Stalin, Marr and the Struggle for a Soviet Linguistics

By Kirk, Neile A.; Mees, Bernard | Verbatim, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview

Stalin, Marr and the Struggle for a Soviet Linguistics


Kirk, Neile A., Mees, Bernard, Verbatim


On the 9th of May, 1950, the Soviet newspaper Pravda opened a discussion on questions of linguistics. The first article in the series--attacking the theories of the late N.Ya. Marr (1864-1934)--was written by A.S. Chikobava, a member of the Georgian Academy of Sciences. After various articles by leading Soviet linguists for and against Marr's theories, on June 20 appeared the first of several articles on linguistics by the Soviet dictator Stalin. The direct involvement of a political leader in matters of linguistic theory was unprecedented and was a key event in a remarkable story in the history of linguistics and linguistic theory.

Stalin's intervention in the debate immediately ended all dissent. The principal supporters of Marr hurried off groveling retractions to Pravda, with visions of the Gulag in their minds. Western intellectuals were quick to proclaim Stalin's intervention just another example of the lack of intellectual freedom in the Soviet Union at the time. But they could not have been more wrong. In one stroke Stalin rescued Soviet linguistics from the threat of a dogmatic dark age. Moreover, the whole incident had been planned a few months earlier by Chikobava and Stalin as an ambush on the supporters of Marr.

Well before the Russian Revolution, Mart already stood out as an esteemed specialist in archaeology and the history of the Georgian language. Born in Georgia the son of a Scotsman, he had studied at St. Petersburg, the then Russian capital, in traditional language studies, history, and classics. By the end of the nineteenth century he was already well known for his works on the Georgian language, but he was not satisfied with merely this; he looked further afield.

Marr deliberately stood outside the mainstream of linguistic theory and was treated as an enthusiastic oddball during his lifetime by most of his Western contemporaries. His first forays out of Caucasian linguistics were into the Semitic languages and also the then poorly understood Etruscan tongue, an extinct non-Indo-European language which was spoken during ancient times in parts of Italy, especially in Tuscany. Among various attempts to link Etruscan with other non-Indo-European languages, Marr grouped Etruscan with Basque and several languages of the Caucasus. His name for this putative language family was Japhetic, after the Biblical figure of Japheth, following in a long tradition of naming things European "Japhetic." It was Marr's Japhetic theory, rather than his excellent works on early Georgian language and literature, that was considered by his later supporters to be his first great contribution to linguistics in general.

Marr believed that the family of Japhetic languages, many now lost, had been important as a substratum underlying the Indo-European idioms which later came to be spoken throughout most of Europe. His theory was in part developed in light of the German linguist Hugo Schuchardt's linkage of Georgian with Basque, but soon turned into something very much more. With the Revolution and the flight west of many major Russian names such as Roman Jakobson and Prince N.S. Trubetskoy, Marr became the major figure in Soviet linguistics. His Japhetic theory was supported by some enthusiasts in Germany and his works translated into the language that was then the lingua franca of linguistic study. But more ominously for Soviet linguistics, Marr was able to have set up a Japhetic Institute at Leningrad which published its own journal, Japhetic Studies, and enrolled research students into the new field. Marr then began developing his own Soviet linguistics empire.

Unlike some notable proponents of Marr-like theories today, Marr cared enough about learning as much as he could about the languages he studied that he would go out and learn tongues as foreign to him as Basque. He was a true linguist in the sense that he knew and spoke many languages as well as having an interest in studying them. Yet the idiosyncratic Marr developed his own set of notations and arguments as part of his work, ones which today are rather difficult to follow.

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