Prague School Phonology


I.  The History of the Prague School Phonology

1.      Forerunner:

 The forerunner of the Prague School was the Moscow Linguistic Circle founded in 1915. It is a circle consisted of a group of young scholars such as Trubetzkoy (25yr) and Jakobson (20yr), who is the president from 1915-1920. The issues that this circle concerns are of both language and linguistics including problems of poetics, literature analysis, and general artistic structure under the influence of Slavic and historical linguistics. The sources of their study are based on Saussure and Baudouin・s works. When the Revolution broke out on October 1917 the members of this circle fled and this circle nearly dismissed.

2.      Foundation:

By the 1920s, the terms .phoneme・ and .phonology・ were well known to European linguistics. More importantly, de Saussure had left a legacy of modern structuralism which greatly influenced linguistics in general. Working within this structuralist tradition were, among others, a group of scholars known from 1926 as the Linguistic Circle of Prague. In phonology, two members of the Circle stand out: Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), who began his career in Moscow but moved to Czechoslovakia and worked there in the 1930s before fleeing via Scandinavia to the USA; and Nikolai S. Trubetzkoy (1890-1938), also of Russian origin, who was a professor in Vienna from 1923 until his death.

3.      Chronicle of the Prague School Phonology

a.   1915.  The foundation of the Moscow Linguistic circle, Jakobson・s being the president

b.   1917  Members fleeing Moscow due to October Revolution

c.    1926  The foundation of the Prague School Linguistic Circle, Jagobson・s being the vice president

d.   1928  Presenting the Prague Circle manifesto( drafted by Jakobson and cosigned by Trubetzky and Karcevskij) at the first International Congress of Linguistic at Hague.

e.   1938  Trubetzkoy died.

f.      1982  Jakobson died in Massachusetts.


II. The Representative Characters

1.      Roman Jakobson (1896-1982)

From left to right: R. Jakobson (L1),

N. S. Trubetzkoy (L2)

1.1  Contribution:

Jakobson・s contribution to linguistics can be represented as the concept such as feature, binary  opposition, markedness, redundancy, and universals. He also focuses the importance of linguistics on language acquisition, aphasia, act of communication, meaning in grammar, poetry, and the systematicity of language change. Jakobson・s greatest insight, distinctive feature, (after the phoneme) belongs to the (Functional) Structuralist Phonology. So, for more information, you may consult functional phonology. Jakobson・s contribution in the Prague school phonology can be represented as the Prague Circle manifesto, which changes the direction of the development of the European phonology. (see the main theories for more details)


1.2 Chronicles of Roman Jakobson (1896-1982)                                           


Age   Year   Event

1                   1896   born in Moscow, Russia on October 11

24    1920    going to Prague, Czechoslovakia                                            

30    1926    helping to found and be vice-president of the Prague Linguistic Circle.                                     

43    1939    fleeing the Nazis, going to Scandinavia                                         

45    1941    going to the USA                                                        

46    1942    teaching in New York (-1946)                                                

47    1943    teaching at Columbia University                                        

53    1949    obtaining a professorial Chair at Harvard University,  

   also be an Institute Professor at MIT.

60    1956    be president of the Linguistic Society of America

84    1980    receiving the international Prize for Philology and   


86    1982    receiving the Hegel Prize

86    1982   died in Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 18

1.3 Chronicles of Roman Jakobson・s Writings

     This part can be found in the book, Roman Jakobson: A Bibliography of His Writings, which contains 484 items of his writing from 1916 to 1971.


2. Trubetzkoy, Nikolai Sergeyevič (1890-1938)

2.1 Contribution

Trubetzkoy・s chief contribution in phonology was taken in the sense of functional phonology. (So, for more information, see the functional (structuralist) phonology. Trubetzkiy・s notable contributions made to phonological theory are as follows:

b.      Clarifying the distinction between phonetics and phonology by the criterion of function

c.      Investigating insistently on phonic substance in terms of its various functions in individual languages

d.      Emphasizing on the concept of phonological opposition (primary) over phoneme (secondary)

e.      Classifying phonological oppositions typologically instead of binaristic

           2.2 Chronicle of N.S. Trubetzkoy  

Age  Year   Events                                                 

    1   1890   born in Moscow

   13   1903   studying ethnography and ethnology

   15   1905   publishing Finno-Ugric Folklore

   18   1908   graduated from high school, entering Moscow University.

   23   1913   graduated from Moscow university with a M.A. Studying at Leipzig for PhD

   27   1917   October Revolution occurred. Fleeing Moscow to Caucasus

   28   1918   be a temporarily professor of comparative linguistics and Slavic philosophy at Sodia University, Bulgaria

   32   1922   be the chair in Slavic philosophy department at Vienna university.

   36   1926   joining the Linguistic Circle of Prague

   42   1932   be the president of the International Phonological Association

   48   1938   died of a heart attack.

     2.3 Chronicles of N. C. Trubetzkoy・s Writings

         The detailed recordings of the articles written by N. C. Trubetzkoy were compiled in Principles of

Phonology. The content includes about 140 articles/books published before his death and 7 posthumous

publications and translations of his works. Most of his articles can be found in the following publication:

* Bulletin de la sociètè de Linguistique (Paris)   

* Časopis pro slovanskou filologii (Prague)

* Jevrazijskaja Chronika (Verlil-Paris)         

* Slovo a slovesnost (Prague)

* Mèmoires de la sociètè de Llinguistique (Paris)  

* Travaux du Cercle linguistique de Prague (Prague)

* Revue des ètudes slaves (Paris)             

* Zeitschrift für slavische Philologie (Berlin)

The posthumous publications and translations of Trubetzkoy・s works are as follows:

1949      Principes de Phonologie. trans. J. Cantinean. Paris: C. Klincksieck

1952      The Common Slavic Elecment in Russian Culture. ed. Leon Stilman. trans. by a group of graduate students of the Department of Slavic Languages, Columbia University. New York: Columbia Univ.

1954      Altkirchenslavische Grammatik, Schrift-, Laut- und Formensystem, von Nikolaus S. Trbetzkoy. Im Auftrage der Akademie hrsg. Bon Rudolf Jagoditsch. Vienna: In Kommission bei R. M. Rohrer.

1956  Die russischen Dichter des 18. und 19. Jahrhunderts. Abriss einer Entwicklunsgeschichte. Nach einem nachgelassenen russiscfhen Manuskript  hrsg. Rudolf Jagoditsch, Graz, H. Böhlaus Nachf.

1960                 Translation of Grundzüge into Russian: Osnovy fonologii, tr. A. A.         Xolodoviča, ed. S. D.    Kacnel・sona. Postscript by A. A. Reformatskogo. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing     House.

1964      Dostoevskij als Kunstler. The Hague: Mouton

1968  Introduction to the Principles of Phonological Descriptions. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

2.4 Representative Writing

* GrundzÜge der phonologie (1939) by Trubetzkoy

          ( * Principles de Phonologie [French translation] 1949)

          ( *Principles of Phonology [English translation] 1969)

          This book has the following three characteristics:

1.      Discussing the nature of distinctive oppositions in theoretical, terms

2.      Surveying analytical procedures, i.e., rules for determining the phonemic system of a language, and

3.      Giving extensive examples of the different oppositions of various languages.


III. Main Theories and Tasks

1. Main Theory

Following de Saussure・s emphasis on the differential function of linguistic elements, both Jakobson and Trubetzkoy attached great importance to the oppositions among phonemes rather than to the phonemes themselves. Thus to say that English has phonemes /s/ and /z/ is a statement about a distinction which English speakers make and recognize rather than a claim about phonemes as mental images or phonetic entities. This was a significant insight, which seemed to accord with linguistic experience. By the very nature of spoken language, a speaker is aware of differences and reacts to mispronunciation or interference with the system of oppositions. But the isolation of individual phonemes from their spoken context is neither a typical nor an easy task. Most speakers seem incapable of doing it in any systematic way, and, in literate societies, usually resort to naming letters and spelling out a word rather than attempting to articulate separate phonemes.

   Jacobson (and others of the Prague School) published actively during the 1920s and 1930s, but it was Trubetzkoy who provided the School・s most comprehensive and widely consulted work on phonology, GrundzÜge der phonologie (Principles of Phonology), which first appeared in 1939, the year after his death. Besides discussing the nature of distinctive oppositions in theoretical terms, Trubetzkoy also surveys analytical procedures and gives extensive examples of the different oppositions of various languages. He follows through the implications of the structural approach in a number of ways, particularly in the classification of oppositions. He is also responsible for the concepts neutralization and archiphoneme which are consistent with a functional view of the phoneme.

   Jacobson and Trubetzkoy also initiated modern distinctive feature theory. The notion of component features is already implicit in the idea of opposition. The notion was made explicit by Jakobson・s and Trubetzkoy・s recognition of such features as .differential qualities・ or .relevant properties・. This further strengthened their point that phonemes represented points in a system rather than physical or mental entities.

2. The Prague Circle manifesto, which changes the character of the European phonology, points out the   tasks of phonology are as follows:

a.      To identify the characteristics of particular phonological system, in terms of the language particular range of significant differences among :acoustico-motor images;

b.      To specify the types of differences that can be found in general, and in characterize multiple pairs of elements (e.g., voicing separates p from b)

c.      To formulate general laws governing the relations of these correlations to one another within particular phonological systems

d.      To account for historical change in terms of the phonological system (rather than the individual sound) which undergoes it, and to construe such changes as teleologically governed by considerations of the system

e.      To found phonetic studies on an acoustic rather than an articulatory basis, since it is the production of sound that is the goal of linguistic phonetic events and that gives them their social character.

IV. Important Concepts of Prague School

1. Distinctive Features:

  Jakobson (1939, 1949) drawing on earlier phonological concepts of de Saussure and Hjelmslev, pointed to the limited number of :differential qualities; or :distinctive features; that appeared to be available to languages. Jakobson・s interest was in showing hoe oppositions V as the constitutive features of relations among phonemes V reflected a hearer・s response to an acoustic signal. Just as this signal contains a limited number of variables, so perceptual response to it operates with a limited number of categories.

  The most famous elaboration of this approach is clarified in works by Jakobson, Fant and Hlle (1952) and Jakobson and Halle (1956). This scheme uses perceptual terms which reflect acoustic cues rather than articulatory mechanics. In 1939, Jakobson took Grammont・s terms :acute; and :grave; representing opposite ends of a scale that measures the predominance of upper or lower components of the acoustic spectrum. The :acute-grave; feature distinguishes both high front vowels (i, y) from back vowels (u, o, aK) and palatal consonants from velar consonants.

  Jakobson and Halle employed only 12 features, which were listed with articulatory correlates as well as acoustic cues. All of the features are polar oppositions, allowing relative values. So the acute vowels of one language need not to be identical in nature with the acute vowels of another, provided that they are more acute than the grave vowels to which they are opposed. Moreover, the same acoustic effect can be achieved by different articulatory means. Lip rounding, pharyngealization and retroflexion, for instance, may all be covered by the one distinctive feature of :flatness;. Each feature is binary, with only two opposed values along a single dimension.

Distinctive Features

1. Vocalic/Nonvocalic

Distinguishes vowels and vowel-like sounds from nonvocalic sounds like stops and fricatives.

2. Consonantal/


Distinguishes sounds with low energy and relatively substantial obstruction in the vocal tract from nonconsonantal sounds; thus, for example, a typical vowel can be considered vocalic and nonconsonantal, an approximant such as lateral both vocalic and consonantal.

3. Compact/Diffuse

Refers to the acoustic spectrum and distinguishes sounds with energy concentrated in the central region of the spectrum from those with a more .diffuse・ spread of energy.

4. Tense/Lax


5. Voiced/Voiceless


6. Nasal/Oral


7. Discontinuous/



8. Strident/Mellow

Distinguishes .noisy・ sounds like sibilant [s] from more .mellow・ fricatives.

9. Checked/Unchecked

Refers to the higher rate of energy discharge in glottalized sounds and therefore distinguishes ejectives from pulmonic sounds.

10. Grave/Acute

Refers to the acoustic spectrum and distinguishes sounds with more energy in the lower frequency ranges from those with greater concentration of energy in the upper frequencies.

11. Flat/Plain

Refers to the lowering or weakening of upper frequencies created by some kind of narrowed aperture: distinguishes lip rounded sounds from nonrounded, as well as other articulations with comparable acoustic consequences, notably pharyngealized consonants from their .plain・ counterparts.

12. Sharp/Plain

More or less the opposite of .flat/plain・ and refers to the upward shift of upper frequencies characteristic of palatalized consonants.

                                                   (Clark and Yallop 1996)

2.      Neutralization:

For any particular system, biuniqueness is a requirement that phonemes and allophones can be unambiguously assigned to each other. A problem in this connection is that contrastive systems are often unequally exploited. This means, for example, that two phonemes may be distinguished in some structures but not in others. Following Trubetzkoy (1939) we may say that some phonemic oppositions are suspended or neutralized under certain conditions. Trubetzkoy distinguishes three kinds of neutralization.

Firstly, a language has a contrast but only one of the relevant phonemes occurs under neutralization. Suppose a language has a contrast of voiced and voiceless plosives in word-initial and word-final positions, nut only voiceless plosives occur word-finally. Since the word-final plosives are not in contrast with voiced plosives, the contrast of voicing is inoperative or neutralized word-finally.

Secondly, neutralization may be represented by some kind of variation or alternation among the otherwise contrasting phonemes. For example, in Indonesian, there are four nasal consonant phonemes (bilabial, alveolar, palatal and velar). But sequences of nasal plus other consonants are homorganic, that is the nasal and following consonants are at the same point of articulation. So, we can find clusters such as /mb/ and /nd/, but not /md/ and /nb/.

Thirdly, neutralization may be represented by a sound which is distinct from both of the otherwise contrasting phonemes. One of the most common instances of this kind of neutralization is where vowel contrasts are reduced under certain conditions.


V. Historical Status and Influence

1.      Historical Status:

a. Prague school linguistics・ success essentially changed the character of European linguistics.

b. Trubetzkoy・s contributions were inherited and further elaborated by Martinet and his associates who

 found the Functionalist School, i.e., Prague School is the cradle of Structuralism.

2.      Influence:

   The concept of neutralization and the theory of markedness is expanded in generative grammar as well as nowadays.


VI. Related Websites

1.        Roman Jakobson・s website:

2.  About distinctive features:

3. Trubetzkoy・s contribution in phonology:


VII. References

Anderson, Stephen R. 1985. Phonology in the Twentieth Century: Theories of Rules and Theories of Representations.  Chicago: Chicago UP.

Asher. 1994. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics.

Clark, John. and Colin Yallop. 1996. An Introduction to Phonetics and Phonology. 2nd ed. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell.

Gribble, Charles E. (Ed). 1968. Studies Presented to Professor Roman Jakobson by His Students. Cambrideg, Mass.: Slavica

Toman, Jindřich. 1995. The Magic of a Common Language. Cambridge: the MIT Press.

Trubetzkiy, N. S.1969. Principles of Phonology. Christiane A. M. Baltaxe trans. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Schooneveld, C. H. Van. (Ed). 1971. Roman Jakobson: A Bibliography of His Writings. The Hague: Mouton.

Tobin, Yishai. 1997. Phonetics versus Phonology: The Prague School and Beyond in Phonology as Juman Behavior: Theoretical Implications and Clinical Applications.