Roman Osipovich Jakobson (October 11, 1896, Moscow - July 18, 1982, Boston) was a Russian linguist, formalist, and literary theorist.
As a pioneer of the structural analysis of language, which became the dominant trend of twentieth-century linguistics, Jakobson was among the most influential linguists of the century. Influenced by the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, Jakobson developed, with Nikolai Trubetzkoy, techniques for the analysis of sound systems in languages, inaugurating the discipline of phonology. He went on to apply the same techniques of analysis to syntax and morphology, and controversially proposed that they be extended to semantics (the study of meaning in language). He made numerous contributions to Slavic linguistics, most notably two studies of Russian case and an analysis of the categories of the Russian verb. Drawing on insights from Charles Sanders Peirce's semiotics, as well as from communication theory and cybernetics, he proposed methods for the investigation of poetry, music, the visual arts, and cinema.
Through his decisive influence on Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes, among others, Jakobson became a pivotal figure in the adaptation of structural analysis to disciplines beyond linguistics, including anthropology and literary theory; this generalization of Saussurean methods, known as "structuralism," became a major post-war intellectual movement in Europe and the United States. Meanwhile, though the influence of structuralism declined during the 1970s, Jakobson's work has continued to receive attention in linguistic anthropology, especially through the semiotics of culture developed by his former student Michael Silverstein.
Jakobson was born in Russia to a well-to-do family of Jewish descent, and he developed a fascination with language at a very young age. He studied at the Lazarev Institute of Oriental Languages and then in 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.
1920 was a year of political upheaval 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-war Czechoslovakia and established close relationships with a number of Czech poets and literary figures. 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 (other members included Nikolai Trubetzkoi, René Wellek, Jan Mukařovský). There his numerous works on phonetics helped continue to develop his concerns with the structure and function of language. Jakobson's universalizing structural-functional theory of phonology, based on a markedness hierarchy of distinctive features, was the first successful solution of a plane of linguistic analysis according to the Saussurean hypotheses. (This theory achieved its most canonical exposition in a book co-authored with Morris Halle.) This mode of analysis has been since applied to the plane of Saussurean sense by his protegé Michael Silverstein in a series of foundational articles in functionalist linguistic typology.
Jakobson escaped from Prague at the start of WWII daringly via Berlin for Denmark, where he was associated with the Copenhagen linguistic circle, and such thinkers as Louis Hjelmslev. As the war advanced west, he fled to Norway, then was smuggled in a coffin by the Norwegisn underground (with his first wife disguised as a peasant woman) over the border to Sweden, where he continued his work at the Karolinska Hospital (with works on aphasia and language competence). When Swedish colleagues feared for a possible German occupation, he managed to leave on a private yacht, together with Ernst Cassirer (the former rector of Hamburg University) to New York City to become part of the wider community of intellectual émigrés who fled there. He taught at The New School and was closely associated with the Czech emigree 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 would also become a key exponent of structuralism. He also made the acquaintance of many American linguists and anthropologists, such as Franz Boas, Benjamin Whorf, and Leonard Bloomfield. When the American authorities considered "repatriating" him to Europe, it was Franz Boaz who actually saved his life. After the war, he became a consultant to the International Auxiliary Language Association, which would present Interlingua in 1951.
In 1949 Jakobson moved to Harvard University, where he remained until retirement. In his last decade he maintained an office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was an honorary Professor Emeritus. In the early 1960s Jakobson shifted his emphasis to a more comprehensive view of language and began writing about communication sciences as a whole.