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Review of  Dictionary of the Prague School of Linguistics

Reviewer: Stijn Verleyen
Book Title: Dictionary of the Prague School of Linguistics
Book Author: Libuše Dušková
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 15.654

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Date: Tue, 03 Feb 2004 11:59:27 +0100
From: Stijn Verleyen
Subject: Dictionary of the Prague School of Linguistics

Duskova, Libuse, ed. (2003) Dictionary of the Prague School of Linguistics,
John Benjamins, Studies in Functional and Structural Linguistics 50.

Stijn Verleyen, University of Leuven (campus Kortrijk)


The late Josef Vachek (1909 - 1997) devoted a considerable part of his
career to the diffusion and the defence of the ideas developed by the
Prague Linguistic Circle. He edited several volumes with translations
of original texts from the founding members of the Prague School, thus
providing access to less well-known texts (cf. Vachek (ed.) 1964,
Vachek 1966, Vachek (ed.) 1983). Also, he consistently held a
functional view of language, as opposed to more formal approaches such
as generative grammar. One of his publications was a dictionary of the
Prague School of Linguistics, compiled in collaboration with Josef
Dubský, and published in 1960 (in French) under the aegis of the
"Comité International Permanent des Linguistes". The book was far more
than a dictionary, though, to the extent that it reflected the entire
theoretical and conceptual foundations of the Praguian approach, as
they appear in the most important articles and books by members of the

This book has now been made available in English (as it has been in
Czech) by a team of editors and translators, under the direction of
Libuse Duskova, a disciple of Bohumil Trnka and Joseph Vachek. They
have tried to remain as faithful as possible to the original text, but
have updated page references, mentioning new translations of the works
cited, etc. Also, all quotes are in English, contrary to the original
edition, which preserved the original language of the article or book
cited. Finally, some minor modifications have been made in the form of
the entries. At the end, we find a very useful index of French, German
and Czech equivalents of the headwords listed in the dictionary.

The new edition is preceded by a substantial introduction (pp.1-23),
summarizing the most important aspects of the Prague School theory and
the accomplishments of linguists working or having worked in the
Praguian tradition (both the founding members and more recent
continuators of the functional-structural approach).


The dictionary covers the period 1928-1958, with an emphasis on early
work in general linguistics by authors directly linked to the Prague
School activities, such as Karcevski, Trubetzkoy and Jakobson. In his
original preface (pp.31-36), in which he succinctly recapitulates the
history of the Prague Circle, Vachek defends his choice for French as
the basic language by referring to the fact that, at that time,
phonological terminology (which is no doubt the essential part of
Prague School Theory) was elaborated in most detail in French (cf.
"projet de terminologie phonologique standardisée" [1931] and the
French translation of Trubetzkoy's "Grundzuge" [1949]. Vachek's
dictionary is preceded by a list of the excerpted sources, in which we
find the names of the most important Praguian linguists.

Reading through the dictionary, one gets a fairly good impression of
the essential views of the Prague Circle. A prominent feature of
Prague School theorizing is the basic functional perspective, which is
present at all levels of linguistic description. The concept of
function is not to be understood in the quasi-mathematical sense of
Hjelmslev and the Copenhagen Circle (cf. "function in the Prague
conception", p. 81), but it is closely linked to meaning. In
phonology, meaning distinction is a criterion to distinguish phonemes
from (contextual or free) variants. The degree to which phonemes
differentiate meanings ("functional load of phonemes", p.82) may
determine whether they are preserved or merged with other phonemes.

In syntax, the functional approach can be seen in the development of
FSP ("Functional Sentence Perspective", p.82). This functional
perspective led to a very broad conception of linguistic phenomena
within the Prague School. Language was not conceived as a closed
system, but rather as a dynamic whole of systems, some elements being
central, others more peripheric. There is an obvious 'sociolinguistic
bias' in the writings of prominent Prague School linguists. For
example, variational phenomena are considered very important ("language
and society", p. 98), and contacts between languages are taken into
account ("language unions" [Sprachbunde], p.100). Also, problems of
standard language and literary language are treated (see various
entries pp. 106-107). Furthermore, the Saussurean dichotomy between
'langue' as a system of signs and 'parole' as the use to which the
system was put (see "language and speech", p.99), is weakened by the
Prague School. Contrary to what Saussure believed, the study of
'parole' is as important as the study of 'langue', because the
structure is revealed (or even shaped) by the use that is made of it.

We have already noted that phonology was an area of major importance, a
fact that is clearly reflected in the large number of entries devoted
to phonological concepts and terms. The major reference in this area
is of course Trubetzkoy's "Grundzuge der Phonologie". As is well
known, Praguian phonologists did not limit their attention to
synchronic phonology. One of their basic tenets was that synchrony and
diachrony (entry p. 154) were not as rigidly distinct as Saussure
thought they were, but that, on the contrary, a language system is
dynamic and partly causes its own development. There is a clear
emphasis on language-internal explanation (cf. for example "biology
and historical phonology", p. 56). Even borrowing phenomena, for
instance, are clearly treated with regard to their effect on the
receiving system ("loan/borrowing", p.107).

In diachronic matters, Praguian linguists (most notably Trubetzkoy and
Jakobson) were interested above all in final causes rather than in
efficient ones. Jakobson in particular (e.g. 1928) held a teleological
view of language change, considering change in language as restoring a
disturbed equilibrium ("therapeutic sound changes", p. 158), or even
as avoiding disturbance altogether ("prophylactic tendencies", see
"homonymy and phonological development", p. 87). On the whole, one may
say that the Prague School view of linguistic change was closely akin
to Sapir's notion of "drift" (see "tendencies in language
development", p. 73).


Vachek's dictionary is most certainly an excellent synthesis of the
essential views of the Prague School of Linguistics, and we can only
applaud the fact that it has been made available in English, a
language in which, as the editors point out, "most of the subsequent
work on Prague functional structuralism has been done" (p.27). The
editors and translators have delivered a good translation, providing
access to important source texts. This volume will be of great interest
to historiographers of linguistics, as well as to practicing
functional linguists, who will find in this book many notions and
concepts that are still of vital importance in linguistic theory.


Jakobson, Roman. 1971 [1928]. "The Concept of the Sound Law and the
Teleological Criterion", Selected Writings I, 1-2. The Hague: Mouton.
Prague Linguistic Circle. 1931. "Projet de terminologie phonologique
standardisée". Travaux du cercle linguistique de Prague 4. 309-323.

Trubetzkoy, N. S. 1949. Principes de phonologie [French translation of
the 1939 original by J. Cantineau]. Paris: Klincksieck.

Vachek, Josef (in collaboration with Josef Dubský). 1960. Dictionnaire
de linguistique de l'école de Prague. Utrecht: Spectrum [Comité
International Permanent des Linguistes, commission de terminologie].

Vachek, Josef. (ed.) 1964. A Prague School Reader in Linguistics.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Vachek, Josef. 1966. The linguistic school of Prague: an introduction
to its theory and practice. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Vachek, Josef. ( ed.) 1983. Praguiana: some basic and less well-known
aspects of the Prague linguistic school. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Stijn Verleyen is a PhD student at the University of Leuven, campus
Kortrijk (Belgium). His main research interest is in the history and
epistemology of 20th-century diachronic linguistics. He is currently
writing a PhD on 20th-century theories of diachronic phonology.