LINGUIST List 6.411

Wed 22 Mar 1995

Sum: Jakobson reference

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  1. Dietmar Zaefferer, Sum: Jakobson reference

Message 1: Sum: Jakobson reference

Date: Sun, 19 Mar 1995 16:18:09 Sum: Jakobson reference
From: Dietmar Zaefferer <>
Subject: Sum: Jakobson reference

Two months ago (sorry for the delay) I posted the following query on the
LINGUIST list (with a horrible spelling error in the subject line):

)The following is, I believe, a more or less literal quote from Roman Jakobson:

)Languages differ less in what you can express in them than in what you must
)>express in them.

)Does anybody out there have the exact reference?

1. Reaction to the query
Six hours later it appeared on the list and three more hours later the
first answer was in!!! Thank you all, that's really great!!!

Within the following four weeks I received ten replies, 5 of them giving
the first quotation below, 2 with the second one, 3 asking me to forward
the requested information.

Thanks to all who responded:

Birgitta Englund Dimitrova
Bob Fradkin
Eloise Jelinek
Hans Lindquist
Nili Mandelblit
Bruce Mannheim
Bert Peeters
Larry Rosenwald
Deborah Ruuskanen
Martha Thunes

2. Answers
A. The first quotation is:

Jakobson, Roman (1959) 'On linguistic aspects of translation' In Reuben A.
Brower (ed.), On translation, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, Press.
232-239. Reprint New York: Galaxy Books 1966. The quoted sentence is on p.
236. Also in Jakobson, Roman (1971) Selected Writings vol. II, The Hague:
Mouton. 260-266. The quoted sentence is here on p. 264.
(Birgitta Englund Dimitrova mentions that this article has ever since been
widely quoted in research on translation.)

The context is the division of labor between lexical and grammatical means,
which may vary considerably from language to language, and the problems
this poses for translation:

"If some grammatical category is absent in a given language, its meaning
may be translated into this language by lexical means. ... It is more
difficult to remain faithful to the original when we translate into a
language provided with a certain grammatical category from a language
devoid of such a category. ... As Boas neatly observed, the grammatical
pattern of a language (as opposed to its lexical stock) determines those
aspects of each experience that must be expressed in the given language.
... In order to translate accurately the English sentence "I hired a
worker," a Russian needs supplementary information, whether this action was
completed or not and whether the worker was a man or a woman...

)Languages differ essentially in what they _must_ convey and not in what they
)>_may_ convey.

Each verb of a given language imperatively raises a set of specific
yes-no-questions ..."

B. The second quotation is:

Jakobson, Roman (1959) 'Boas' view of grammatical meaning' in W.
Goldschmidt (ed.), The anthropology of Franz Boas, Memoirs of the American
Anthropological Association 89. 139-45. Reprinted in Jakobson, Roman
(1971) Selected Writings vol. II, The Hague: Mouton. 489-496. The quoted
sentence is on p. 492.

Here the context is Boas' obligatoriness criterion for the distinction
between grammatical and lexical meaning. Jakobson quotes from Boas:

"... 'a paucity of obligatory aspects does not by any means imply obscurity
of speech. When necessary, clarity can be obtained by adding explanatory
words.' To denote time or plurality, those languages which have no tense or
grammatical number resort to lexical means.

)Thus the true difference between languages is not in what may or may not be
)>expressed but in what must or must not be conveyed by the speakers."

(Am I right as a non-native speaker of English in suspecting that my fellow
non-native speaker has possibly confounded 'must not' with 'need not'?)

3. Motivation for the query
I am using the (first) quote in a typological context, as motto for a paper
where I discuss some of the consequences the obligatoriness of definiteness
and number marking has for those cases of use where the speaker wants to
evade these constraints. I argue there that languages with a high degree of
explicitness (many obligatory choices) also provide for standard weakening

If any typologist out there wants to engage in a discussion about the
explicitness parameter, I would be happy to hear from him. To trigger the
appropriate keywords, let me just mention that James Huang's 'temperature'
parameter (the metaphor goes back, via Haj Ross, to Marshall McLuhan) is
just a special case of the explicitness parameter. According to Huang (LI
15, 1984, pp. 531-574), languages with a high degree of obligatoriness in
the expression of anaphoric elements are 'hot' (little audience
participation required), whereas languages with a preference for zero
anaphora are 'cool' (more audience participation required).

Let me conclude with another quote from the first paper of RJ: "Equivalence
in difference is the cardinal problem of language and the pivotal concern
of linguistics." (233)

Dietmar Zaefferer
Institut fuer Deutsche Philologie Phone: +49 89 2180 2060 (office)
Universitaet Muenchen +49 89 36 66 75 (home)
Schellingstr. 3 Fax: +49 89 2180 3871 (office)
D-80799 Muenchen
Germany Email:
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