Jakobson, Roman Osipovich (1896–1983), a leading linguist of the 20th century. Jakobson was born in Moscow but moved to Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1920. There he helped to found the Prague Linguistic Circle in 1926 and became its vice-president. In 1939, with Czechoslovakia threatened by Nazi Germany, Jakobson moved first to Denmark, then to Norway, and finally to Sweden, in 1940. He moved to the United States in 1941 and began teaching in New York City. He was a professor at Harvard University from 1949 to 1967, and at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1957 to 1967. Jakobson was president of the Linguistic Society of America in 1956. He received two prizes for his work: the International Prize for Philology and Linguistics in 1980, and the Hegel Prize in 1982.
Jakobson was influential in the development of an approach to the study of language style that later became known as linguistic stylistics. His best-known work deals with structural phonology, the formal patterns of sound in a language. Jakobson’s distinctive feature theory is often regarded as his greatest insight. This theory claims that distinctive features, such as tongue height and lip rounding, are important factors to take into account when carrying out a phonological analysis. Jakobson believed that distinctive features reveal more about how sounds of a language are organized than do segments—that is, discrete units such as vowels or consonants.
Jakobson also contributed to the understanding of the acquisition of phonology in children, aphasia (inability to speak or understand language), and Slavic linguistics. His major works are Kindersprache, Aphasie und allgemeine Lautgesetze (1941, translated as Child Language. Aphasia and Phonological Universals, 1968), Fundamentals of Language (1956), The Sound Shape of Language (1979), and his eight-volume Selected Writings (1962–1985).
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