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date: 23 November 2017

Nikolai Trubetzkoy

Summary and Keywords

Nikolai Trubetzkoy (1890–1938) was a Russian émigré scholar who settled in Austria in 1922, serving as Head of Slavic Linguistics at the University of Vienna and participating in the Prague Linguistics Circle. Trubetzkoy wrote nearly 150 works on phonology, prosody, comparative linguistics, linguistic geography, folklore, literature, history, and political theory. His posthumously published Grundzüge der Phonologie (Principles of Phonology) is regarded as one of the key works in the science of phonology. Here Trubetzkoy, influenced by Saussurean insights, elaborated on the linguistic function of speech sounds, the role of oppositions, and markedness. He was also concerned with developing universal laws of phonological patterning, and his work involves the discussion of a wide variety of languages. The Grundzüge became the classic statement of part of Prague School linguistics, which later influenced both European and American linguistics, notably in Chomsky and Halle’s The Sound Pattern of English. Less well-known are Trubetzkoy’s historical and political works on Eurasia and Eurasianism. In Europe and Mankind, Trubetzkoy argued that Russia was not culturally part of Europe but should evolve to form its own political systems based on its geography and common legacy with the peoples of Eurasia.

Keywords: Trubetzkoy, phonology, oppositions, Grundzüge der Phonologie, universals, markedness, history of linguistics, biography, Slavic, Prague School, Eurasianism, folklore

1. Biography

1.1. Wunderkind

Nikolai Sergeyevich Trubetzkoy was born on April 16, 1890, in Moscow. His family traced its lineage to the 12th-century Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The surname Трубецкой is variously Romanized as Trubetzkoy, Trubetskoy, Trubetzkoi, Trubetskoi Troubetzkoy, Troubetskoy, Troubetzkoi, Troubetskoi, Trubet͡skoĭ, and Trubeckoj; the Trubetzkoys were referred to using the Slavic titles knyaz’ or knyaginya, usually translated into English as ‘prince’ and ‘princess’.

The family was well established in the political, religious, and academic institutions of tsarist Russia. Trubetzkoy’s paternal grandfather, Nikolai Petrovich Trubetzkoy (1828–1900), cofounded the Moscow Conservatory in 1866 and was a chamberlain of the Russian Imperial Court. Trubetzkoy’s father, Sergei Nikolayevich Trubetzkoy (1862–1905), was professor of religious philosophy at Moscow University and a friend of the Russian religious philosopher Vladimir Solovyov. Sergei Trubetzkoy combined Orthodox Christianity with pan-Slavism, advocating the cultural unity of the Slavic peoples. He was also an intellectual leader of the Russian liberal movement at the turn of the 20th century, taking part in the Russian constitutional reform movement and incurring the disdain of Lenin, who referred to him as “the tsar’s bourgeois flunkey” (Liberman, 1991, p. 308). In 1905, he became the first elected rector of Moscow University, though he died of a brain hemorrhage before being able to serve in that role. The themes of Sergei Trubetzkoy’s political and religious idealism would later become evident in his son’s political and historical writing.

Nikolai Trubetzkoy, the oldest of three children of Sergei Nikolayevich and Praskovya Vladimirovna Obolenskaya (1860–1914), was educated by tutors at the family estate. He began attending the meetings of the Friends of the Society of Science, Anthropology, and Ethnography at Moscow University at the age of 13, and young Kolenka, as he was known, engaged in scholarly correspondence with established scholars such as Vladimir Bogoraz, who was later surprised to learn that his learned correspondent was a teenager.

Trubetzkoy’s first intellectual fascinations were language and ethnography, particularly Finno-Ugric folklore and the history of the Kalevala, the epic poem compiled from Finnish and Karelian folklore. He began publishing work on Finno-Ugric at the age of 15, mentored by the Russian folklorists Stefan Kuznetsov and Vsevolod Miller. Trubetzkoy’s approach, even as a teen, was linguistic and anthropological, and it involved analyzing plot variations in terms of cultural oppositions and using comparative and etymological evidence.

Young Trubetzkoy’s interests moved toward comparative folklore more broadly, and his early publications included studies of death rituals, fertility goddesses, and origin myths. His early work culminated in 1911 with an analysis of the legend of the Caucasian hero Rededya, which he saw as a borrowing from the Old Russian Chronicles. Trubetzkoy’s work on folklore became a source of his later skepticism and critique of European ethnocentrism, and though he was unable to continue field research after the Soviet Revolution, folklore remained a long-standing interest.

In 1908, Trubetzkoy entered Moscow University, first in the philosophy department but soon transferring to comparative linguistics, where the curriculum focused on Indo-European. Trubetzkoy studied comparative linguistics with Viktor Porzhezinskii, spending summers in field research in the Caucasus with Miller; following his graduation in 1913, he traveled to Leipzig University for a year to attend lectures by the leading German linguists of the day. On his return to Moscow in 1914, he married Vera Petrovna Bazilevskaya (1892–1968), who would survive him by nearly a quarter of a century. The couple had four children, the first of whom died as an infant.

In 1915, having completed his master’s thesis, Trubetzkoy joined the faculty of Moscow University, where his father had taught and where his uncle, Evgenii Nikolayevich Trubetzkoy, also taught. He was appointed as a privatdozent, or private lecturer, offering courses in Sanskrit. But even as a young man Trubetzkoy suffered from health problems and failing vision, and he was taking a leave from teaching to recuperate in Kislovodsk, in the North Caucasus, when the Bolshevik Revolution broke out in November of 1917. He never returned to Moscow.

1.2 Emigration

From Kislovodsk, Trubetzkoy made his way to Baku in Azerbaijan (where he contracted typhus) and to the port city of Rostov-on-Don, where he taught at Rostov University. There Trubetzkoy begin work on a linguistic project that would occupy him all his life: the reconstruction of Proto-Slavic. In 1915 he had given a talk in Moscow sharply critiquing Alexei Shakhmatov’s just-published Outline of the Ancient Period of Russian History (1915). Shakhmatov (1915) was a pupil of the Indo-Europeanist Filipp Fortunatov and shared his Neogrammarian approach to historical study, which assumed the regularity of sound change and prioritized the description of historical changes rather than the analysis of changes in the structural system of language.

Trubetzkoy wanted to write his own reconstruction of proto-Slavic, which he planned to call Prehistory of the Slavic Languages, and thus historical issues were his main linguistic focus during 1918–1920. Though the prehistory would only be published posthumously (as Trubetzkoy, 1954), some of the direction of his thought is reflected in his early papers on accentology, in which he argues that Common Slavic and Common Baltic accent contours differ systematically from Indo-European prototypes by the innovation of a short falling tone, a change that had profound effects on Slavic and Baltic metrics, and in his analysis of the relative chronology of a set of complex sound changes involving quality, quantity, palatalization, and labialization (Trubetzkoy, 2001c, 2001d).

In 1920, as the Red Army advanced, the Trubetzkoys moved to Bulgaria (by way of Yalta and Constantinople), leaving behind many of his notes and manuscripts. Nikolai was able to obtain a teaching position at the University of Sofia, and the time in Sofia was intellectually productive, though he worried about his inability to establish his scholarly reputation and considered his employment tenuous. He would leave within two years.

1.3 Eurasianism

During his period in Sofia, Trubetzkoy wrote his political book Europe and Mankind. In this work, he built on ideas that had been occupying his thought since 1909, according to his letters. Trubetzkoy wrote that he had planned a trilogy on problems of nationalism (Liberman, 1991, 338).

Europe and Mankind challenged the idea that Russia should look to the west for models of culture, politics, and science. Trubetzkoy argued that the Slavic people had much stronger historic connection with the cultures of Asia and that the apparent benefits of Westernization were a form of cultural colonization. Instead, Trubetzkoy called for a “revolution of consciousness” and ended the book this way:

to liberate the world from the spiritual slavery and from the hypnosis of the ‘benefits of civilization,’ intelligentsia of non-Romano-Germanic nations … must not be distracted by nationalism or by partial local solutions such as ‘Pan-Slavism’ or other ‘pan-isms.’ One must always remember that setting up an opposition between Slavs and the Teutons or the Turanians and the Aryans will not solve the problem. There is only one true opposition: the Romano-Germans and all other peoples of the word—Europe and Mankind.

(Trubetzkoy, 1991c, pp. 63–64)

Other émigré scholars were similarly disillusioned with the tenor of postwar Europe, and the movement known as Eurasianism soon coalesced with a 1921 collection of ten essays titled Exodus to the East: Forebodings and Events: An Affirmation of the Eurasians. Along with Trubetzkoy, the authors were the geographer Pyotr Savitskii, the critic Pyotr Suvchinskii, the theologian Georgii Florovskii, and the legal scholar Nikolai Alekseev. Trubetzkoy’s contribution, titled “The Upper and Lower Stories of Russian Culture (The Ethnic Basis of Russian Culture),” was in part linguistic analysis, suggesting that the Proto-Slavic language was closer to the Indo-Iranian branch in many respects. Trubetzkoy went on to analyze the culture of the Russian people as distinct from that Western Europe, looking at folk songs, folk dances, rituals, and material culture and also suggesting personality traits which associated Russians with Ural-Altaic peoples.

These pieces reveal Trubetzkoy’s approach to cultural analysis, in which he describes history in terms of oppositions between cultural forces. They also show his view of peoples as having a particular cultural psychology. Yet while Trubetzkoy was an essentialist, he was also a relativist, and thus much of his writing develops themes of cultural union and social progress through contact. His Eurasianist ideology was rooted in a belief that identity is shaped by geography and, moreover, that cultural similarities of language, art, religion, and temperament will drive people to associate into larger cultural unions which resist assimilation by other cultures.

Trubetzkoy kept up his political and historical writing in the 1920s and 1930s, following Europe and Mankind with a sarcastic preface to the 1921 émigré translation of H. G. Wells’s Russia in the Shadows. In 1925, he anonymously released The Legacy of Genghis Khan, in which he introduced the notion of ‘ideocracy’ and advocated Pan-Eurasian nationalism. Blending religious, anthropological, and moral perspectives, Trubetzkoy argued that communism was pursuing a misguided view oriented to Peter the Great and his western ideas while it should be looking to Eurasia. Soon after, in 1927, he also published (in Russian) a pamphlet titled “On the Problem of Russian Self-awareness,” which discussed the hierarchy of social and cultural values in Russian society and their transmission between the upper and lower classes.

In all, Trubetzkoy would publish nearly a dozen essays on politics, including a 1923 essay titled “At the Door: Reaction? Revolution?” which argued that political progress always becomes a new status quo. And he wrote critiques of the Soviet and Nazi regimes and of racial theories (in such essays as “On the Idea Governing the Ideocratic State,” “The Decline on Creativity,” and “On Racism,” all published in the mid-1930s). Trubetzkoy’s historical writings are significant to linguists in that they provide clues into the underpinnings and interconnections between his background and worldview and the linguistic concepts he developed. There are several in-depth studies of the relationship between his linguistic views and his political, cultural, and religious worldviews, notably those of Toman (1995), Liberman (1991), and Sériot (2014).

As for the Eurasianist movement, it eventually splintered over the extent to which it should accommodate and recognize the reality of the Soviet state. A right-wing movement known as Neo-Eurasianism adopted the name in the 1990s. (For more, see Riasanovsky (1967) on the first Eurasianist movement and Shekhovtsov (2009) and Clover (2016) on the right-wing resurgence.)

1.4 Sprachbund

Trubetzkoy’s worldview entered his linguistics in another fashion. He was a deeply religious follower of Orthodox Christianity, which led him to write sketches of religions and essays on religious problems (see Liberman, 1991, pp. 117–135). One early essay on religion and culture, “The Tower of Babel and the Confusion of Languages” (Trubetzkoy, 1991j), prefigures and informs his subsequent work on Sprachbünde or language unions. In “The Tower of Babel,” Trubetzkoy writes that the building of the tower was blasphemous and that the resulting “act of divine Providence”

implies that godless, self-sufficient technology, which found its ultimate expression in the project of the Tower, is the unavoidable result of a homogeneous culture without national differentiations …

(Trubetzkoy, 1991d, 149)

For Trubetzkoy, national cultures gave predominance to aesthetic, moral, and spiritual values, while homogeneous universal cultures deprive a people of spirituality. Trubetzkoy bolstered this view by discussing ways in which languages developed, some arising genetically from a common ancestor and others forming from the convergence of unrelated languages into language unions. Here we find the first reference to the idea of language unions, which he referred to with the Russian term yazykovoi soyuz. Trubetzkoy’s conception of the language union was also a challenge to the traditional idea of language families defined only by descent from a common ancestor and to the idea that language evolved from so-called primitive to more developed states.

The resulting diversity of language, he suggested, eventually results in a harmonious whole as different languages converge and integrate new characteristics and phenomena. See Toman (1995, pp. 185–215) for more discussion.

A few years later, he developed the idea in the brief Proposition 16 (Trubetzkoy, 1928) of the Prague Linguistics Circle, proposing that linguists classify language groupings (which he called Sprachgruppen) as either families (Sprachfamilien) or language leagues (Sprachbünde) and issuing a call for typological work. In the 1928 formulation, groups of languages comprise a Sprachbund when they display considerable similarity in syntax and morphological structure, share many common cultural words, and sometimes also have surface similarity in sound systems. Trubetzkoy (1939) developed the idea further in his suggestion that Indo-European developed by convergence from languages having no genetic link because of long contact in the same territory, but that the Slavic languages arose by diverging from a common ancestor. Here too the Sprachbund notion runs counter to the traditional language family idea, and for Trubetzkoy it was a fundamental component of Eurasianist reasoning and part of the basis for his rejection of the ideas of Nikolai Marr about the evolution of language through predetermined Marxist states. The Sprachbund idea was influential in the work of other linguists, particularly Roman Jakobson, who would go on to propose a phonological union of the languages of the Caucasus and who became enamored of the idea of a Eurasian linguistics (Jakobson, 1962; Sériot, 2014, chap. 4). Sériot (1999, 2014) shows that Trubetzkoy’s view of language unions was embedded in the goal-orientedness of linguistic systems and that for him a linguistic system was “not a set of negative oppositions like for Saussure, but a real thing, with a real ontological existence” (1999, p. 21).

1.5 The Slavic Chair in Vienna

The Trubetzkoy family moved from Sofia to Austria in December 1922, staying with another uncle, the tsarist diplomat and writer George Trubetzkoy. In 1923 Nikolai was appointed Chair of Slavic Philology at the University of Vienna, beginning a period of intense scholarly work and university teaching. A list of his seminars (in German) appears in Trubetzkoy (1975, pp. 488–490) and includes courses in Slavic languages, literature, and later phonology. As Trubetzkoy explained to Jakobson in 1923: “I have to give five lectures weekly. These lectures may not be repeated for three years. They are to comprise six Slavic languages and the most important works of literature.” He added that he would be “so deluged with work” that he could not even think of writing a book (Trubetzkoy, 1969, p. 316).

Trubetzkoy of course continued to work on historical linguistics, publishing a new and extended analysis of West Slavic languages (Trubetzkoy, 2001c) and a chronology of dialect development from common Slavic and an analysis of the principles of change (Trubetzkoy, 1927). His 1927 book K probleme russkogo samopoznaniya (“On the Problem of Russian Self-awareness”) also included a section on the popular and literary Slavic languages, including a discussion of lexical doublets and orthography (the sections on the Slavic languages appear as Trubetzkoy, 1949).

The analytic articles published in his lifetime show the direction that his work was going, yet Trubetzkoy’s planned prehistory of the Slavic languages remained incomplete. The manuscript materials were eventually published as Altkirchenslavische Grammatik: Schrift-, Laut- und Formensystem (Old Church Slavonic Grammar: Orthography, Sound and Morphology), which finally appeared in a German edition edited by his student (and successor in Vienna) Rudolf Jagoditsch. It appeared in 1954, 16 years after Trubetzkoy’s death, by which time it was no longer theoretically current. See Lunt (1955) for an incisive review of the work which identifies both the strengths (Trubetzkoy’s focus on the writing systems as a key to phonemic analysis and his analysis of the declensional forms) and the weaknesses of the book (the unevenness of presentation and assumptions).

2. Trubetzkoy and Prague School Linguistics

2.1 The Prague Linguistics Circle

One of the most important factors in Trubetzkoy’s professional life was his intellectual partnership with Roman Jakobson (1896–1982), which led to his participation in the Prague Linguistic Circle. Trubetzkoy had met Jakobson in Moscow in 1914 and the two shared an interest in the sound structure of language, Jakobson approaching it from poetry and Trubetzkoy from linguistic reconstruction. After the October Revolution, Jakobson settled in Prague, where he would complete a PhD at Charles University and later teach at Masaryk University in Brno before fleeing the Nazi occupation in 1939.

When the Czech linguist Vilém Mathesius organized a small discussion group of Czech and expatriate Russian linguists in 1925, he included Jakobson and Sergei Kartsevskii. This meeting laid the groundwork for the Prague Linguistic Circle, which Mathesius would lead until his death in 1945. Jakobson served as vice president of the Circle, which quickly grew to include Trubetzkoy, who had to travel the 200 miles from Vienna to attend. Linguistics dominated the meetings of the Circle, which held 160 meetings from 1926 to 1938 that included presentations by Otto Jespersen, Emile Benveniste, Louis Hjelmslev, Rudolf Carnap, Edmund Husserl, and of course Trubetzkoy, who presented numerous times—on the comparison of vowels systems in 1928, phonology and dialectology in 1930, Dostoevsky’s humorous stories in 1932, the structure of Old Slavic orthography in 1934, and Indo-European in 1936.

The scholarly activity of the Prague Circle was facilitated not just by the critical mass of scholars but also by the opportunity offered by the First International Congress of Linguistics, which met in the Hague in 1928. The conference organizers had posed a series of questions to the attendees, which led the Prague Circle linguists to elaborate a set of Propositions, as they were known. Jakobson, Trubetzkoy, and Kartsevskii cosigned the Propositions, which together became a manifesto of sort, and Proposition 22, drafted by Jakobson, was the key to their efforts. It stated that linguistic descriptions had as a primary goal “a characterization of its phonological system, i.e., a characterization of the repertory … of the distinctive differences among its acoustico-motor images,” (Jakobson, 1971, p. 3), the term “acoustico-motor images” here referring to the phoneme. The exposition went on to stress the importance of the synchronic phonological system for diachronic study as well, noting that when sound change was viewed as a function of the phonologic system, “Historical phonetics is then transformed into a history of the evolution of a phonological system.”

The propositions were further developed in the Theses of the Prague Circle, presented at the First International Congress of Slavists held in Prague in 1929 and published later in French (see Durnovo et al., 1929 for an English translation). Taken together, the propositions, theses, and other collaborative works (see Toman, 1995, 161 for a listing) stressed the theoretical separation of phonology from phonetics, the decomposition of sounds into oppositions among features, and the importance of synchronic oppositions for diachronic study. Phonemes were no longer viewed as unanalyzable entities but rather as sets of features, which constituted the real structure of the language.

Prague School phonology both built on and departed from the work of Saussure and Baudouin de Courtenay. Saussure’s distinction between diachronic and synchronic study, for example, had focused on the differential structure of language at a given point in time, but treated historical development in terms of isolated elements. The Prague linguists considered the system of distinctions as linked to and informing change and as giving language a teleology. They also reimagined the notion of difference, which for Saussure involved differences among equal elements, as a theory of distinctive oppositions among features.

2.2 Early Phonological Work

Trubetzkoy’s early work as part of the Prague School was concerned with foundational and analytic issues, and he increasingly moved toward the more thorough synthesis of theoretical and methodological issues for which he is best known. Several of his early pieces (Trubetzkoy, 2001g, 2001i, 2001f) were short, programmatic write-ups of presentations or commentaries at conferences laying out the basic early principles of the Prague School: the distinction between phonetics as the study of sounds and phonology as the study of sound intention (or “sound concepts”); a call for uniform, internationalized efforts at phonological description and an international association dedicated to phonology; and an outline of needed work for linguistic typology, including attention to the notion of neutralization. A bit later, Trubetzkoy (2001h) presented his ideas about oppositions to psychologists and logicians in a long essay in the French Journal de Psychologie stressing that the classification of sound oppositions was neither subjective nor arbitrary but rather implied by the language system. His work in the mid-1930s also included responses to critiques of the notion of the phoneme (1937a) and a short guide to phonological analysis (Trubetzkoy, 1968) in which he gave 11 rules for phonemic analysis and also discussed the phoneme combination, syllable structure and prosodic types, and boundaries.

2.3 The Trubetzkoy-Jakobson Letters

The fact that Trubetzkoy was a long-distance member of the Prague Circle meant that he and Jakobson were in frequent postal contact about matters both personal and scientific. Their correspondence began in 1920 and lasted until Trubetzkoy’s death. Jakobson’s letters to Trubetzkoy were lost, but Jakobson managed to preserve the 196 letters he received from Trubetzkoy by leaving them with his Czech colleague Bohumil Trnka. He later published them, still largely in the original Russian, as Trubetzkoy (1975) along with several other letters from Trubetzkoy to colleagues and other biographical material.

The letters offer glimpses of Trubetzkoy as a person. His financial situation and health concerns were ever-present, as were seeming insecurities about the reception of his and Jakobson’s ideas. The letters find Trubetzkoy trading opinions about other scholars, both adversaries and supporters. In one, for example, he refers to a former supporter of Prague School phonology as a “turncoat.” In another, a scholar he disagrees with publishes a “horrifying article.” He complains about the disregard French Slavists had for their Russian colleagues, criticized the work of colleagues like Trnka and Josef Vachek, and even tells Jakobson that his book on Czech verse, while having many insights, had far too many digressions (see Trubetzkoy 2001h, pp. 184–257, which gives excerpted translations of a number of letters).

In the letters, Trubetzkoy reveals a special disregard for Nikolai Marr (1864–1934). Marr had advanced the so-called Japhetic theory, which claimed that Hamito-Semitic, Basque, and the Caucasian languages had a common origin. Marr later developed a theory of human language arising from four basic words through collective human activity and a Marxist-based theory of languages as evolving in predetermined stages in concert with socioeconomic features. For a time, Marr was a favorite of Stalin, and his views were used to justify the Latinization campaign of the early Soviet era. Trubetzkoy refers to him as crazy in his letters, and would go on to describe Marr as both “delusional” and servile to European linguistics in the original Russian draft of Trubetzkoy (2001k, 2001h, pp. 253, 266).

More important than the personal insights, the letters reveal Trubetzkoy’s evolving scholarly interests, which after 1926 turned increasingly to phonological theory and its connection to linguistic typology and history. His letters and publications show his continued engagement in research on historical linguistics, morphology, and metrics, but his major research project was to study the regularities uncovering phonological patterns. In one letter of 1928, he explained his scientific method of drawing empirical laws from data:

I undertook a project that greatly interests me: I drew up the phonological vowel systems of the languages I remember by heart (thirty-four) and tried to compare them. Here in Vienna, I continued this work and now I have forty-six. I will go on until I get a hundred.

(Trubetzkoy, 2001h, p. 187)

2.4 Principles of Phonology

His survey would eventually encompass nearly two hundred languages and form the basis of Trubetzkoy’s most famous work, the posthumously published Grundzüge der Phonologie (its title alluding to Edward Sievers’s Grundzüge der Phonetik). Translated into English as Principles of Phonology (Trubetzkoy, 1969), it was Trubetzkoy’s theoretical synthesis of the study of sound structure.

In the book, Trubetzkoy proceeded from first principles, noting Saussure`s distinction between langue and parole and reiterating the important terminological distinction between phonetics as the study of sounds and phonology as the function of sounds as elements in a system, organizing and reducing the phonetic level to differences that play a functional role in the system. Having established the groundwork, Trubetzkoy defined the phoneme not as an unanalyzable element of a language system but as a bundle of phonetic properties (later to be called distinctive features), and he left behind his earlier view of phonemes as psychological units (as Baudouin de Courtenay had seen them) in favor of a view of phonemes defined operationally and objectively.

He developed this objective basis in the lengthy analysis of phonological properties given in chapter IV, which constitutes the bulk of the book. Trubetzkoy called this a “systematic review” of the properties used functionally in the world’s languages (in essence, it is a set of proposed phonological universals). He distinguished and named different types of phonetic dimensions among phonemes, such as isolated and proportional oppositions; bilateral and multilateral oppositions; and privative, equipollent, and gradual oppositions.

Isolated oppositions hold between pairs of phonemes when the features which distinguish them do not play a recurring role in distinguishing other pairs of phonemes; thus, the distinction between /n/ and /g/ is an isolated opposition, whereas the distinction between /n/ and /m/ is proportional (recurring in the oppositions between /t/ and /k/ and between /d/ and /g/). Bilateral oppositions are ones in which a pair of phonemes have all properties in common but one, such as English /p/ and /b/. Multilateral oppositions are those in which paired phonemes share few features in common, such as the opposition between /f/ and /z/ in English, which share a manner of articulation but differ in place of articulation, voicing, and stridency.

Equipollent, gradual, and privative oppositions refer to the characterization of phonetic properties. Equipollent oppositions are those in which phonemes are distinguished by properties which are taken to be equal opposites (such as front versus back vowels), rather than one reflecting the lack of the other. Gradual oppositions are ones in which sounds possess a property to various degrees (such as vowel height). Privative oppositions are those in which phonemes differ in that one contains a feature that the other lacks—such as voicing versus the lack of voicing, or nasality versus lack of nasality. In a privative opposition, one member is characterized by the presence of a ‘mark’ (a feature such as nasality, voicing, or roundedness) that is absent in the other member of the oppositions. The elements in opposition were known as marked and unmarked, respectively, and Trubetzkoy proposed that when a privative opposition was neutralized in a certain context, it was the unmarked member that appeared. Thus, when the opposition between voiced and voiceless consonants was suspended in word-final position, only the unmarked voiceless consonants occurred. Trubetzkoy also distinguished logical markedness from natural markedness, defining the logically unmarked term in this way: “the opposition member that is permitted in the position of neutralization is unmarked from the standpoint of the respective phonemic system, while the opposing member is marked” (1969, p. 81). Natural unmarkedness refers to the member of an opposition which requires the least deviation from normal breathing. Trubetzkoy also noted the analytic tension between natural and logical markedness, suggesting that “Only in those cases where the given phonemic system contains direct proof for another (‘unnatural’) distribution of markedness or unmarkedness of the opposition members can this ‘natural’ way of evaluation be ignored” (1969, p. 147). The idea of markedness appears in the Trubetzkoy-Jakobson correspondence as early as 1930, and Jakobson would later extend the concept of privative oppositions and propose that phonological markedness relations were universal (a step which Trubetzkoy had not taken).

In addition to discussing the phonological structure of phonemes in Principles of Phonology, Trubetzkoy offered characterizations of syllable structure, including the notions of syllabic versus nonsyllabic consonants, the acoustic properties of suprasegmentals, and the different manifestations of vowel quantity in terms of units of length (morae) or intensity. The book ends with several short sections on phoneme combination (phonotactics), phonological statistics (functional load), and a longer section titled “The Theory of Delimitive Elements” (1969, p. 273–297). Here Trubetzkoy discussed the phonological devices that signal sentence, word, and morpheme boundaries, including neutralization, free versus fixed accent, phonotactic signals, harmony, and rhythm.

While Principles of Phonology is a founding text of phonological theory, it was written under the difficult circumstances of life in prewar Vienna. According to Jakobson, Trubetzkoy was dictating the text of the book from his hospital bed as he lay dying, and about 20 pages were still needed to complete the book when he died. Jakobson made a hurried attempt to edit the work but published it largely in its existing state (Trubetzkoy, 1969, p. vi, 323), so it is likely that the published version does not reflect the most precise exposition Trubetzkoy was capable of.

For an introduction to Trubetzkoy’s phonological work, the most accessible source is Anderson (1985), which describes the influence of Trubetzkoy on the Prague Circle, along with Baltaxe (1978), which focuses on phonological issues. For some critical discussion, see Akamatsu (1988) and Dresher (2007), which treat some of the inconsistencies of Trubetzkoy’s system.

3. Trubetzkoy’s Legacy

3.1 Slavic Morphophonemics

One of the appendices of Principles of Phonology is a short section titled “Thoughts on Morphonology” in which Trubetzkoy proposed a level of morphophonology as the link between phonology and morphology, writing that

A complete morphonological study comprises the following three parts: (1) the study of the phonological structure of morphemes; (2) the study of the combinatory sound changes that take place in the morphemes in morpheme combination; (3) the study of the sound alternation series that fulfill a morphological function.

(Trubetzkoy, 1969, p. 306)

Morphophonology was a long-standing interest of Trubetzkoy’s, and while he was never able to conduct the typological study of morphophonemics that he called for, he did address the topic in two earlier books, Polabische Studien (1929) and Das morphonologische System der russischen Sprache (1934).

In the first, Trubetzkoy made a synchronic study of Polabian, the extinct West Slavic language spoken near the Elbe River. He proposed a system of morphological analysis to complement the phonetic and phonological levels, and he reintroduced the term ‘morphophoneme’ (which had been coined by the Polish linguist Henryk Ułaszyn) to refer to a set of phonemes which alternate with each other in morphemes and which could be represented by a common symbol. In Trubetzkoy’s practice, morphemes which exhibited no alternation could be considered to consist exclusively of phonemes, whereas morphemes exhibiting alternations would be analyzed as having some morphophonemes along with phonemes.

As Edward Stankiewicz explains, Trubetzkoy’s approach “introduces a severe dualism between phonetics and phonology (i.e., between a purely physical-physiological unit and its ideal, psychological equivalent), and on the other hand, it treats the morpheme as a sum of its variants, or more precisely it reifies the sum of its phonetic alternants into a separate psychological entity” (1976, p. 105). In other words, by developing morphophonemics by analogy with phonology, Trubetzkoy’s method established a separate level of morphophonemic analysis which later proved to be an unnecessary theoretical complication, as Morris Halle later showed (Halle, 1959).

Trubetzkoy’s book Das morphonologische System der russischen Sprache was a short but extensive analysis of the grammatical and derivational categories of Russian in terms of marked and unmarked binary oppositions. Here Trubetzkoy noted the distinct morphophonemic patterns of different word classes and treated the alternations of voicing and of palatalization in Russian, though at times his methodological assumptions hinder the actual analysis of alternations and his morphological work fails to match the depth and systematicity of his phonological studies. For reviews and critiques of Trubetzkoy’s morphophonological work, see Stankiewicz (1976), Kilbury (1976), Singh and Desrochers (1996), and Komárek (1994).

3.2 Russian Literary Studies

Trubetzkoy’s education was steeped in an appreciation of both music and art, areas in which his father and his uncle Evgenii had expertise, and he would come to view music, art, and literature as involving shared principles of organization that were implicitly structuralist. Trubetzkoy’s earliest scholarly interests, discussed above, concerned the folk literature of the Caucasus, and as his career unfolded, other literary themes would occupy him again and again. In the 1920s, he would draw on his ethnographic work on in his rejection of the characterization of folk art as primitive. He would also analyze the nature of literary versus colloquial language in his contribution to the Eurasianist volume Exodus to the East.

Once settled in Vienna, Trubetzkoy taught literature as well as linguistics and published literary studies on both medieval and modern works. Central to his work was a focus on the aesthetic function of language and the ways in which literary texts form a dynamic, unified whole. As with language and culture, for Trubetzkoy the task of analysis was to uncover patterns, and this is especially evident in Trubetzkoy’s, 1971 study of Afanasii Nikitin’s “Journey Beyond the Three Seas,” with its close analysis of the mood, diction, and composition of the travel tale. In another early study, he analyzed Russian pilgrim stories, focusing on style in relation to the cultural function of literature in what he calls the medallion technique. Trubetzkoy writes:

If one looks upon the chronicle as an aesthetic whole, as a literary achievement, one can compare it to a medallion; medallion painting is an art of presenting bright multicolored pictures against an even, pale background. In chronicles, this form stemmed from the nature of the material.

(Trubetzkoy, 1990, p. 4)

Trubetzkoy also analyzed poetic syntax, stylistics, and meter in the chastushka (a form of Russian ironic folk poetry) and the bylina (a type of East Slavic epic narrative poetry). Less groundbreaking perhaps was his study of modern Russian literature, which included work on metrics in Pushkin and studies of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky which analyze the structure of the plots in terms of their formal compositional devices.

Commentary on and explications of Trubetzkoy’s literary work include the introduction in Liberman (1990), which treats influences and motivation and discusses parallels with his linguistic thinking. Trubetzkoy’s analysis of Afanasii Nikitin has also drawn attention in studies in Lenhoff (1984) and Titunik (1978), and Tihanov (2000) explores Trubetzkoy’s influence on the critic Mikhail Bakhtin.

4. A Life Cut Short

Nikolai Trubetzkoy’s health was never robust. Throughout his life, he suffered from poor vision, depression, and heart problems. He would die before his fiftieth birthday.

Trubetzkoy was a public opponent of Nazism, and in 1935 he published an article titled “On Racism” warning that the historical anti-Semitism of the Russian intelligentsia would allow it to be manipulated by the Nazi agenda. His historical work also implicitly challenged the Nazi theories of the origins of an Indo-Aryan people (Trubetzkoy, 2001k). In March of 1938, after the Nazis annexed Austria, Trubetzkoy’s Vienna home was searched by the Gestapo, his papers were confiscated, and he was subject to a lengthy interrogation at the Gestapo headquarters. The strain was too much for Trubetzkoy’s heart condition, leading to his collapse. Trubetzkoy died in a hospital in Vienna on June 25, 1938.

His work continued to shape the Prague School as well as the functional linguistics of André Martinet and both American structuralism and generative grammar. His legacy was preserved by others. In 1939, the Prague linguists published a memorial volume of the Travaux du Cercle linguistique de Prague dedicated to Trubetzkoy’s memory and containing Leonard Bloomfield’s contribution on “Menominee Morphophonemics.” Jakobson ensured that the German edition of Principles of Phonology was quickly published in 1939, and it was reviewed by W. Freeman Twaddell and by Zellig Harris.

Jakobson continued to develop the phonological ideas that he and Trubetzkoy had discussed. From his eventual positions at Harvard and MIT, and his collaboration with Morris Halle, he brought Trubetzkoy’s ideas about distinctive feature theory and markedness into generative phonology (the Grundzüge was finally translated into English in 1969, 20 years after a French version had appeared and a year after The Sound Patten of English was published). And in 1975, just a decade before his own death, Jakobson oversaw the collection of Trubetzkoy’s letters to him.

Vera Petrovna Trubetzkoy, who had been an intellectual partner to her husband, saw to the publication of his literary studies in the 1950s. And from 1990 to 2001, Anatoly Liberman guided the translation and provided critical commentary on much of Trubetzkoy’s other work into English, including selections of the letters to Jakobson.

Trubetzkoy’s legacy continues to evolve. The picture that it shows today is of a driven polymath, interested in all of human culture, from phonetic detail to political ideology. Trubetzkoy was a scholar whose work in different fields was guided by the ideas of contrast as an organizing principle of structure and by the goal of finding methodologies to uncover systems of oppositions, whether phonological, morphological, aesthetic, or political.

Further reading

Akamatsu, T. (1988). The theory of neutralization and the archiphoneme in functional phonology. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Find this resource:

Anderson, S. R. (1985). Phonology in the twentieth century: Theories of rules and theories of representations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Baltaxe, Ch. A. M. (1978). Foundations of distinctive feature theory. Baltimore: University Park Press.Find this resource:

Battistella, E. (2014). Nikolai Trubetzkoy. Oxford Bibliographies Online. doi:10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0179Find this resource:

Dresher, B. E. (2007). Variability in Trubetzkoy’s classification of phonological oppositions. LACUS Forum, 33, 133–142.Find this resource:

Dresher, B. E. (2016). Contrast in phonology, 1867–1967: History and development. Annual Review of Linguistics, 2, 53–73.Find this resource:

Gasparov, B. (1987). The ideological principles of Prague School phonology. In Language, poetry and poetics: The generation of the 1890s—Jakobson, Trubetskoy, Majakovskij (pp. 49–78). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. Paper presented at the First Roman Jakobson Colloquium, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, October 5–6, 1984.Find this resource:

Halle, M. (1985). Remarks on the scientific revolution in linguistics 1926–1929. Studies in the Linguistic Sciences, 15, 61–77.Find this resource:

Komárek, M. (1994). Prague School morphonology. In P. Luelsdorff (Ed.), The Prague School of structural and functional linguistics: A short introduction (pp. 45–71). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Find this resource:

Liberman, A. (1990). Trubetzkoy as a literary scholar. In Anatoly Liberman (Ed., Trans.), N. S. Trubetzkoy, writings on literature (pp. xi–x1vi). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Find this resource:

Toman, J. (1995). The magic of a common language: Jakobson, Mathesius, Trubetzkoy, and the Prague Linguistic Circle. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Find this resource:

Trubetzkoy, N. S. (1969). Principles of phonology (Ch. A. M. Baltaxe, Trans.). Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

Trubetzkoy, N. S. (1990). Writings on literature (A. Liberman, Ed., Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Find this resource:

Trubetzkoy, N. S. (1991d). The legacy of Genghis Khan and other essays on Russia’s identity (A. Liberman, Ed.). Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publication.Find this resource:

Trubetzkoy, N. S. (2001h). Studies in general linguistics and language structure (A. Liberman, Ed., M. H. Taylor Jr., Trans.). Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Viel, M. (1984). La notion de “marque” chez Trubetzkoy et Jakobson: Un épisode de l’histoire de la pensée structurale. Lille: Atelier National Reproduction des Thèses.Find this resource:

References

Akamatsu, T. (1988). The theory of neutralization and the archiphoneme in functional phonology. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Find this resource:

Anderson, S. R. (1985). Phonology in the twentieth century: Theories of rules and theories of representations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Bloomfield, L. (1939). Menomini morphophonemics. In Etudes phonologiques dédiées à la mémoire de M. le prince N. S. Trubetzkoy (pp. 105–115). Travaux du Cercle Linguistique de Prague 8. Prague: JČMF.Find this resource:

Chomsky N., & M. Halle. (1968). The sound pattern of English. New York: Harper & Row.Find this resource:

Clover, C. (2016). Black wind, white snow: The rise of Russia’s new nationalism. New Haven: Yale University Press.Find this resource:

Dresher, B. E. (2007). Variability in Trubetzkoy’s classification of phonological oppositions. LACUS Forum, 33, 133–142.Find this resource:

Durnovo, N., Havránek, B., Jakobson, R., Mathesius, V., Mukařovský, J., Trubeckoj, N., et al. (1929). Thèses présentées au Premier congrès de philologues slaves. TCLP 1, 7–29. [Translated into English in J. Vachek & ‎L. Dušková (Eds.), (1983). Praguiana: Some basic and less known aspects of the Prague Linguistics School (Vol. 12, pp. 77–120). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.]Find this resource:

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