Oct 112017

Today is the birthday (1896) of Roman Osipovich Jakobson (Рома́н О́сипович Якобсо́н), Russian–American linguist and literary theorist whose work on the structural analysis of language became the dominant trend in linguistics during the first half of the 20th century and greatly influenced structural anthropology which was very much in vogue when I was a doctoral candidate in the early 1970s. The influence of structuralism in general declined during the 1970s and I gave it up for more fertile fields as I read more widely. But there are some core ideas that linger (somewhat transformed). I’ll try not to be too technical here: the danger of knowing too much about a subject. Mostly I want to talk about Jacobson’s influence, and why I moved in the opposite direction. Jakobson’s brand of linguistics is all about making the study of language into a science, and I believe that this is a misguided enterprise. Science wants to find RULES in the midst of seeming complexity – known technically as reductionism. I don’t like RULES – personally or professionally – and I don’t believe that human behavior (linguistic or otherwise) can be reduced to rules: just the opposite. Human behavior is inherently complex and is irreducible in my oh-so-humble opinion. I want the opposite of reduction: complexity. Before continuing with this, let’s have a little biographical context.

Jakobson was born in Russia a well-to-do family of Jewish descent, the industrialist Osip Jakobson and chemist Anna Volpert Jakobson, and he developed a fascination with language at a very young age. He studied at the Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages and then at the Historical-Philological Faculty of Moscow University. As a student he was a leading figure of the Moscow Linguistic Circle and took part in Moscow’s active world of avant-garde art and poetry. The linguistics of the time was overwhelmingly neogrammarian 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). Jakobson, on the other hand, had come into contact with the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, and developed an approach focused on the way in which language’s structure served its basic function (synchronic approach) – to communicate information between speakers. Jakobson was also well known for his critique of the emergence of sound in film.

1920 was a year of political conflict in Russia, and Jakobson relocated to Prague as a member of the Soviet diplomatic mission to continue his doctoral studies. He immersed himself both into the academic and cultural life of pre-World War II Czechoslovakia and established close relationships with a number of Czech poets and literary figures. Jakobson received his Ph.D. from Charles University in 1930. He became a professor at Masaryk University in Brno in 1933. He also made an impression on Czech academics with his studies of Czech verse. In 1926, together with Vilém Mathesius and others he became one of the founders of the “Prague school” of linguistic theory.

Jakobson escaped from Prague in early March 1939 via Berlin for Denmark, where he was associated with the Copenhagen linguistic circle, and such intellectuals as Louis Hjelmslev. He fled to Norway on 1 September 1939, and in 1940 walked across the border to Sweden, where he continued his work at the Karolinska Hospital (with works on aphasia and language competence). When Swedish colleagues feared a possible German occupation, he managed to leave on a cargo ship, together with Ernst Cassirer (the former rector of Hamburg University) to New York City in 1941 to become part of the wider community of intellectual émigrés who fled there.

In New York, he began teaching at The New School, still closely associated with the Czech émigré community during that period. At the École libre des hautes études, a sort of Francophone university-in-exile, he met and collaborated with Claude Lévi-Strauss, who became the leading light of structuralism in anthropology. He also made the acquaintance of many “American” linguists and anthropologists, such as Franz Boas, Benjamin Whorf, and Leonard Bloomfield. When the US authorities considered “repatriating” him to Europe (i.e. condemning him to a concentration camp), it was Franz Boas who intervened to save his life. In 1949 Jakobson moved to Harvard University, where he remained until his retirement in 1967.

Usually historians divide Jakobson’s work into 4 stages. In the first stage, roughly the 1920s to 1930s, he helped develop the concept of the phoneme, the core of phonology. Basically, every language has a distinct set of phonemes: sounds that change the meanings of words. Thus “bin” and “pin” are different words in English, so /b/ and /p/ are distinct phonemes. Whether you pronounce the /p/ with a puff of air or not (aspirated versus unaspirated) does not make a difference to the meaning of “pin” in English. But aspirated versus unaspirated /p/ makes a difference in Burmese. So, they are different phonemes in Burmese (something I had to struggle to hear when I lived in Myanmar).

In the second stage, roughly the late 1930s to the 1940s, Jakobson developed the notion that “binary distinctive features” were the foundational element in language. This idea lies at the heart of structuralism: the notion that even complex human behavior can be broken into binary oppositions, and that human thought is the product of these binary oppositions – e.g. nature/culture, male/female, black/white . . . etc. – all nested together.

In the third stage in Jakobson’s work, from the 1950s to 1960s, he worked with the acoustician C. Gunnar Fant and Morris Halle (a student of Jakobson’s) to consider the acoustic aspects of distinctive features. The following diagram gives the basic idea. Don’t worry for the moment if it seems a bit opaque. Note you have 2 binary oppositions – compact/diffuse and grave/acute – which yield a triad of sounds. I used a similar analysis once to describe what happened on the 2nd and 3rd days of creation in Genesis. On the 2nd day God created the sky and created the binary opposition of up/down. On the 3rd day he separated sea and dry land.  Thus, you have three zones: air (up), ocean (down and wet), habitable land (down and dry).

In the 4th stage, late 1960s on, Jakobson distinguished six communication functions, each associated with a dimension or factor of the communication process. I’ll give them to you without much elaboration or explanation:

referential (contextual information)

aesthetic/poetic (auto-reflection)

emotive (self-expression)

conative (vocative or imperative addressing of receiver)

phatic (checking channel working)

metalingual (checking code working)

Just as an example, the metalingual (code checking), could be something like, “do you know what a verb is?” where you are using language to talk about language. This kind of reduction of language to six types or functions is, for me, laughably rigid and pointless. Where do you place the poetry of e.e. cummings? Is it aesthetic? metalingual? conative? emotive? or some combination? If it’s a combination, what are the percentages and how are they combined? The exercise all seems ludicrously reductive and pointless to me. Many linguistics now agree with me that structural linguistics is a dead end. It’s attempting to reduce the irreducible.

For the past 5 years I have been teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) in China, Italy, and Myanmar. It’s an extremely instructive enterprise if you pay attention. Most EFL teachers just teach the “rules” of grammar, and if the students are lucky, they teach some exceptions as well. I grit my teeth when I teach the “rules” because the cascade of “exceptions” is painfully obvious to me right from the start.  Teaching English prepositions drives me bonkers. Just the other day I wrote to a former Italian student that “these days I wake up with nothing to do . . .” and he asked “is ‘with’ the correct preposition?” Yes, it is. Why? Because it is !!! I find that learning a new language is best accomplished by imitating native speakers and not worrying too much about the “rules.”

Let’s get back to binary oppositions. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss turned Jakobson’s phonological analysis into a cultural one by reducing human thought to certain basic binary oppositions. For Lévi-Strauss the nature/culture opposition was fundamental to all human societies because all humans want to distance themselves from “nature” even though they are a part of it. The quintessential opposition in this regard is natural/artificial. If animals make something it’s natural; if humans make something, it’s artificial. Bees make honey from nectar and it’s natural; humans make plastic from petrochemicals and it’s artificial. Bees live in hives and it’s natural; humans live in apartment complexes and it’s artificial. Or let me ask you a question: Is there a mammal you are especially fond of? I asked this of my students every year. No one ever said, “My mother.” Humans are mammals, but we don’t automatically think in those terms.  We want to separate nature (out there) and culture (in here). My mother is a mammal, yes, but she’s also not (in my head). Mammals are “other.”

Lévi-Strauss changed Jakobson’s phonological triangle (above) to create the culinary triangle where the nested oppositions are culture/nature and changed/unchanged to create three categories – raw, cooked, and rotten. All are foods in different cultures, with different “meanings.” Raw versus cooked is easily understood; rotten is a bit more complex. Blue cheese is one possible example of rotten: cheese that has been injected with mold and left to “rot.” Fermented foods are, by this definition, rotten also. I find this all hopelessly reductive and simplistic. Why are microbes used to make blue cheese “natural” but fire is “cultural”? They are both natural yet manipulated by culture. Even raw foods are washed and cut before being eaten. We transform everything we eat (and so do animals to varying degrees).

We can use Lévi-Strauss’ (false) culinary triangle to make a dish to celebrate Jakobson’s legacy: a salad of greens (raw) with grilled chicken breast (cooked) and blue cheese (rotten).

That appeals to me but I’ll leave you to be creative. Come up with any raw/cooked/rotten combination you fancy.

Aug 212013


On this date in 1991, Latvia asserted its independence from the Soviet Union. The Republic of Latvia was founded on November 18, 1918, after centuries of imperial rule. However, its independent status was interrupted at the outset of World War II when in 1940 the country was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941, then re-occupied by the Soviets in 1944 to form the Latvian SSR for the next fifty years. The peaceful Singing Revolution, starting in 1987, called for Baltic emancipation from Soviet rule. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Latvia declared the restoration of its de facto independence on August 21, 1991.

The Latvians are a Baltic people, culturally related to the Lithuanians, but not Estonians. Together with the Finnic Livs (or Livonians), the Latvians are the indigenous people of Latvia. Latvian is an Indo-European language and, along with Lithuanian, the only surviving members of the Baltic branch. Indigenous minority languages are Latgalian and the nearly extinct Finnic Livonian language. Despite subjection to foreign rule from the 13th to the 20th centuries, the Latvian nation has maintained its identity throughout the generations, most notably the language, culture, and rich traditions of storytelling and music.

To my mind the Singing Revolution that led to the freedom of the Baltic states is one of the most extraordinary independence movements in history.  The Singing Revolution is a commonly used name for events between 1987 and 1991 that led to the restoration of the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The term was coined by an Estonian activist and artist, Heinz Valk, in an article published a week after the June 10–11, 1988, spontaneous mass night-singing demonstrations of banned patriotic songs at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds.  Subsequently huge crowds throughout the Baltic states gathered to sing banned songs, at one point exceeding 300,000 people.  There were also other peaceful actions, such as mass crowds forming human barriers to prevent the movement of Soviet tanks, and, a personal favorite, the Baltic Way, a 600 km (373 mi) long human chain of people holding hands from Tallinn through Riga to Vilnius on August 23, 1989, expressing Baltic unity and opposition to Soviet rule. The Singing Revolution led to the bloodless separation of all three nations from Soviet Russia.


Latvia has a few curious claims to fame. For example, all Stolichnaya vodka that is sold for export, and prominently labeled RUSSIAN VODKA, is distilled and bottled in Latvia. Sergei Eisenstein, the great Soviet film maker was born in Latvia (although his parents were not Latvian, and he spent little of his boyhood there). Leor Dimant (Leors Dimants) better known as DJ Lethal, turn table master and producer for the Rap Metal band Limp Bizkit for fifteen years, was born in Latvia.


But arguably the most widespread influence of any Latvian was that of Jacob Davis (Jacob Youphes) who teamed up with Levi Strauss (Löb Strauß) to produce rivet pocket jeans.  Strauss ran a dry goods store in San Francisco where Davis ran a tailoring business producing tents, wagon covers, and blankets.  Davis bought fabric from Strauss for his business.  In 1870 Davis expanded his line to produce denim work clothes, also using cloth from Strauss.  He had been using rivets on horse blankets, and conceived the idea of using them on work clothes to reinforce the pockets because customers were frequently coming to buy extra materials to mend torn pockets. In 1872 Davis suggested that he and Strauss collaborate, and so on August 8th they jointly filed a patent (granted in 1873), with Davis providing the ideas and Strauss funding the application. Subsequently Davis became plant manager at the first Levi Strauss clothing factory. Blue jeans, hallmark of U.S. culture for decades, were the brainchild of a Latvian immigrant and his Bavarian partner.



Latvian cooking is rather basic, with little in the way of seasonings.  Piragi, bacon and onion stuffed egg bread buns, are a popular dish. To make them you make an egg bread dough, let it rise once, knock it down and roll it into a sheet. Then cut out circles of the dough, place a tablespoon of chopped bacon and onion that has been gently fried into the center of the circle, fold over into a semi-circle and shape into a crescent.  Let the buns rise, glaze with beaten egg, and bake in a hot oven (400°F/ 200°C) for 15 minutes, or until golden.  A tasty snack that you can find throughout Latvia.


Silke Kažoka is also typical, but more formal.  It is a complex dish made of layers of salt herrings and grated vegetables interlaced with horseradish flavored mayonnaise and garnished with boiled eggs. Quantities are deliberately approximate to suit your own tastes. Tinned herrings in oil will work in this dish.

Silke Kažoka


400 gm salt herring filets in oil
4 small potatoes, boiled and peeled
1 large carrot, boiled and peeled
2 boiled eggs
2 medium beetroots, boiled and peeled
1 cooking apple, peeled and cored
400 ml mayonnaise
1 tbsp prepared horseradish
chopped green onion for garnish


Coarsely grate the potatoes, carrot, beetroot, and apple, and reserve on separate plates.

Mix together the mayonnaise and horseradish.

On an oval platter make a layer of grated potato. Spread over the potato a thin layer of mayonnaise

Next add a layer of the chopped herring slightly smaller than the layer of potatoes.  As the layering process continues the idea is to create a shallow hill.  Spread a thin layer of mayonnaise over the herring.

Continue the layering with the carrots and apple, with mayonnaise on top of each.

The beetroot layer comes next and should cover the top and sides of the “hill.” Spread mayonnaise over the beetroot and work it into the layer a little with a fork so that the mayonnaise takes on the color of the beetroot.

Separate the whites and yolks of the boiled eggs.  Chop the yolks and cut the whites into short ribbons. Decorate the sides of the “hill” with the whites, and spread the yolks on the top.

Refrigerate for at least two hours.  Garnish with green onions and serve.