The Prague Linguistic Circle and the Analogy between Musicology and Linguistics

Bart Karstens
University of Amsterdam

Prager Presse

In recent historiography an upsurge in interest in the interaction between academic disciplines can be seen. This is in no small part due to the rise of the history of humanities as a specialized field of study.[1] On the one hand, writing a comprehensive history of the humanities is motivated by the idea that in some sense the humanistic disciplines form a whole and without general perspectives we cannot gain a proper understanding of the history of the separate disciplines that together constitute the humanistic spectrum.[2] On the other hand, there is the broader aim to integrate the history of the humanities with mainstream history of science and for this to happen the history of humanities should first become clearly recognizable as a respectable field of study. We are still a long way off from an integrated historiography of all knowledge-making disciplines, as the humanities have been largely neglected in historiography of science, and this attitude is not easy to overcome.[3]

An integrated picture may emerge through an analysis of connections between knowledge-making disciplines that have been established in the past. These connections are ultimately the result of the epistemic transfer of ideas, methods, experimental practices, teaching models, etc. Consider the case of the encounter between Roman Jakobson and Claude LĂ©vi-Strauss in New York in 1941, where both were in exile at the time. As is well known, LĂ©vi-Strauss acquired the structuralist method of analyzing kinship relations through his contact with Jakobson, who had been among the founders of structuralism in linguistics.[4] Consequently, structuralism had an enormous impact on anthropology, and from there also on a host of other disciplines. It is thus impossible to gain a proper understanding of modern anthropology without taking into account the epistemic transfer that took place between linguistics and anthropology in the 1940s.

The history of linguistics may potentially serve as a useful laboratory to study the interaction between disciplines, as the past has shown abundant cross-over between linguistics and a great variety of other fields, including biology, philosophy, computer science and psychology (to name just a few), with linguistics being on both the sending and receiving end of communication. This has of course not gone unnoticed in historiography of the language sciences, but may gain renewed importance when put in broader perspective.[5] The expertise of historians of linguistics can in this way also potentially reach a wider audience. Moreover, our analysis and assessment of the importance of the relation(s) between linguistics and other disciplines may still be incomplete. An example is the birth of historical and comparative linguistics in the 19th century. About this Morpurgo Davies writes: “In Germany, but also elsewhere, organic metaphors are often accompanied by references to the natural sciences and/or to the scientific character of the new linguistics. How important is the connection? How much did Friedrich Schlegel and his followers know about the sciences? How influential were these in the development of the new linguistics? A full enquiry is still a desideratum.”[6]

Another desideratum presents itself on a historiographical level. We are still in need of a satisfactory approach that can capture the full scope of the interaction of knowledge-making disciplines. At the University of Amsterdam, a 4-year research project started in 2016 that has a primary focus on what we call ‘the flow of cognitive goods’. ‘Cognitive goods’ is an umbrella term that was introduced to capture all elements of past science that have moved between disciplines. These include research methods, formalisms, principles, patterns, intellectual, theoretical and moral virtues, concepts, metaphors, argumentative and demonstrative techniques, and institutional practices. The idea is that following the career of such goods enables us to write a post-disciplinary history. Every flow makes a causal connection, and when these are added up we can distinguish causal chains that demonstrate how disciplines, at least historically, hang together.[7]

Causal connections have to be carefully distinguished from noting ‘influence’ or mere parallels. The spurious claim of Schleicher’s Darwinism can still sometimes be heard even when it has been made clear long ago that Schleicher did not appropriate Darwin’s evolutionary concept to the study of language but merely noted parallels between the Origin of Species and what he had been doing all along in his research on the life of linguistic ‘organisms’.[8] We confront the difficult problem of distinguishing a noted parallel from a causal connection when we are trying to explain the genesis of the structuralist method of analyzing linguistic phenomena. According to Flack, Roman Jakobson must occupy a central position in this story, contrary to what generally happens in the historiography of structuralism in which both Saussure and LĂ©vi-Strauss more often than not are presented as the main actors on the stage.[9]

Jakobson was a scholar of staggering versatility, who drew inspiration from avant-garde art, folklore, phenomenology, Gestalt psychology and the natural sciences.[10] Connections between linguistic structuralism and all these fields have been the subject of research.[11] Yet, there is still a lot to learn about the ideas Jakobson actually took over (instead of noting mere parallels), and how he fused these ideas together. A full investigation would require following the trajectory of cognitive goods, such as the very notion of structure, which came to play a prominent role in academic discourse only from the 19th century onwards.[12]

In the remainder of this blogpost, I would like to focus on one example of cross-disciplinary contact, namely that between musicology and linguistics. Jakobson wrote a brief article on this subject called ‘Musikwissenschaft und Linguistik’, which was published in the newspaper Prager Presse on 7 December 1932.[13] This newspaper was a platform for publications of the Prague Linguistic Circle, which was strongly supported by the Czech philosopher and statesman Masaryk, who also was the founder of the Prager Presse, a German-language newspaper which had the aim of integrating the German speaking minority into Czech society (see picture).[14] Jakobson’s contribution contains a reflection on a lecture given by professor of musicology Gustav Wilhelm Becking in the context of the regular meetings of the Prague Linguistic Circle. Jakobson claims that this lecture “gehört zu den bedeutendsten Ereignissen des Prager wissenschaftlichen Lebens der letzten Zeit.” Given the timing of the lecture this suggests that it might have contributed to shaping structuralism, and more specifically Jakobson’s phonological theory of distinctive features, which was then still in development.[15] Let us therefore carefully examine the points of convergence that Jakobson highlights.

According to Jakobson, Becking, who had earlier discussed analogies between ‘den phonologischen Grundproblemen und den Grundproblemen der modernen Musikwissenschaft’, had now convincingly proved that the similarity between musicology and phonology was fundamental. In both musical and phonological systems the value of a sign depends on its position and on the relations it has to other signs in a particular system of signification. The physical realization in writing (notes or letters) or sound cannot be completely separated from the ‘Ton’ and ‘Phonem’ they represent, given the supposed unity of form and meaning, but the physical realization is nonetheless of secondary importance in both musical and phonological systems. Of central importance is the auditive and phonological value of the expressions and both musicology and linguistics must study (and come to understand) the relational systems in which these values acquire their full meaning.

In the lecture Becking gave the example of the difference in music perception of an African and a European. For an African it is the timbre (‘Klangfarbe’) that matters, for the European the pitch (‘Tonhöhe’). Also when we compare medieval Gregorian chant with modern European music, it can, according to Becking, be noticed that in medieval times it was glissando (‘Tonbewegung’) that mattered most. These differences can for example lead to differences in perception of identity of pieces of music. From these examples Jakobson draws the following conclusion: “Das Wichtige in der Musik ist nicht die naturalistische Gegebenheit, nicht diejenigen Töne, die realisiert werden, sondern die, die gemeint werden. Der Eingeborene und der EuropĂ€er hören denselben Ton und meinen dabei ganz verschiedene Dinge, da sie ihn in Bezug auf zwei verschiedene musikalische Systeme auffassen; der Ton fungiert in der Musik als ‘System-Ton’.”[16] So, next to a distinction between physical realization and sound value we must not only place sound values into a system but at the same realize that a musical arrangement has been put together with particular intentions in mind. As Umberto Eco points out, music is not just organized sound, it is intentionally organized sound.[17] The implication is of course that phonological systems in languages work the same way. In the article Jakobson further argues that linguistic conventions, including accepted ways to convey intentions, must be sought on the level of the phonological system and not in etymology or the lexicon.

According to Becking, particular musical systems are closely connected to particular worldviews. He was working on a typology of musical systems consisting of four dimensions of increasing complexity. This interested Jakobson very much: “Die GesetzmĂ€ssigkeit des Systembaues erinnert an die Typologie der phonologischen Systemen.”[18] With other members of the Prague school he had proposed a new way of classifying languages, not primarily on the basis of genealogical descent, which had been the common way of classification in the 19th century, but on the basis of structural similarities and differences. One could still find genetically related groups within the classification, but in the structuralist framework this has become a secondary analytical step. Languages could also have gained similarities through their proximity, which need not presuppose historic ties stretching over very long periods of time. Jakobson no longer spoke of language families but of language bonds. All languages characterized by phonological correlation of palatalization were for example classified as members of the Eurasian ‘Sprachbund’.[19] In his lecture, Becking defended the theory that peoples of the Far East share a common musical system, which is characterized by a great number of small intervals. Jakobson now conjectures that phonological bonds may show considerable overlap with musical bonds. He says that the boundaries and characteristics of musical and phonological bonds need to be carefully compared and if musicology is further developed in this respect linguistics must follow suit and benefit from musicological expertise.

Finally, because of the structural similarities, the principles of development (‘GrundsĂ€tze der Mutationen’) of musical systems are akin to patterns of phonological development. In this respect musicology can learn from linguistics, which according to Jakobson had probed deeper into ‘das ganzheitliche Verfahren’ of phonological systems and as a consequence possessed a better articulated ‘Theorie des Systembaus’. For example, he suggests that the concept of markedness, which had been developed in phonology, and the idea that particular marked and unmarked values are always correlated in terms of oppositions, should be applied to musical systems as well. Furthermore he believes that especially the poetic form of linguistic expression will provide excellent material for comparison with music (‘besonders dankbares material’).

Music is closest to language as a semiotic system in all these respects. For the most part Jakobson notes mere parallels between musical and phonological systems and hence we cannot speak of a flow between musicology and phonology. No ideas from musicology seem to have had a causal impact on the theory of distinctive features that was developed in this period.[20] However, with respect to systematic classification based on shared characteristics, linguistics could take up insights gained in musicology. Vice versa the concept of markedness can be said to have flown from linguistics to other fields of study, including musicology. But these can be considered as ‘minor flows’ as in both cases the general framework of analysis was already in place.

Yet we should not forget that structuralism was minted as a catch-all term to capture a profound change in thinking about science in all disciplines that was occurring at the time. “Were we to comprise the leading idea of present-day science in its most various manifestations, we could hardly find a more appropriate designation than structuralism. Any set of phenomena examined by contemporary science is treated not as a mechanical agglomeration but as a structural whole, and the basic task is to reveal the inner, whether static or developmental, laws of this system. What appears to be the focus of scientific preoccupations is no longer the outer stimulus, but the internal premises of the development; now the mechanical conception of processes yields to the question of their functions.”[21] Establishing strong parallels with musicology reinforces this message even more so because the theory of musical systems provides insight in the workings of the human mind and the way perception operates. It can therefore hardly come closer to the theory of language systems. In this sense we can attach deeper significance to the similarities noted by Jakobson between linguistics and musicology, which goes beyond registering mere parallels between two distinct fields of study.


[1] Institutionalization is shaped through the conference series ‘The Making of the Humanities’, which has turned into an annual event and will be held for the 6th time in Oxford (UK) this year from 28-30 September. Last year the Society for the History of Humanities was created and the first issue of the new journal History of Humanities appeared with University of Chicago Press. See for further information.

[2] Important book publications offering a comparative overview of the humanities include Bod, R. (2013) A New History of the Humanities: The Search for Principles and Patterns from Antiquity to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press and Turner, J. (2014) Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[3] The journal History of Humanities aims to be a platform for both forms of integration. A strong plea for the second one can be found in the Focus section titled ‘The History of Humanities and the History of Science’ in the leading history of science journal Isis 106, vol. 2.

[4] Mehlman, J. (2002) ÉmigrĂ© New York. French Intellectuals in Wartime Manhattan, 1940-1944. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[5] Just to give a few publications in which cross-over between linguistics and other disciplines stands central: Bartsch R. and Vennemann T. eds. (1973) Linguistik und Nachbarwissenschaften. Kronberg: Scriptor Verlag; Hoenigswald H.M. and Wiener L. F. eds. (1987) Biological Metaphor and Cladistic Classification: an Interdisciplinary Perspective. London: Frances Pinter; Levelt W. (2013) A History of Psycholinguistics. The Pre-Chomskyan Era. Oxford: Oxford University Press and Bod (2013).

[6] Morpurgo Davies, A. (1998) History of Linguistics. Vol IV: Nineteenth-Century Linguistics. London and New York: Longman, pp. 88-89. For an attempt at clarification see Karstens, B. (2012) ‘Bopp the Builder. Discipline Formation as Hybridization: the Case of Comparative Linguistics’. In: R. Bod, J. Maat and T. Weststeijn, eds., The Making of the Humanities. Volume II: From Early Modern to Modern Disciplines. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, pp.103-127.

[7] See the website The project is very much open to suggestions and comments, for which a discussion platform has been created.

[8] Koerner, E.F.K. (1989) ‘On the Problem of ‘Influence’ in Linguistic Historiography’. In: idem. Practicing Linguistics Historiography. Selected Essays. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 31-46. The key primary source is: August Schleicher, Die Darwinische Theorie und die Sprachwissenschaft. Offenes Sendschreiben an Herrn Dr. Ernst HĂ€ckel, Professor der Zoologie und Director des zoologischen Museums an der UniversitĂ€t Jena (Weimar 1863).

[9] Flack, P. (2016) ‘Roman Jakobson and the Transition of German Thought to the Structuralist Paradigm’. Acta Structuralica 1-1, pp.1-15.

[10] Gasparov, B. (2014) ‘Futurism and Phonology: The Futurist Roots of Jakobson’s Approach to Language’. Ulbandus Review 16, pp. 84-112; Holenstein, E. (1975) Roman Jakobsons PhĂ€nomenologischer Strukturalismus. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. Jakobson devoted several papers to the relation between linguistics and other disciplines, which can be found in the Selected Writings series: .

[11] The central point of reference now is SĂ©riot, P. (2014) Structure and the Whole. East, West and Non-Darwinian Biology in the Origins of Structural Linguistics. Trans. A. Jacobs-Colas. Boston, Berlin: De Gruyter, Mouton.

[12] To find the roots of 20th century structuralism, Flack (2016) also suggests that we need to probe deeper into the 19th century, especially with respect to phenomenology.

[13] Reprinted in: Jakobson, R. (1971) ‘Musikwissenschaft und Linguistik’. In: R. Jakobson ed., Selected Writings II: Word and Language. The Hague-Paris: Mouton, pp. 551-553.

[14] Bernátek, M. (2014) ‘The Prague Linguistic Circle and the Prager Presse’. Theatralia, Brno: Masarykova univerzita, roč. 17, č. 2, pp. 175-187.

[15] SĂ©riot (2014) pp. 73-78.

[16] Jakobson (1971) pp. 551-552, emphasis added.

[17] Here the connection to German phenomenology, in particular the Brentano school, presents itself: Eco, U (1987) ‘The Influence of Roman Jakobson on the Development of Semiotics’. In: M. Krampen et al. (eds.), Classics of Semiotics. New York: Plenum Press, pp. 109-127.

[18] Jakobson (1971) p. 552.

[19] The Eurasian ‘Sprachbund’ roughly corresponded to the borders of the Soviet Union. The political implications of this theory are a hot potato, and continue to be highly controversial to the present day. See Marácz, L. (2015) Towards Eurasian Linguistic Isoglosses: the Case of Turkic and Hungarian. Astana, Kazakhstan: International Turkic Academy.

[20] At least I have not been able to find such a reference in any of Jakobson’s papers.

[21] Jakobson R. (1929) ‘RomantickĂ© vĆĄeslovanstvĂ­-novĂĄ slavistika [Romantic pan-Slavism: a new Slavistics’]. Čin 1-1, pp. 10–12, there p.11. Percival, K.W. (2011) ’Roman Jakobson and the Birth of Linguistic Structuralism’. Sign Systems Studies 1, pp. 236-262 gives the same quote on p. 244 and suggests that this is actually the earliest use of the word structuralism by a linguist.

How to cite this post

Karstens, Bart. 2017. The Prague Linguistic Circle and the Analogy between Musicology and Linguistics. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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Posted in 20th century, Article, Europe, History, Linguistics, Phonology
3 comments on “The Prague Linguistic Circle and the Analogy between Musicology and Linguistics
  1. […] was staggeringly broad by contemporary standards. Not only was he an accomplished musician (see the previous hiphilangsci post for more on the productive exchange between music and linguistics), his work bore the imprint of […]

  2. Dear Bart,
    Thanks for this very interesting post, which I have belatedly discovered. I like very much the idea of thinking about structuralism and the history of the language sciences in terms of a history of the humanities.
    Simultaneously to your blog an article of mine specifically on Becking came out, you might be interested in taking a look (

  3. […] point of view to study the influence of cross-disciplinary interactions. As Bart Karstens argued in his post of March 2017, the history of linguistics provides a useful laboratory for this kind of […]

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