New Studies of Language

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

New Studies of Language


(Japhetic theory), a system of views on general questions of linguistics, proposed in the 1920’s and 1930’s by Academician N. Ia. Marr. These views were first expounded in Marr’s The Japhetic Caucasus and the Third Ethnic Element in the Creation of Mediterranean Culture (1920).

Having rejected the achievements of comparative-historical linguistics, Marr advanced the idea that the Indo-European family of languages, as well as other linguistic families, is not bound together by a primordial genetic unity but is formed secondarily, through crossing. During 1923–24 he devoted intensive study to the paleontology of speech, striving to discover stages of typological development common to all languages— stages associated with those in the development of society and material culture. In 1925, Marr sought to link his system with the philosophical views of historical materialism, which, however, he understood in an oversimplified way, in the spirit of the vulgar sociological approach.

The term “new studies of language” was first used in 1924; prior to that Marr called his theory the Japhetic theory. In 1926 he advanced the idea of “four elements” that supposedly constituted the basis for the lexical stock of all languages. By this time, he was making his final break with scholarly comparative-historical linguistics (Indo-European studies), accusing it of idealism, formalism, an antisocial orientation, and even racism. These assertions evoked harsh criticism of the new studies of language by Soviet linguists, the most consistent critic being E. D. Polivanov. In the article “A New Turning Point in Work on the Japhetic Theory” (1931), Marr turned to historical psychology, seeking to reveal the successive stages in the development of thought, using the data of language.

In the Marr school, the prevailing tendency has been to preserve his views, including the obviously erroneous ones. The new studies of language aspired to be the only Marxist trend in linguistics. However, a number of Marr’s students, including I. I. Meshchaninov, made changes in it, bringing it closer to traditional linguistics.

Contradictions emerged among the supporters of the new studies of language. In 1949–50 the doctrine went through a crisis, which grew more intense as a result of the complicated relations between the Marr school and Indo-European linguistics. In 1950 the newspaper Pravda conducted a discussion in which both supporters and opponents of the new studies of language participated. J. V. Stalin wrote several articles rejecting the doctrine (in Marksizm i voprosy iazykoznaniia, 1950). In addition to a number of correct positions, the articles contained linguistically unsound ones. Nonetheless, they facilitated the study of problems in traditional linguistics, particularly comparative-historical linguistics. For some time after the discussion, research was discontinued on problems of general linguistic interest in the new studies of language—language and thought, the typology of languages, and sociolinguistics. These problems have been successfully studied by Soviet linguists since the late 1950’s.


Meshchaninov, I. I. Vvedenie ν iafetidologiiu. Leningrad, 1929.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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