely the poetic function that challenges the claim of strict linearity, and Jakobson argued that this function, while dominant in poetry, is present in all forms of discourse. This develops and confirms the structuralist, binary theory of phonology, according to which it is simultaneity rather than linearity that is constitutive of discourse.

This leads to the best known of Saussure's axioms: that the relation between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary. Jakobson (not quite fairly) treated Saussure's bipartite sign as a reformulation of the Stoic and medieval distinction between signans (message) and signatum (acoustic pattern), the sensible and the intelligible, the acoustic and the mental. Saussure's argument, though it has sometimes been received with controversy, should be as obvious and as irrefutable as Hermogenes' arguments against Cratylus in Plato's dialogue. Jakobson's objections are on the side of Cratylus. If the syntaxis of a sentence is determined partially by its rhythm or by alliteration or by other poetic features (present in such alliterative archaisms as “kith and kin,” “time and tide,” or in trochaic phrases such as “bread and butter,” “cup and saucer”), how can we be certain that such examples are exceptions? It might be that, unknown to speakers, the semantic is linked to or even dependent on the acoustic in every utterance. Saussure's axiom assumes an entirely nonaesthetic use of language; Jakobson is one of the very few linguists to place poetics at the center of inquiry. By insisting that to some degree the poetic function is present in all messages, Jakobson suggests that any word or phoneme may be selected not exclusively for its place in the semantic or intelligible chain of signification but also for its place in an acoustic chain, the order of sounds. Such a Cratylic argument is a provocative response to Saussure's abrupt dismissal of the problem of onomatopoeia.

Peirce classified all signs into three types: symbol, index, and icon. For Peirce, as for Saussure, words operate within a conventional and arbitrary code and are therefore symbols. Indexes and icons are usually taken to be pictorial rather than verbal or alphabetical signs, such as, respectively, an arrow that points, signifying by contiguity, and a photograph that represents by resemblance. The correspondences between index and metonymy and between icon and metaphor led Jakobson beyond Peirce's view that language was the dominant semiotic code because symbols alone were arbitrary; from the late 1940s, Jakobson investigated linguistic instances of index and icon. Some words do operate indexically, notably “shifters,” which are words that cannot be understood without reference to both the message and the speaker. A shifter refers to the message, as any symbol must; it also, in the nature of things that point, stands “in existential relation with the object it represents.” Peirce had already made an exception, according to Arthur W. Burks's early account (1949) of Peircean semiotics, by speaking of “indexical symbols.” The word shifter was not Peirce's but was coined by Otto Jespersen in 1922. Jakobson used that concept together with the schematic analysis of “reported speech” outlined in Valentin Voloshinov's Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929)—evidence of Jakobson's continuing acquaintance with the work of theorists in the Soviet Union, in this instance the circle around Mikhail M. Bakhtin. The double nature of the shifter, both symbolic and indexical, yet again illuminates the importance of the poetic function: every word in a poem refers to the poem as signans while simultaneously standing in existential relation to the poem as signatum.

Jakobson's argument for the indexical function of the linguistic sign was formulated clearly by 1957. The next step, the last phase of Jakobson's development, completed the recuperation of Peirce and the defiance of Saussure by arguing that linguistic signs might also be iconic. Jakobson referred to not only Peirce but other American linguists, including Benjamin Lee Whorf, William Dwight Whitney, Leonard Bloomfield, and Edward Sapir. In “Quest for the Essence of Language” (1971), Jakobson cites Peirce: “Every algebraic equation is an icon, insofar as it exhibits by means of the algebraic signs (which are not themselves icons) the relations of the quantities concerned.” Any algebraic formula appears to be an icon, “rendered such by the rules of commutation, association, and distribution of the symbols.” Thus, “algebra is but a sort of diagram,” and “language is but a kind of algebra.” Peirce thus “vividly conceives” the iconicity of syntax, that “the arrangement of the words in the sentence…must serve as icons, in order that the sentence may be understood.”

Words are always symbolic, and as shifters they may also be indexical. Jakobson cites Peirce again: “It would be difficult, if not impossible, to instance an absolutely pure index, or to find any sign absolutely devoid of the indexical quality” (1971). And, through syntax, Jakobson tries to argue that the arrangement of words, if not each word, is iconic: syntax itself does not conform to the law of pure linearity. Jakobson goes on to cite Whorf, who, with his emphasis on “the algebraic nature of language” knew how to abstract from individual sentences the “designs of sentence structure” and argued that “the patternment aspect of language [i.e., syntax] always overrides and controls the lexation or name‐giving aspect.” Saussure's insistence on the linearity of the semiotic chain had obscured precisely this: just as an algebraic formula specifies relations, distributions, and commutations without any referential function whatsoever, so the arrangement of words specifies proportion and disposition prior to reference. This, we might hazard, is obviously so in the case of a sonnet or an epitaph; and as the poetic function is present, however minimally, in all messages, so every utterance must be analyzable in terms of its “sound‐shape” (1971).

This is the argument of Jakobson's final monograph, written with Linda Waugh (1979). In this venture, Jakobson and Waugh find a most surprising ally in Saussure, whose “only finished writing during his professorship in Geneva…would have innovated the world‐wide science of poetics, but…was unduly hidden,” because it was regarded as merely “futile digressions,” until it was published in summary form by J. Starobinski (1971). Saussure detected anagrams or “hypograms” concealed by dispersion through lines of Latin verse. Yet, far from being a crazed obsession, this work was a specific challenge to Saussure's own postulate of linearity. The disposition of proper names as hypograms is virtually algebraic: in linear sequence, the name is hidden, and it is disclosed in spatial terms as iconic. The regrettable delay in the publication of Saussure's anagrammatic studies meant that Jakobson's sixty‐year struggle against Saussure was in part upstaged by Saussure himself, as Jakobson generously recognized.

Jakobson's theory of the iconicity of language—perhaps his single greatest contribution to semiotics, poetics, and linguistics—has itself been disdained within linguistics and treated with insufficient respect in semiotics. Its implications concern the uniqueness of language among sign systems: is language special because, unlike all other sign systems, it is exclusively symbolic? Or does its power lie in the fact that it is the only sign system that operates in all the Peircean modes, symbolic, indexical, and iconic? Positivists and most linguists prefer the former explanation; students of poetry and poetics have yet to explore the consequences of the latter claim.


Armstrong, D., and C. H. van Schooneveld, eds. Roman Jakobson: Echoes of His Scholarship. Lisse: De Ridder, 1977.Find this resource:

Burks, A. W. “Icon, Index, and Symbol.Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 9.4 (1949): 673–689.Find this resource:

Grzybek, P. “Some Remarks on the Notion of Sign in Jakobson's Semiotics and in Czech Structuralism.Znakolog: An International Yearbook of Slavic Semiotics 1 (1988): 113–128.Find this resource:

Holenstein, E. Roman Jakobson's Approach to Language: Phenomenological Structuralism. Translated by C. and T. Schelbert. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.Find this resource:

Jackson, J. H. “Hughlings Jackson on Aphasia and Kindred Effect in the Production of Speech, Together with a Complete Bibliography of His Publications on Speech.Brain 38.1 (1915): 1–190.Find this resource:

Jakobson, R. “Quest for the Essence of Language.” In Selected Writings, vol. 2, Word and Language, edited by R. Jakobson, pp. 345–359. The Hague: Mouton, 1971.Find this resource:

Jakobson, R. Language in Literature. Edited by K. Pomorska and S. Rudy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Jakobson, R. On Language. Edited by L. Waugh and M. Monville‐Bruston. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Jakobson, R., and L. Waugh. The Sound Shape of Language. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979.Find this resource:

Jespersen, O. Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin. London: Allen and Unwin, 1922.Find this resource:

Plato. The Collected Dialogues. Edited by E. Hamilton and H. Cairns. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961.Find this resource:

Rudy, S. Roman Jakobson 1896–1982: A Complete Bibliography of His Writings. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1990.Find this resource:

Starobinski, J. Words upon Words: The Anagrams of Ferdinand de Saussure (1971). Translated by O. Emmet. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.Find this resource:

Striedter, J. Literary Structure, Evolution, and Value: Russian Formalism and Czech Structuralism Reconsidered. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.Find this resource:

Toman, J. The Magic of a Common Language: Jakobson, Mathesius, Trubetskoy, and the Prague Linguistic Circle. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995.Find this resource:

A Tribute to Roman Jakobson, 1896–1982. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1983.Find this resource:

Voloshinov, V. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Translated by L. Matejka and I. R. Titunik. New York and London: Seminar Press, 1973.Find this resource:

—Charles Lock