Roman Jakobson’s Contribution to Structuralism and Semiotics

One of the most distinguished thinkers in linguistics, philology and aesthetics, Jakobson was responsible for the development of semiotics as a critical practice. Since his work is extremely wide-ranging in scope, Jakobson’s contribution to semiotics and structuralism alone are discussed here.

In the Jakobson model of communication (either oral or written) the following SIX constituent elements play pivotal roles:



ADDRESSER……………………………………………………………………………… ADDRESSEE
EMOTIVE                                                                          CONATIVE

(i) A message is sent by an addresser to an addressee. To facilitate this, they need to use a common code, a conduit/channel of communication, and the same frame of reference. Each of these elements has a corresponding function in the communicative act.

(ii) Language seen from the addresser’s point of view is emotive (expressing a state of the mind). Seen from the addressee’s perspective language is conative (seeking an “effect”).

(iii) If communication concerns itself with the context it is referential (which privileges the information content of any utterance) if the communication is oriented towards the code of communication it is metalinguistic (the query “do you understand me?” typifies this nature).

(iv) When the message focuses on the words of the message itself, that is when the communication draws attention to itself, it is poetic.

(v) And finally, when the communication focuses on the act of contact it is phatic.

(vi) Jakobson’s work with aphasics (people with a speech disorder) resulted in his analysis of figurative language. Adopting the two distinct uses of language namely selection and combination, Jakobson elaborated the terms metaphor and metonymy.

(a) In metaphor one sign is substituted for another, entailing a transfer of meaning between two unrelated domains. An ex-ample would be the use of the words “jealous” and “green.” Here to “go green” commonly implies the state of being jealous. However, there is no logical or semantic link be-tween the two. That is, the two words/ideas of the emotive state and the colour are actually unrelated

(b) In metonymy one sign is associated with another, where it utilises a term that is a ‘property of the key word, or is related to it contiguously (example: “sail” for “ship,” since sail is a part of the ship). In poetry the metaphor is used more often than metonymy because the stress in poetry is on similarity and/or startling opposition. Metaphor therefore involves a transfer of sense, whereas metonymy involves only a transfer of reference (part for a whole, but not a totally unrelated term/domain). Selection and substitution constitutes the metaphoric pole, and combination and contextualisation the metonymic pole.

(vii) “Poeticity” or the poetic function is a necessary part of the study of language because language and reality (or, in Saussurean terms, sign and referent) do not coincide. In order to study the poetic rhythm Jakobson developed phonology, and was one of the first to analyse the sound, phonemic oppositions, opposition in sound and vision, between pitch and rhyme in poetic discourse.


5 thoughts on “Roman Jakobson’s Contribution to Structuralism and Semiotics

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