Linguistic and Extra-Linguistic History Behind Roman Jakobson's Distinctive Feature: The Perspective of European Crises and Intellectual Odyssey

Chang-Liang Qu


A full picture of the evolution of Jakobson’s term “distinctive feature” is not easily achieved, partly because the texts supporting such a study were written in a multilingual way: in Czech, French, German or English. Behind the multilingual texts were the European crises that led to the involuntary odyssey that was not untypical among the scholars of his generation. As a Russian intelligentsia of Jewish origin, he experienced Russian compatriots’ resettlement in interwar Central Europe, their fleeing from the persecution under the Nazi regime, as well as their final hard emigration to the United States. This essay intends to trace the development of this phonological term in Jakobsonian texts, to reflect on the reasons for his choice of the languages, and to explore a specific case of linguistic historiography on how this émigré scholar changed the landscape of that research field.


distinctive feature; Roman Jakobson; émigré

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