Patrick Sériot, ed. N.S. Troubetzkoy: Correspondance avec Roman Jakobson et autres écrits. Translated by Margarita Schonenberger and Patrick Seriot. Lausanne: Editions Payot, 2006. 573 pp. Foreword by Roman Jakobson. Indexes. Photographs. Glossary of German linguistic terms. Bibliography. CHF 49.00 / euro30.00, paper.
Prince Nikolai S. Trubetzkoy (1890-1938) was one of the great intellectual figures of his time. His early interests in folklore, ethnography, and the philosophy of culture led him to study die non-Indo-European languages contiguous to Russian (Finno-Ugric, PaleoSiberian, and North Caucasian languages), which in turn sparked a passion to understand the structure of language in general. He never abandoned his broader, anthropological interests, and wrote perspicuous essays on poetics, culture studies, and even political ideology.
Throughout this intellectual odyssey, Trubetzkoy's scholarly work combined intellectual rigor with creativity, a commitment to empirical detail with a willingness to speculate and generalize. He represented the post-Saussurian wave of linguistics, which extended the notion of language as a system beyond the program of the great Swiss structuralist's lectures, replacing the dichotomies expounded there with the notion that "everything hangs together," not only within language itself, but in language use, historical change, and verbal art. Trubetzkoy is perhaps best known as the author of the monograph Principles of Phonology (1939). Not quite complete on the author's death, this groundbreaking study is taken to be the most definitive analysis of phonology from the perspective of European structuralism. Trubetzkoy took the geography of language seriously, which led him to the innovative concept that neighboring but genetically unrelated languages could exert structural influence on each other and create an extended speech community (the Sprachbund). This linguistic concept had its analogue in culture, so that on historical, cultural, and political grounds he developed the idea of Russia as part of a Eurasian cultural community, distinct from its "Romano-Germanic" neighbor to the west.
Circumstances of Trubetzkoy's early life boded well for him. Bom in Moscow into a noble and intellectual family, by the age of eighteen he was the author of five publications. On completing his studies at Moscow University in 1916, he was appointed to a teaching position on the faculty. Conditions in Russia were soon to change, of course, as were the young prince's fortunes. After fleeing the revolution and ensuing civil war by traveling to the Caucasus and teaching for a time in Rostov-on-the-Don, he emigrated in 1920 to Constantinople. From there he was able to secure a lectureship in Sofia, Bulgaria, to be appointed in 1922 to the Chair of Slavic Philology at the University of Vienna. He was an active participant in the intellectual ferment of the late 1920s and 1930s associated with the Prague Linguistic Circle (Prague, after all, is but 150 miles from Vienna). He was completely clear-eyed, even prescient, about the Nazi threat, and the Anschluss was a validation of his fears. In 1935 he wrote an article "On Racism" which condemned the historical anti-Semitism of the Russian intelligentsia, warning that to indulge this prejudice was to let oneself be manipulated by die Nazis to facilitate tiieir agenda. The new order in Austria did not look on him kindly, and several Gestapo raids of his apartment, including confiscation of his papers, aggravated a heart condition and led to his tragic and early death at the age of 48. …