Politics and the Theory of Language in the USSR 1917-1938: The Birth of Sociological Linguistics

Politics and the Theory of Language in the USSR 1917-1938: The Birth of Sociological Linguistics


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'Politics and the Theory of Language in the USSR 1917-1938' provides ground-breaking research into the complex interrelations of linguistic theory and politics during the first two decades of the USSR. The work examines how the new Revolutionary regime promoted linguistic research that scrutinised the relationship between language, social structure, national identity and ideological factors as part of an attempt to democratize the public sphere. It also looks at the demise of the sociological paradigm, as the isolation and bureaucratization of the state gradually shifted the focus of research.

Through this account, the collection formally acknowledges the achievements of the Soviet linguists of the time, whose innovative approaches to the relationship between language and society predates the emergence of western sociolinguistics by several decades. These articles are the first articles written in English about these linguists, and will introduce an Anglophone audience to a range of materials hitherto unavailable.

In addition to providing new articles, the volume also presents the first annotated translation of Ivan Meshchaninov's 1929 'Theses on Japhetidology', thereby providing insight into one of the most controversial strands within Soviet linguistic thought.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781843318408
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 03/01/2010
Series: Anthem Series on Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies
Pages: 206
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Craig Brandist is Professor of Cultural Theory and Intellectual History and Director of the Bakhtin Centre at the University of Sheffield.

Katya Chown is Lecturer in Russian at Leeds University and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield.

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Politics and the Theory of Language in the USSR 1917â"1938

The Birth of Sociological Linguistics

By Craig Brandist, Katya Chown

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2011 Craig Brandist and Katya Chown
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84331-840-8



Craig Brandist

While there can be little doubt that the period between the October 1917 Russian Revolution and the outbreak of World War Two saw an extraordinary upsurge in innovative approaches to language in Russia and then the USSR, only isolated examples have reached an Anglophone audience beyond a relatively narrow circle of Slavists. This is especially regrettable since many of the questions that now occupy theorists of language and society were those with which early Soviet linguists grappled, and one can still learn a considerable amount, both positive and negative, from this experience. As the work of what have become known as the Bakhtin and Vygotskii Circles began to appear in translations in the late 1960s, structuralist and then post-structuralist approaches to language became dominant in Western scholarship in the humanities. This movement was led by scholars who often claimed to be giving language due consideration for the first time, and who, polemically, presented previous approaches in caricatured form, as outdated and naïve theorizing that either unwittingly or willingly made common cause with Stalinist totalitarianism. As a result of this, the newly translated Russian texts appeared as exceptions that proved the rule, covertly subverting the official Soviet position and so anticipating, in fragmentary form, the new French-led paradigm. Just as these approaches arose in Europe, so in the United States William Labov led a bold attempt to catalogue and theorise social variations within American English by synthesizing dialect geography, attempts to define language as a social rather than natural science, and US writings on language contact and conflicts of the 1950s into a new discipline that was to be known as sociolinguistics (Koerner 2002). Labov and his followers did not caricature their predecessors in the same way as the post-structuralists, but the boldness of their new formulations combined with the political context of the Civil Rights movement still tended to exaggerate the novelty of these approaches and certainly did not stimulate a search for precursors. By the mid 1980s a veritable boom in Bakhtin studies had been launched, and Mikhail Bakhtin himself, eclipsing the members of the so-called 'Bakhtin Circle', was being held up as the hitherto unacknowledged initiator of a whole range of approaches. It took some time before the problems with the new perspectives became widely acknowledged and sober historical scholarship eroded the inflated claims to individual innovation, leading to a reassessment of the heritage of sociological approaches to language, even after the end of the Cold War had cleared the way for sustained archival research in the ex-USSR.

The current volume presents new materials that were first raised at the conference Sociological Theories of Language in the USSR 1917–1938, which took place at the University of Sheffield, UK, in September 2006. The conference was itself a part of a four-year project, The Rise of Sociological Linguistics in the Soviet Union, 1917–1938: Institutions, Ideas and Agendas, in the Bakhtin Centre at the same university. The project facilitated extensive archival research in the ex-USSR and collaboration with Russian scholars working in the area, some of whom contributed to the current volume, and has contributed to a changing perspective that was already underway before the project began. One of the main findings of the project has been the multi-dimensional character of the linguistic innovations in the USSR between the two World Wars, which was conditioned by political changes, the rise of new paradigms in linguistics proper, the dynamics of the institutional locus of research, patterns of appropriation of philosophical ideas from abroad and the diverse character of the ethnic composition of the USSR. Not only were these factors always present, but relations within and between each of them were constantly shifting according to the huge socio-political changes that characterized that period. Furthermore, disciplinary boundaries themselves were still in the process of formation and so scholarship about language took place in a wide variety of disciplinary contexts, including what would now be covered by psychology, ethnology, sociology, literary studies and even disability studies and archaeology. Needless to say this volume can do no more than highlight a few aspects of this complexity, but it is hoped that presenting the materials in this way will stimulate further interest in an extraordinarily rich field outside of the narrow confines of Slavic studies, which in many respects maintains some of the conservatism of the Cold War climate in which it developed.

Vladimir Alpatov presents us with a discussion of the way in which Soviet linguists related to the scholarship of the pre-Revolutionary period both within and outside Russia. He shows how the Revolution coincided with the importation of Saussure's new paradigm into Russia, and the way the two factors interacted in the work of different groups of linguists. Four trends are identified: those who rejected the new paradigm and the tasks the Revolution posed for linguists; those who rejected both the old and new paradigms and sought to construct a new Marxist linguistics ab nihilo; those who selected one among particular trends as a source for the construction of a new Marxist linguistics; and those who sought to construct a new Marxist linguistics by assimilating and combining aspects from a variety of pre-existing trends. This expands upon Alpatov's earlier work (2000) in which the many claims to having constructed a specifically Marxist linguistics was subjected to scrutiny and found to be seriously lacking in coherence. Linguistic constructions were found to have originated elsewhere and this or that linguist's commitment to Marxism was shown to have only influenced the direction of research and the conception of society of which language was seen as part. Alpatov now shows that linguists related to positivist, idealist and Saussurean linguistics in complex ways, with Marxism influencing the objects of research and the criteria for appropriation of methodology and wider conceptions of language.

Marxism inevitably influenced the conception of society with which linguists worked, and thus of the type of sociology he or she developed. However, it is not always clear that linguists had a sophisticated understanding of Marxism, and quite often general conceptions from positivism or Durkheimian sociology were adopted with Marxist terminology often amounting to little more than a gloss. The dominant form of sociology that developed in postrevolutionary Russia, under the leadership of Nikolai Bukharin, could only be regarded as fully Marxist with considerable reservations. Bukharin's Historical Materialism: A Popular Manual of Marxist Sociology (1926 [1921]) presented a brand of positivist Marxism in which technology exerted a determining influence on social development and language was, for the first time in 'Marxist' theory, assigned to the ideological superstructure that arises on the economic base (1926 [1921], pp. 203–6). Despite the fact that Lenin had shown considerable scepticism towards sociology as a discipline and towards Bukharin's understanding of both Marxism and culture (Biggart 1987), and that some of the most talented Marxist theoreticians abroad (Lukács 1925; Gramsci 1971 [1929–35]) heavily criticized Bukharin's work, this formulation was widely accepted by Soviet linguists as the model of Marxism to which their work needed to correspond. Moreover, while Bukharin was quite liberal in his approach to sources from 'bourgeois' thinkers, his conception of culture and science, which derived from the work of Aleksandr Bogdanov, encouraged culture and science to be viewed as class phenomena, with the creation of specifically proletarian versions to be a desideratum of Soviet scholarship. This gave a theoretical basis for the scholarly nihilism that developed among certain Soviet linguists and elsewhere, and for the harassment of scholars who remained open to a wide range of influences, especially at the beginning of the 1930s. As Alpatov shows with reference to linguistics, however, most scholars remained open to pre-Revolutionary and western influences even if they sought to recast those influences in the mould of 'Marxist sociology', and this was particularly true of the former students of the Polish-Russian linguistJan Baudouin de Courtenay, such as Evgenii Polivanov, Boris Larin, Lev Iakubinskii and Lev Shcherba.

Mika Lähteenmäki examines the notions of sociology found in the work of three prominent Soviet linguists, Rozaliia Shor, Polivanov and Valentin Voloshinov. Of these only the last is well known among Anglophone scholars for his 1929 book Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (translated 1973), though a collection of Polivanov's articles has been available in English translation since 1974. Lähteenmäki shows that in her 1926 book Language and Society and subsequently, Shor was not only heavily influenced by Saussure (as Alpatov discusses) but also by Durkheimian sociology as adopted by the French sociological school led by Antoine Meillet. Meanwhile, Polivanov and Voloshinov appeared to have a direct relationship to Bukharin's Historical Materialism, though neither adopted his perspective in its entirety but sought to cleanse the conception of its mechanistic features and incorporate teleological features into their respective conceptions of language. Furthermore, Lähteenmäki shows that none of the linguists actually made it clear exactly what they understood by 'Marxist sociology', and that this allowed them to emphasise different features at different points in their respective intellectual developments.

A wide range of approaches to the development of a new linguistics was evident during the 1920s when, with certain exceptions, scientific still generally prevailed over statutory authority in determining careers within academic institutions. One certainly needed to pose one's chosen research in terms of relevance to the new social and political environment and, from 1924, this increasingly pertained to the 'building of socialism in one country', but this was a capacious field within which there was little agreement on many fundamental questions. The relationship between social structure and linguistic variation was posed particularly sharply in the 1920s when the conscious construction of standard forms of the languages of the peoples of the former Russian Empire was embarked upon. All national groups had been given the right to be educated in their native language and to communicate with central government in that language, but this often required the selection, systematization and codification of standard forms from a plethora of local dialects, along with the creation of written forms. Even in Russia itself, the rapid process of urbanisation along with the destruction of the old state institutions meant that cities became multi-lingual and multi-dialectal environments. The drive to spread literacy and to form a new public discourse that was not remote from that spoken by the urban population inevitably required attention be given to linguistic and dialectal variation, raising the sociolinguistic problem to attention on a scale hitherto unknown. Most Soviet linguists were concerned with these problems in one way or another. Scholars of oriental languages, like Polivanov and Nikolai Iakovlev, were deeply engaged in language construction, which constantly raised consideration of the sociological dimension of language to a level of primary importance. Others who worked on Russian were constantly concerned with the relationship between standard and non-standard forms.

Particularly important in this regard were the works of two students of Baudouin de Courtenay, Boris Larin and Lev Iakubinskii, who form the focus of attention of Viktoria Gulida's contribution to this volume. Gulida shows that Iakubinskii's influential 1923 article 'On Dialogic Speech' and Larin's work on the linguistic variations of the city (with particular reference to Leningrad) both involve forms of analysis that were to become the basis of Labov's socioliguistics several decades later. Correlations are drawn between today's sociolinguistic concepts and the specific features the Soviet linguists highlighted, revealing how an incipient sociolinguistic theory was developing at the time. In their joint article, Brandist and Lähteenmäki show that it is ignorance of works such as those of Iakubinskii and Larin that has led to the exaggeration of the originality of Mikhail Bakhtin's ideas about language as developed in his essays on the novel of the 1930s, particularly his widely received work 'Discourse in the Novel' of 1934–5. After establishing the conditions within which Bakhtin's essays were written, the authors go on to show that some of the concepts such as heteroglossia (raznoiazychie) and polyglossia (mnogoiazychie) were already in common usage among linguists in the 1920s. They then go on to discuss Iakubinskii's articles on the formation of the Russian national language of the early 1930s, showing that Bakhtin's account of the linguistic preconditions for the rise of the modern novel closely parallels Iakubinskii's discussion that had been published just a few years earlier. It then becomes apparent that Bakhtin's own originality lies not in his approach to the stratification of language, but his discussion of the way in which the novelist models and exploits that stratification in the composition of works of literature.

Scholarship and Ideology

Like Alpatov, Gulida also shows how ideological pressures impinged on linguists as the decade neared its conclusion, but one might also comment that the development of American sociolinguistics was itself conditioned by the Civil Rights movement, the availability of federal funding to address African-American educational failures, and the development of ethnography spurred by the concerns of the Cold War (Dittmar 1976). One clearly needs to be very careful when posing the relationship between scholarship and ideology unless one propagate what Christopher Hutton calls 'a counter-myth of the "normal situation" ... the notion of the disinterested professor, free from external pressures who pursues truth without fear or favour' (Hutton 1999, p. 37).

Even the most deeply ideological brands of Soviet linguistic science were not reacting against scientific objectivity as such but against a doctrine that was, as Habermas puts it, 'inadequately dissociated from the context in which it emerged'. Soviet linguists suspected that 'behind the back of the theory there lies hidden an inadmissible mixture of power and validity, and that it still owes its reputation to this' (Habermas 1990 [1985], p. 116). The deeply ideological nature of the heritage of Indo-European philology is now surely beyond question, especially after the work of such figures as Edward Said (1995 [1978]) and Maurice Olender (1992 [1989]), and this should surely give us pause when tackling the most notorious trend in Soviet linguistics of the period, that which was led by the controversial archaeologist and philologist Nikolai Marr. Continuing to apply Habermas's terminology, we can see that Marr attempted an ideology critique of Indo-Europeanism, seeking to show how its 'validity claims' were 'determined by relations of power', especially those of colonialism and imperialism. The truth claims of Indo- Europeanism were disputed with particular reference to languages, such as Etruscan and Basque, that were lodged in the midst of Europe and that proved anomalous to the Indo-European case. For Marr, while it 'presupposes a demythologized understanding of the world' Indo-Europeanism 'is still ensnared by myth' and he does so 'by pointing out a putatively overcome category mistake' (Habermas 1990 [1985], p. 116). Such an argument undoubtedly had a rational core, which is probably why it gained such currency among linguists, philosophers and historians at the time, even if they did not accept Marr's often wild extrapolations from just a few perceptive observations and attempts to fashion a counter-tradition that proved little short of disastrous. 4Marr was unable judiciously to distinguish between the questionable elements of the Indo-European doctrine and those parts that undoubtedly represented epistemic progress, while his own Japhetic theory was clearly bound up with mythical features the acceptance of which was increasingly bound up with relations of power.


Excerpted from Politics and the Theory of Language in the USSR 1917â"1938 by Craig Brandist, Katya Chown. Copyright © 2011 Craig Brandist and Katya Chown. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents


1. Introduction Craig Brandist, 1,
2. Soviet Linguistics of the 1920s and 1930s and the Scholarly Heritage Vladimir M. Alpatov, 17,
3. 'Sociology' in Soviet Linguistics of the 1920–30s: Shor, Polivanov and Voloshinov Mika Lähteenmäki, 35,
4. Theoretical Insights and Ideological Pressures in Early Soviet Linguistics: The Cases of Lev Iakubinskii and Boris Larin Viktoria Gulida, 53,
5. Early Soviet Linguistics and Mikhail Bakhtin's Essays on the Novel of the 1930s Craig Brandist and Mika Lähteenmäki, 69,
6. Language as a Battlefield – the Rhetoric of Class Struggle in Linguistic Debates of the First Five-Year Plan Period: [The Case of E.D. Polivanov vs. G.K. Danilov Kapitolina Fedorova, 89,
7. The Tenacity of Forms: Language, Nation, Stalin Michael G. Smith, 105,
8. The Word as Culture: Grigorii Vinokur's Applied Language Science Vladislava Reznik, 123,
9. Language Ideology and the Evolution of Kul'tura iazyka ('Speech Culture') in Soviet Russia Michael S. Gorham, 137,
10. Psychology, Linguistics and the Rise of Applied Social Science in the USSR: Isaak Shpil'rein's Language of the ed Army Soldier Craig Brandist, 151,
Appendix 1. Introduction to Japhetidology: Theses Ivan Meshchaninov Translated and with an Introduction by Craig Brandist, 169,
Appendix 2. Glossary of Names, 181,
Appendix 3. List of Contributors, 189,
Notes, 191,
Index of Names, 199,

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'Examining the interpenetration of linguistics, psychology, sociology and political thought, this collection makes an excellent interdisciplinary contribution to our knowledge of Soviet cultural and intellectual history.' —Galin Tihanov, University of Manchester

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