A Danish Framing of Roman Jakobson’s American Years – Review of From the early years of Phonology

Patrick Flack
University of Fribourg

Over the last decade or so, we have been treated to a steady succession of book-length publications dedicated to the intellectual legacy of Roman Jakobson. This near continuous stream started with the release of the long-awaited volume 9/2 (part I & II) of Jakobson’s Selected Writings (ed. Toman 2012–13), quickly followed by the massive 4-volume Roman Jakobson anthology of critical essays in the series Critical assessments of leading linguists (Thomas 2014). Up next came a number of proceedings from conferences held respectively in Olomouc, Moscow and Milano/Vercelli: Roman O. Jakobson: a work in progress (Kubiček & Lass 2014), Jakobson Today [Jakobson segodnja] (Avtonomova 2015) and Roman Jakobson, linguistics and poetics [Roman Jakobson, linguistica e poetica] (Esposito, Sini & Castagneto 2018). To these were added an Italian monography, Roman Jakobson and the foundations of semiotics [Roman Jakobson e i fondamentati della semiotica] (Ponzio 2015) as well as the Roman Osipovič Jakobson volume in the landmark Russian series The Philosophy of Russia in the first half of the 20th Century [Filosofija Rossii pervoj poloviny XX veka] (Avtonomova, Baran & Ščedrina 2017). Finally, the last few of years have brought us new editions of Jakobson’s short writings and letters:[1] first, an Anthology of Roman Jakobson’s engaged writings [Angažovaná čítanka Romana Jakobsona] (ed. Toman 2017), followed by his extensive correspondence with Claude Lévi-Strauss in Correspondance 1942–1982 (ed. Loyer & Maniglier 2018), and now the Russian philologist’s epistolary exchanges with Danish phonologist Eli Fischer-Jørgensen in From the early years of phonology (Bank Jensen & D’Ottavi 2020).

Beyond bearing witness to Jakobson’s continued relevance, these publications highlight together some interesting features of the current state and scope of research on his work and life. A very encouraging sign, on the one hand, is that this research is being carried out by a new generation of scholars (along, of course, with a few senior Jakobson experts), whose interests and specialisations are decidedly interdisciplinary. Among the editors of the above-mentioned volumes, one finds not only linguists and historians of the language sciences, but also literary theorists, philosophers, anthropologists, semioticians and historians proper. The international, multilingual nature of the research into Jakobson’s work and legacy is another heartening aspect, especially given the fact that the various national and linguistic research contexts seem quite porous and aware of each other (many scholars are active cross-linguistically in several of these contexts). Further, one is struck not only by the sheer amount of new material published for the first time, but also by the prevalent role that the task of editing unpublished sources still takes up in comparison to the share of critical or interpretative studies of Jakobson’s ideas. As many researchers are happy to point out (Sorokina 2018, Testenoire 2019, D’Ottavi 2020), much more archival, edition and translation work awaits, be it in relation to the Jakobson Papers at MIT, to relevant archives in Moscow and Prague or to the many significant articles still only available in Russian, Czech or even Polish.

Although very welcome in themselves, both the variety of perspectives and the abundance of freshly published materials that characterise the most recent research on Jakobson also remind us, on the other hand, of what has been a constant weakness, or at least fragility, at the heart of our knowledge about Jakobson – namely the distinct lack of a shared, consolidated frame of textual or biographical reference. Forty years after his death, let us recall, we still do not have anything resembling an exhaustive biography, and key elements of Jakobson’s life are still being collected. Similarly, while the Selected Writings are certainly an indispensable, precious resource, they remain problematic in many respects – most notably because they contain so many untranslated texts and constitute the historical product of Jakobson’s own partial and highly strategic interpretation of his work, not a critical edition per se. Far from being a true “classic”, i.e. a clearly defined authorial figure with a commonly known body of work and identifiable doctrine, Jakobson is someone whose work we have always only apprehended in a fundamentally partial manner. He was and remains a protean figure, cloaked in ever-changing guises, who successively immersed himself in an array of very specific and often irreconcilably distinct intellectual contexts. Much of the research devoted to him, as a result, has consisted not in a critical reception or “immanent” interpretation of his ideas, but in a gigantic effort of contextualisation. Even the most productive theoretical assessments of his work, such as Sériot (1999) or Avtonomova (2009), derive their strength in great part from their willingness and ability to place Jakobson’s insights in a broader context.

These remarks on the state and general orientation of research on Jakobson are not unhelpful when it comes to assessing the most recent contribution to the Jakobson literature, Viggo Bank Jensen’s and Giuseppe D’Ottavi’s From the early years of Phonology : the Roman Jakobson – Eli Fischer-Jørgensen correspondence 1949–1982. In itself, indeed, the Jakobson/Fischer-Jørgensen correspondence is rather unremarkable and its scientific or historical relevance is not immediately evident. As Bank Jensen himself underlines in his excellent introduction, most of the material collected in the volume is relatively mundane and anecdotal: the letters themselves relate for the most part to administrative or organisational tasks such as travel or funding arrangements, committee decisions, the sending and receiving of proofs or books, etc. Less than half a dozen of them (all written by Fischer-Jørgensen) contain more extensive theoretical discussions – usually some remarks on specific points of Danish phonology. Relevant discussions of important figures, events, or traditions are few and far between, and often limited to off-hand observations.

This is not to say, by any means, that the material presented in From the early years of phonology is bereft of interest. The first part of the correspondence, for example, stretching from 1949 to 1953 (Letters 1 to 30), provides fine-grained, precise insights into the burgeoning collaboration between Jakobson and Fischer-Jørgensen. The letters reveal in particular both how interested Jakobson was in receiving news from Copenhagen, and how open he was to ideas and criticisms emanating from the followers of Hjelmslev and glossematics. In fact, Jakobson deemed Fischer-Jørgensen’s perspective so valuable that he was keen to make arrangements for her to work directly with him in the United States (Letters 18 & 26) – a project that faltered due to Fischer-Jørgensen’s reticence. Further, the letters that do contain extended theoretical considerations (e.g. Letters 25, 29, 30, 70, 96), though always succinct and devoted to points of detail, highlight a very interesting general feature of the relation between Jakobson and Fischer-Jørgensen, namely that the latter saw her role as a sort of empirical verifier of the former’s phonological theories. As Bank Jensen puts it : “It is thus RJs’ phonological theories and EFJ’s discussion and empirical testing of theses theories which make up the core of the linguistic exchanges in their correspondence” (Bank Jensen & D’Ottavi 2020, 11). Another salient aspect of the correspondence is the way in which it underscores the time and energy both Jakobson and Fischer-Jørgensen devoted to the institutionalisation of phonology and linguistics, most notably through their work in various journals, conferences and society committees. The rich information provided by the editors in their introductions and footnotes very usefully highlights the wider impact and significance of this key aspect of the Jakobson/Fischer-Jørgensen correspondence.

In addition, two specific passages are especially worthy of note. The first of these, which the editors themselves choose to emphasise, is linked to Jakobson’s response, in December 1958, to a very personal letter by Fischer-Jørgensen, in which she expresses feelings both of despondency and of growing intellectual detachment, in particular towards Jakobson himself. Jakobson replies in a similarly involved tone : “I resolutely reject your theme of ‘distance between us’. We are on the contrary wonderfully close to each other by the scope, style and leaning of our work, by its emotional underneath and by the sense of humor which prevents us from becoming doctrinaires” (Bank Jensen & D’Ottavi 2020, 197–198). The sentiment expressed here captures a general tenor of the correspondence, which is indeed defined as much by an obvious distance (geographical, but also generational and methodological) between the two interlocutors, as by a mutual friendship and a willingness to openly share criticism of their own or others’ ideas. Jakobson, paradoxically, appears in a vindicating role, repeatedly claiming or wishing more closeness, whereby Fischer-Jørgensen ultimately chooses to follow her own path. In a way, this moment also feels like a metaphor of Jakobson’s general position towards post-war European structural linguists, colleagues whom he felt or hoped were his true allies but who did not, in the end, really join his cause.

The second most intriguing moment of the correspondence, at least in my view, comes in May 1964. Having just discovered Jakobson’s early linguistic analyses of Russian modernism when reading the first volume of the Selected Writings (Phonological Studies), Fischer-Jørgensen writes : “I have always myself found a deep relationship between abstract painting and structural linguistics, but I did not know that there really was a concrete connection” (Bank Jensen & D’Ottavi 2020, 232). The striking element in this brief remark is not so much Fischer-Jørgensen’s agreement with Jakobson than her apparent ignorance, up to this point, of the importance of abstract modern art in the genesis of his linguistic and phonological ideas. Jakobson’s interest for the poetic dimension of language is one of the constant, defining trait of his entire work; similarly, both the origin of that interest in his close collaboration with the Russian futurist poets and the immediate, direct relevance of Russian futurist poetry in the development of his phonological ideas are well-established facts, which Jakobson himself regularly emphasised. In that sense, it is incredibly telling that someone as well-informed as Fischer-Jørgensen could have ignored for so long this crucial aspect not only of Jakobson’s thought but of the genesis of structural phonology itself. This apparently off-hand comment underlines all at once the decisive role of the Selected Writings in shaping (or re-shaping) perceptions of Jakobson’s work, the partial nature of the knowledge of the essential core and genealogy of his thought even by his contemporaries and colleagues and Jakobson’s own surprising neglect (or strategic choice) in informing his interlocutors about his core tenets and their evolution.

These remarks on the shifting image (and self-image) of Jakobson’s linguistic thought bring us back both to its fundamentally evolving and contextual nature and to the specific period covered by the Jakobson/Fischer-Jørgensen correspondence. An obvious explanation for the omission of any mention of the poetic, modernist dimension of his thought in his exchanges with Fischer-Jørgensen is indeed that the very timing of their acquaintance corresponds to a period in which Jakobson is dedicated principally to the task of adapting his ideas to the main linguistic trends in North America. During this time, he is focussed not on highlighting their originality and “strange” roots in Russian modernism (or for that matter, in Eurasianism), but rather on demonstrating either their use for pragmatic, empirical investigations or their compatibility with theories such as Peirce’s semiotics. The anecdotal, “organisational” nature of the majority of the Jakobson/Fischer-Jørgensen letters proves here to be very useful : by providing a lot of factual tidbits on the plans and activities of its interlocutors, they reveal precisely how keen Jakobson was to establish as many contacts as possible (with John Lotz, Kenneth Pike, Joseph Hillis Miller, etc.) for Fischer-Jørgensen. Further, they also show that Jakobson seems to have perceived American linguistics not as an organised field with distinct schools, but as an aggregation of more or less capable individuals and more or less well-equipped institutions, which were to be leveraged as best possible for his own (or his close collaborators’) aims. In his very first letter to Fischer-Jørgensen, he writes : “As for your mention of the theories of the Prague School and the Americans, I still less believe in the existence of such schools” (Bank Jensen & D’Ottavi 2020, 121). Revealingly, the Jakobson/Fischer-Jørgensen correspondence also shows how this obsession with the American milieu diminish over time, up to a point in the mid 1960s where Jakobson and Fischer-Jørgensen, now both well-established, only discuss their own books or meeting opportunities in Europe.

It seems to me that this very precise, factual light cast by the arc of the correspondence between Jakobson and Fischer-Jørgensen, this “Danish framing”, so to speak, of Jakobson’s attitude towards his American colleagues and the supportive role he wanted them to play for his or other related European structuralists’ work, is one of the biggest strengths and points of interest of From the early years of phonology. That strength is compounded both by the decision of the editors to publish the correspondence exhaustively, and by their decision to take into account the entire international context of the exchanges, instead of focussing, as would have been both possible and tempting, on telling a story more specifically focussed on the relations between two prominent members of the Prague and Copenhagen Linguistic Circles.

This praise of the general framing of the volume does also bring me to formulate one serious point of criticism of the book, namely its choice of title. While it certainly makes sense to foreground “phonology” as a key aspect of the correspondence, it strikes me that the time reference (“from the early years”) completely misses its mark. Knowing that Jakobson’s or Trubeckoj’s own work on phonology started in the early 1920s, and that one should ideally include the pioneering work of Baudouin de Courtenay and possibly the likes of Eduard Sievers and Franz Saran in the history of phonology, there seems no reasonable way to describe the post-war period covered by Jakobson’s and Fischer-Jørgensen correspondence as “the early days of phonology”. In the same sense, it seems abundantly clear that their correspondence does not chronicle the birth of a field or the meeting of pionneers, but rather the relation between one of phonology’s already established masters and one of its first “students”. To characterise this already mature period in the development of phonology as belonging to its “early years” only makes sense from a narrow, contemporary perspective and the common yet regrettable tendency to see anything pre-Chomsky as belonging to one and the same antediluvian era.

I insist on this matter not to accuse the editors of such blindness (their commitment to publishing the correspondence is proof enough to the contrary), but to emphasise that the whole point of From the early days of phonology is in fact to fight against such a counter-productive slant by reminding us that Jakobson’s early American years are themselves an intriguing period of transition, and that the reception of his phonology in America is a whole chapter unto itself. As I have tried to show, indeed, one of the strengths of the book is to provide a further contribution to a broad picture in which we see structural linguistics and phonology emerge not as the dogmatic enunciations of fixed theoretical frameworks by competing schools (the Saussurean Cours, the Prague Thèses, etc.), but as the result of an ongoing, multinodal and international dialogue, in which individual linguists were generally open-minded and keen to learn from their interlocutors, but also often ignorant of key aspects of their respective, highly divergent contexts and their history. The emergence of such a picture, I wish to add, is not interesting only from a strictly historical or historiographic perspective, but also as a strong corrective to the often damning and one-sided criticisms of early structuralist theories by cognitive linguitics, critical theory, deconstruction or analytic philosophy.

The process we are able to partially witness in the Jakobson/Fischer-Jørgensen correspondence, is one that shows how the early claims of structural phonology enunciated in Prague immediately started to evolve towards new, more empirical formulations. In other words, what this volume deals with is not a remote episode in the history of phonology, but a lost chapter in the complex evolutionary process that allowed phonological ideas to mature in response to the challenges and discoveries of new, competing approaches (such as cognitive linguistics) – which in some respects were perceived, at the time already, as not being solid, or indeed inferior. This is what Jakobson himself has to say on the matter to EJF : “As to their phonology, it seems to me rather a regression to a mechanistic and cumbersome approach and an eradication of the important distinction between morpho-phonological and intrinsincally phonological structuralism” (Bank Jensen & D’Ottavi 2020, 297).

To summarise, this is a beautifully edited, slightly misnamed volume, which offers an interesting framing and fresh perspective on Jakobson’s American years and his relationship to an important European structural linguist. In my view, it is a very useful contribution not so much to the history of phonology as to the ongoing and far from finished process of constructing a complete picture of Jakobson’s life and work, and to the establishment of a more precise picture of the complicated process of reception and evolution of European linguistic ideas in post-war America.


[1] In addition, one can note that de Gruyter has been diligently reissuing the Selected Writings.


Bank, Jensen Viggo, D’Ottavi Giuseppe (2020). From the early years of phonology: the Roman Jakobson – Eli Fischer-Jørgensen correspondence 1949–1982, Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, Copenhagen.

Avtonomova, Natalja Sergeevna (2015). Jakobson segodnja. Arbor Mundi – Mirovoe Drevo 21.

Avtonomova, Natalja Sergeevna (2009). Otkrytaja struktura: Jakobson, Bachtin, Lotman, Gasparov, Rosspen, Moskva.

Avtonomova, Natalja Sergeevna (2017). Roman Osipovič Jakobson, 2nd edn., Rosspen, Moskva.

Esposito, Edoardo, Sini Stefania, Castagneto Marina (2018). Roman Jakobson, linguistica e poetica, Ledizioni, Milano.

Jakobson, Roman (2012-2013). Uncollected works, 1916-1943, ed. Toman Jindřich, de Gruyter Mouton, Berlin-Boston.

Jakobson, Roman (2017). Angažovaná čítanka Romana Jakobsona, ed. Toman Jindřich, Karolinum, Praha.

Jakobson, Roman, Lévi-Strauss Claude (2018). Correspondance, 1942-1982, ed. Loyer Emmanuelle; Maniglier Patrice, Seuil, Paris.

Kubiček, Tomáš, Lass Andrew (2014). Roman O. Jakobson: a work in progress, Univerzita Palackého, Olomouc.

Ponzio, Luciano (2015). Roman Jakobson e i fondamenti della semiotica, Mimesis, Milano.

Sériot, Patrick (1999). Structure et totalité: Les origines intellectuelles du structuralisme en Europe centrale et orientale, Presses universitaires de France, Paris.

Sorokina, Marina (2018). Nužna li biografija emigrantu?, in E. Esposito, S. Sini & M. Castagneto (eds.), Roman Jakobson, linguistica e poetica, Milano, Ledizioni, pp. 61-74.

Testenoire, Pierre-Yves (2019). Compléments à la correspondance Jakobson – Lévi-Strauss. Acta Structuralica 4.

Thomas, Margaret (2014). Roman Jakobson (I-IV), Routledge, London.

How to cite this post

Flack, Patrick. 2020. A Danish Framing of Roman Jakobson’s American Years – Review of From the early years of Phonology. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2020/12/18/review-early-years-phonology/

Posted in Article
2 comments on “A Danish Framing of Roman Jakobson’s American Years – Review of From the early years of Phonology
  1. Fritz Newmeyer says:

    I have a question about Jakobson’s first year in the United States. According to his Wikipedia entry and several other web pages, ‘When the American authorities considered “repatriating” him to Europe, it was Franz Boas who actually saved his life.’ No citations are ever given. Do you know if the story is true? It seems implausible, given that Boas was a German immigrant and a Jew (why would American immigration pay attention to him?) and that he (Boas) died the year after Jakobson arrived. Thanks!

    • Thank you for your question Frederick. Unfortunately, I know nothing more about this story. I remember reading some interest notes on Boas’s role in helping European scholars in Goldsmith & Laks’s excellent “Battle in The Mind Fields” (which by the way I also recently reviewed for the next issue of Historiographia Linguistica), but I can’t recall if the episode with Jakobson is mentioned.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: