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.