Nikolai Trubetzkoy

Nikolai Trubetzkoy, 1920s.

Prince Nikolai Sergeyevich Trubetzkoy[1] (Russian: Никола́й Серге́евич Трубецко́й, IPA: [trʊbʲɪtsˈkoj]; Moscow, April 16, 1890 – Vienna, June 25, 1938) was a Russian linguist and historian whose teachings formed a nucleus of the Prague School of structural linguistics. He is widely considered to be the founder of morphophonology. He was also associated with the Russian Eurasianists.

Life and careerEdit

Trubetzkoy was born into an extremely refined environment. His father, Sergei Nikolaevich Trubetskoy, came from a Gediminid princely family. In 1908, he enrolled at the Moscow University. While spending some time at the University of Leipzig, Trubetzkoy was taught by August Leskien, a pioneer of research into sound laws.[2]

Having graduated from the Moscow University (1913), Trubetzkoy delivered lectures there until the Revolution. Thereafter he moved first to the University of Rostov-on-Don, then to the University of Sofia (1920–22), and finally took the chair of Professor of Slavic Philology at the University of Vienna (1922–1938). He died from a heart attack attributed to Nazi persecution following his publishing an article highly critical of Hitler's theories.

Trubetzkoy's chief contributions to linguistics lie in the domain of phonology, in particular in analyses of the phonological systems of individual languages and in the search for general and universal phonological laws. His magnum opus, Grundzüge der Phonologie (Principles of Phonology)[3] was issued posthumously. In this book he defined the phoneme as the smallest distinctive unit within the structure of a given language. This work was crucial in establishing phonology as a discipline separate from phonetics.

Trubetzkoy also wrote as a literary critic. In Writings on Literature, a brief collection of translated articles, he analyzed Russian literature beginning with the Old Russian epic The Tale of Igor's Campaign, then proceeding to 19th century Russian poetry and Dostoevsky.[4]

It is sometimes hard to distinguish Trubetzkoy's views from those of his friend Roman Jakobson, who should be credited with spreading the Prague School views on phonology after Trubetzkoy's death.

As structuralistEdit

In his biography of the mathematical collective Nicolas Bourbaki, Amir Aczel described Trubetzkoy as a pioneer in structuralism, an interdisciplinary outgrowth of structural linguistics which would be applied in mathematics by the Bourbaki group—as in the notion of a mathematical structure—and in anthropology by Claude Lévi-Strauss, who sought to describe rules governing human behavior. According to Aczel, Trubetzkoy's focus in Principles of Phonology was the study of phonemes and their opposing aspects, in order to describe rules of language—the goal of describing general, underlying rules being the common goal of structuralism.[5]


  1. ^ Also transliterated Troubetskoy, Trubetskoy, etc.
  2. ^ Roman Jakobson, Selected Writings, Vol. VII, Walter de Gruyter, 1985, p. 266.
  3. ^ Trubetzkoy, Nikolai (1969). Principles of phonology. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0520015355.
  4. ^ Trubetzkoy, Nikolai (1990). Writings on Literature. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0816617937.
  5. ^ Aczel, Amir D. (2006). The Artist and the Mathematician: the Story of Nicolas Bourbaki, the Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed. Thunder's Mouth Press. p. 129-159. ISBN 9781560259312.