The Influence of Roman Jakobson on the Development of Semiotics

  • Umberto Eco
Part of the Topics in Contemporary Semiotics book series (TICSE)


The project of a science studying all possible varieties of signs and the rules governing their production, exchange, and interpretation is a rather ancient one. Pre-Socratic poetry and philosophy are frequently concerned with the nature of natural signs and divine messages. The Hippocratic tradition deals with the interpretation of symptoms, while the Sophists were critically conscious of the power of language. Plato’s Cratylus is a treatise on the origins of words, and the Sophist can be considered the first attempt to apply a binary method to semantic definitions.


Main Trend Auditory Sign Verbal Language Real Thing Semiotic System 
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  1. 2.
    Roman Jakobson re-evaluated the role played by these last three works in “Linguistics,” Main Trends of Research in the Social and Human Sciences I (The Hague-Paris, 1970), pp. 419–63, and Coup d’oeil sur le développement de la sémiotique (the opening speech at the First International Congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies [1974]) = Studies in Semiotics 3 (Bloomington, Ind.: Research Center for Language and Semiotic Studies, 1975). On links between Jakobson and phenomenological tradition, see Elmar Holenstein, Jakobson (Paris: Seghers, 1974).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Substantial reappraisals of Peirce are in Jakobson, “Results of a Joint Conference of Anthropologists and Linguists” (1952), Selected Writings II (The Hague, 1971), pp. 554–67; “Concluding Statement: Linguistics and Poetics” (1958), Style in Language,ed. Thomas A. Sebeok (New York, 1960), pp. 350–77; “À la recherche de l’essence du langage,” Diogène, 51 (1965) and Problèmes du langage (Paris, 1966), pp. 22–38 [see also “Quest for the Essence of Language,” Diogènes, 51 (Montreal, 1966), 21–37, and Selected Writings II, pp. 345–59]; “Language in Relation to Other Communication Systems,” Linguaggi nella società e nella tecnica, Convegno promosso dalla Ing. C. Olivetti and Co., S.p.A. per il centenario della nascità di Camillo Olivetti (Milan, 1970), pp. 3–16; “Linguistics,” Main Trends of Research in the Social and Human Sciences I; and Coup d’oeil sur le développement de la sémiotique. Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    “La contribution apporté par Ferdinand de Saussure au progrès des études sémiotiques est évidemment plus modeste et plus restreinte… Contrairement à Peirce et à Husserl, tous les deux conscients d’avoir jeté les fondements de la sémiotique, Saussure ne parle de la sémiologie qu’au futur.” (Jakobson, Coup d’ceil sur le développement de la sémiotique). Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Sharing a precise theory of human history as a collective product, I believe that the development of the historical novel would have been nearly the same even without the existence of Walter Scott (only logicians would have changed their examples apropos of the author of Waverley). But there is some difference between a cult of personality and the respect accorded a matter of fact.Google Scholar
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    Donum Natalicium Schrijnen (Nijmegen-Utrecht, 1929), pp. 900–13; also in R. Jakobson, Selected Writings IV (The Hague: Mouton, 1966), pp. 1–15.Google Scholar
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    Novyj Lef, 12 (1928), 36–37, and Readings in Russian Poetics, ed. L. Matejka (Ann Arbor, 1962), pp. 99–102.Google Scholar
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    Cf. the way in which the poems of Pushkin are understood in the light of a reference to sculpture (Jakobson, “Socha v symbolice Pulkinové,” Slovo a slovesnost III [1937], 2–24; see also “La statue dans la symbolique de Pouchkine,” Questions de Poétique [Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1973], pp. 152–89, and Punkin and His Sculptural Myth [The Hague: Mouton, 1975]): literary signs speak of visual signs, both referring back to a semantic system of metaphysical oppositions, such as Life and Death.Google Scholar
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    Novejsaja russkaja poèzija (Prague, 1921); see also “Fragments de ‘La Nouvelle poésie russe’,” Questions de Poétique, pp. 11–24.Google Scholar
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    “Futurizm,” Iskusstvo, 7 (August 2, 1919), also in Questions de Poétique, pp. 25–30.Google Scholar
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    “Results of a Joint Conference of Anthropologists and Linguists,” “Again and again one may quote Sapir’s still opportune reminder that `every cultural pattern and every single act of social behavior involves communication in either an explicit or implicit sense- (”Language in Relation to Other Communication Systems,“ Linguaggi nella società e nella tecnica [Milan, 1970]).Google Scholar
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    Written jointly with M. Halle and published as Janua Linguarum, series minor, 1 (The Hague: Mouton, 1956).Google Scholar
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    Structure of Language and Its Mathematical Aspects, ed. R. Jakobson [= Proceedings of Symposia in Applied Mathematics, XII] (American Mathematical Society, 1961), 245–52.Google Scholar
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    “Socha v symbolice Puikinové.” “Pourquoi faut-il souligner que le signe ne se confond pas avec l’object? Parce qu’A côté de la conscience immédiate de l’identité entre le signe et l’objet (A est A), la conscience immédiate de l’absence de cette identité (A n’est pas A) est nécessaire: cette antinomie est inévitable, car sans contradiction, il n’y a pas de jeu de concepts, il n’y a pas de jeu des signes, le rapport entre le concept et le signe devient automatique, le cours des évenéments s’arrête, la conscience de la réalité se meurt” (“Co je poesie?” Volné sméry, 30 [Prague, 1934], pp. 229–39; “Qu’est-ce que la poésie?” Questions de Poétique, pp. 113–26).Google Scholar
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    Cf. note 26.Google Scholar
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    C. Lévi-Strauss, “L’analyse structurale en linguistique et en anthropologie,” Word, 1, 2 (1945). By examining the footnotes of many books and papers one rather frequently discovers that a lot of provocative ideas have come from a “personal communication” by Roman Jakobson. This generosity in giving fresh suggestions, whether to old colleagues or to young students, is one of the main features of Jakobson’s personality.Google Scholar
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    Later published as `Language in Operation,“ Mélanges Alexandre Koyré I (Paris, 1964), 26981.Google Scholar
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    Novejsaja russkaja poèzija [see note 10].Google Scholar
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    “Concluding Statement: Linguistics and Poetics.”Google Scholar
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    “Concluding Statement: Linguistics and Poetics,” Style in Language pp. 350–51. Apropos of one of the poetic devices most brilliantly pointed out by Jakobson, parallelism, it should be remarked that he has devoted considerable effort to elucidating the semiotic role of the various types of symmetry reflected in the diverse uses of parallelism. Cf. “Grammatical Parallelism and Its Russian Facets,” Language, 42 (1966), 399–429, and “The Modular Design of Chinese Regulated Verse,” Échanges et Communications: Mélanges offerts à Claude Lévi-Strauss (The Hague: Mouton, 1970), pp. 597–6605, where he stresses the striking similarity between the types of symmetry in Chinese classical verse and the approach to these problems in the theories of Chinese physicists.Google Scholar
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    See my proposals (U. Eco, A Theory of Semiotics [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976]) for distinguishing between s-codes (or codes as systems) and codes tout court. Google Scholar
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    For instance in “Language in Relation to Other Communication Systems,” Linguaggi nella società e nella tecnica (Milan, 1970), 1.4: “This code includes all the distinctive features to be manipulated, all the admisible combinations into bundles of co-occurrent features termed phonemes, and all the rules of concatenating phonemes into sequences-briefly, all the distinctive vehicles serving primarily to differentiate morphemes and whole words.”Google Scholar
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    “La phénomenologie moderne démasque systématiquement les fictions linguistiques et montre avec lucidité la différence fondamentale qui sépare le signe de l’objet signifié, la signification d’un mot et le contenu que vise cette signification.” “Co je poesie?” (1934).Google Scholar
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    See specifically “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation,” On Translation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), pp. 232–39, with the list of various types of interpretation: intra-linguistic translation or rewording, interlinguistic translation, intersemiotic transmutation. Apropos of the possibilities of intersemiotic transmutation (transposition from verbal to visual and so on), see the remarks in Essais de linguistique générale (Paris, Minuit, 1963) (on aphasic impairments in children). On the creativity of every interpretation, see in “Randbemerkungen zur Prosa des Dichters Pasternak” a provocative definition of metaphorical and metonymical substitutions in poetry as “interpretations” (Peircian terminology is still absent, but here one witness an enlargement of the notion of interpretant to poetic procedures).Google Scholar
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    In “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation.”Google Scholar
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    In “Results of a Joint Conference of Anthropologists and Linguists.”Google Scholar
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    “Louvain Lectures” (see M. van Ballaer, Aspects of the Theories of R. Jakobson, memoir (Kattolieke Universiteit te Leuwen, 1973 [mineographed]).Google Scholar
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    “Linguistics,” Main Trends of Research in the Social and Human Sciences I.Google Scholar
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    In order to establish the beginning of the activity of Jakobson as a writer, I rely on Roman Jakobson: A Bibliography of his Writings, ed. C. H. van Schooneveld (The Hague: Mouton, 1971).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • Umberto Eco
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of SemioticsUniversity of BolognaBolognaItaly

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