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.

Jul 262017

Dr. Esperanto’s International Language, usually referred to as Unua Libro (First Book), was first published on this this date in 1887 in Russian. It was the first publication to describe Esperanto, then called the International Language (Esperanto: Internacia Lingvo). It was first published in Warsaw by Polish oculist Ludvic Lazarus Zamenhof. Over the next few years editions were published in Polish, Russian, Hebrew, French, German, and English. This booklet included the Lord’s Prayer, some Bible verses, a letter, poetry, the 16 rules of grammar and 900 roots of vocabulary. In the book Zamenhof declared, “an international language, like a national one, is common property” and renounced all rights to the language, effectively putting it into the public domain. Zamenhof signed the work as “Doktoro Esperanto” (Doctor One-Who-Hopes). Those who learned the new language began to call it “Esperanto” after Zamenhof’s pen name, and Esperanto soon became the official name of the language.

The first English edition, entitled Dr Esperanto’s International Tongue, was translated by Julian Steinhaus. When Richard H. Geoghegan pointed out that Steinhaus’s translation was in very poor English throughout, Zamenhof destroyed his remaining copies and engaged Geoghegan to produce a fresh translation. In 1905, Zamenhof re-published the 16 rules of grammar, in combination with a dictionary and a collection of exercises, in a work entitled Fundamento de Esperanto (Foundation of Esperanto).

I can understand why Zamenhof got the idea to create a universal language (just about), but I vehemently disapprove for a host of reasons. Perhaps of greatest importance is that language and culture are so deeply entwined that they cannot, nor should, be separated. The English language, for example, contains embedded in it all the history of English-speaking peoples along with their poetry, drama, and prose, their loves, fears, and joys, and all there is that makes them who they are. Language is identity. Furthermore, every language can be broken down into dialects which root segments of the larger language family in local culture. Standardizing languages so that all speakers use one dialect (typically the dialect of the rich and powerful) is an act of tyranny that robs local populations of their specialness. Standardizing ALL languages to one, single, global language may not be as tyrannical, but it is still a horrible idea. Would you like to selectively hybridize all animals and all plants so that you have one (highly nutritious) meat and one vegetable? We should revel in linguistic diversity, not eliminate it.

I understand Zamenhof’s motives. He was born and grew up in a part of Poland where there were 4 languages used – Polish, German, Yiddish, and Russian. There were deep divisions between the 4 communities and Zamenhof thought that if they all had a common language they would get along better. He wrote:

The place where I was born and spent my childhood gave direction to all my future struggles. In Białystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies. In such a town a sensitive nature feels more acutely than elsewhere the misery caused by language division and sees at every step that the diversity of languages is the first, or at least the most influential, basis for the separation of the human family into groups of enemies. I was brought up as an idealist; I was taught that all people were brothers, while outside in the street at every step I felt that there were no people, only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews and so on. This was always a great torment to my infant mind, although many people may smile at such an ‘anguish for the world’ in a child. Since at that time I thought that ‘grown-ups’ were omnipotent, so I often said to myself that when I grew up I would certainly destroy this evil.

He’s right that the division of people into groups who look upon each other as enemies is evil, but this state of affairs is not created by language nor will speaking a common language remove it. A modern anthropologist could have set him straight and saved him a lot of trouble.

Zamenhof equally believed that it was possible to create a language that was easy to learn by simplifying the grammar and the vocabulary. This agenda is misguided in a host of ways, although I applaud his invention of a phonetic alphabet for Esperanto. Literacy in Europe was greatly enhanced in certain regions when spelling and pronunciation were standardized by academies. English missed the boat in this regard, and it’s too late now to change it. But even here there are problems. The Esperanto alphabet could be used for English without too much hardship I suppose, but do you really want Russians, Israelis, Arabs, and Koreans to give up their alphabets? Korean Hangul is Korea’s pride. They even have a special day set aside to honor its invention. Serbs and Croats speak dialects of the same language, but Croats use the Roman alphabet and Serbs use Cyrillic and are fiercely defensive of their separate systems, and don’t want to give them up because they represent the differences between the two peoples.  When you get into systems of writing that are not alphabetic or even syllabic, such as Chinese characters, things get even more complex. You can write Chinese in an alphabetic system called Pinyin, and all Chinese speakers can read Pinyin. But it is rarely used by native speakers.  They prefer using Chinese characters because the characters themselves contain layered meanings which get destroyed by using Pinyin.

Esperanto should be classified as an Indo-European language, and, as such, its supposed simplicity is limited to people who speak Indo-European languages, and make it much harder for speakers from other language families. For example, Esperanto uses plurals for nouns (and adjectives), but many non-Indo-European languages do not. My Mandarin Chinese teacher once asked me what the point of plurals was. Mandarin does not use them. He asked me once, “Why say ‘one dog, two dogs’ when ‘one dog, two dog’ is perfectly understandable?” The phonology, grammar, vocabulary, and semantics are based on the Indo-European languages spoken in Europe. The sound inventory is essentially Slavic, as is much of the semantics, whereas the vocabulary derives primarily from the Romance languages, with a lesser contribution from Germanic languages and minor contributions from Slavic languages and Greek. Pragmatics and other aspects of the language not specified by Zamenhof’s original documents were influenced by the native languages of early authors, primarily Russian, Polish, German, and French.

Esperanto words are mostly derived by stringing together roots, grammatical endings, and at times prefixes and suffixes. This process is regular, so that people can create new words as they speak and be understood. Compound words are formed with a modifier-first, head-final order, as in English (compare “birdsong” and “songbird,” and Esperanto, birdokanto and kantobirdo). Speakers may optionally insert an o between the words in a compound noun if placing them together directly without the o would make the resulting word hard to say or understand.

The different parts of speech are marked by their own suffixes: all common nouns end in -o, all adjectives in -a, all derived adverbs in -e, and all verbs in one of six tense and mood suffixes, such as the present tense -as. Nouns and adjectives have two cases: nominative for grammatical subjects and in general, and accusative for direct objects and (after a preposition) to indicate direction of movement.

Singular nouns used as grammatical subjects end in -o, plural subject nouns in -oj (pronounced [oi̯] like English “oy”). Singular direct object forms end in -on, and plural direct objects with the combination -ojn ([oi̯n]; rhymes with “coin”): -o- indicates that the word is a noun, -j- indicates the plural, and -n indicates the accusative (direct object) case. Adjectives agree with their nouns; their endings are singular subject -a ([a]; rhymes with “ha!”), plural subject -aj ([ai̯], pronounced “eye”), singular object -an, and plural object -ajn ([ai̯n]; rhymes with “fine”).

The six verb inflections consist of three tenses and three moods. They are present tense -as, future tense -os, past tense -is, infinitive mood -i, conditional mood -us, and jussive mood -u (used for wishes and commands). Verbs are not marked for person or number. Thus, kanti means “to sing”, mi kantas means “I sing”, vi kantas means “you sing”, and ili kantas means “they sing.”

To give you the “flavor” of Esperanto, in a figurative as well as a literal sense, here’s a recipe in Esperanto taken from this site — http://apetito.ikso.net If you are at all conversant with Romance or Slavic languages you’ll get the drift.  My Google translator will help you if you are stuck.  It’s basically eggplant Parmesan.  Full pictures can be found here — http://apetito.ikso.net/recepto/parmigiana


Parmigiana estas tre bongusta itala plado simila al lasanjoj, sed kun tranĉaĵoj de panumita melongeno anstataŭ pastaĵoj. Ĝi ne estas tre malfacila, sed la preparado povas esti sufiĉe longa (ĝis du horoj). Eblas panumi la melongenon, konservi ĝin en fridujo kaj daŭrigi la preparadon poste.

Ingrediencoj por 8 personoj (konvertilo)

Por fritado:

1,5 aŭ 2 kg da melongenoj aŭ celeria tubero (prefere havu tro multe ol ne sufiĉe)
Raspita pano
2 ovoj

Por la saŭco:

1 L da tomata saŭco
1 cepo
Iom da olivoleo (aŭ alia oleo)


250 g da fromaĝo (eblas uzi ekzemple mocarelon kun parmezano; en la fotoj ni uzis oštiepok, slovakan ŝafan fromaĝon)

Salo, se vi ne uzas tre salan fromaĝon


Paŝo 1 Tranĉu la cepon en etajn pecojn kaj metu ilin en poton kun oleo.

Paŝo 2 Kiam la cepoj flaviĝas, aldonu la tomatan saŭcon. Lasu la saŭcon kuiriĝi sur malforta fajro dum duonhoro (aŭ dum vi faros la ceteron de la recepto).

Paŝo 3 Senŝeligu kaj tranĉu la celerion aŭ melongenon en maldikajn tranĉaĵojn (1 cm aŭ malpli).

Paŝo 4 Ĉar celerio estas iom malmola, ni metis ĝin en bolantan akvon dum kelkaj minutoj (sufiĉe por moligi ĝin, sed ne tro longe por ne forigi la guston). Kun melongenoj tio ne necesas.

Paŝo 5 Preparu la lokon por panumado: en profundan teleron miksu la du ovojn (eblas aldoni iom da lakto por havi pli da likvaĵo). Metu sur du aliajn telerojn farunon kaj panerojn. Varmigu en pato sufiĉe multe da oleo, por povi komplete mergi la legomtranĉaĵojn.

Paŝo 6 Por ĉiu peco de legomo: metu ĝin en farunon, poste en ovaĵon, poste en panerojn. Ili devas esti bone kovritaj ambaŭflanke.

Paŝo 7 Fritu la panumitajn legompecojn en oleo.

Paŝo 8 Kovru la fundon de plado per iom da tomata saŭco. Poste faru tavolon da legomaj tranĉaĵoj. Ne lasu tro grandajn truojn inter la pecoj, bezonkaze vi povas tranĉi ilin.

Paŝo 9 Kovru tion per tomata saŭco. La frititaĵoj devas esti bone kovritaj, sed ne naĝi en tomata saŭco. Ne hezitu ŝmiri per kulero. Aldonu pinĉaĵon da salo, se vi ne uzas tre salan fromaĝon.

Paŝo 10 Aldonu tavolon da fromaĝo (depende de la fromaĝo, ĝi estu raspita aŭ maldike tranĉita).

Paŝo 11 Rekomencu la paŝojn 8 ĝis 10 por fari 3 aŭ 4 etaĝojn, depende de la kvanto da ingrediencoj.

Paŝo 12 Enfornigu por 20 aŭ 25 minutoj.