Acta Structuralica

international journal for structuralist research

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Roman Jakobson's influence on Mihai Pop's thinking and career

Rucsandra Pop

pp. 7


In April 1929, the young university graduate Mihai Pop has moved to Prague to study Slavistics. After a few months that he spent learning Czech language, he became a PhD candidate at Charles University. The young scholar had the chance to connect with the Prague Linguistics Circle. He became particularly close with the three Russian scholars - Roman Jakobson, Nikolai Trubetzkoy and Piotr Bogatyrev, with whom he remained in a lifelong connection. The present paper aims to examine the way meeting Roman Jakobson impacted the career of Mihai Pop and how their intellectual relationship unfolded during more than 50 years. In my research I rely on different types of sources: a long interview conducted by the sociologist Zoltán Rostás the 80s, where Mihai Pop is recalling his Prague years; the correspondence between Pop and Jakobson found in the archive of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; documents from the archive of the Center for Advance Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University; documents from Pop’s personal archive; studies about the Prague Linguistic Circle and various publications edited by Pop or to which he has contributed. Mihai Pop’s maturity work shows the strong influence that Roman Jakobson, Nikolai Trubetzkoy and Piotr Bogatyrev had on him during his formative years.

1Born in Maramureș in 1907, Mihai Pop was part of the generation of Romanian intellectuals who emerged between the two World Wars. It is difficult to approach the history of folklore, ethnology and anthropology in Romania without acknowledging the major contribution Mihai Pop brought to these fields. It is equally difficult to take a closer look at these disciplines throughout the 1960s, 1970s and the 1980s in Europe and the United States without encountering his name, either as keynote speaker at a conference, or merely as a member of a committee. Mihai Pop individually assured the connection between East and West within the social sciences of his time. With his European training situated at the intersection of several disciplines (linguistics, literary theory, sociology, ethnography and folklore) and a deep understanding of traditional communities in Central and Eastern Europe, Pop was highly prominent on the international intellectual scene.

2Mihai Pop left Bucharest to move to Prague in April 1929, just after graduating from the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters. The intellectual environment in Bucharest at that time was interesting, but unimposing compared to that in the capital of the First Czechoslovak Republic, he would note.

Prague was highly developed, you know? Prague had a French Institute, Prague had an English Institute, an English high school. All the writers would visit Prague. The Russians heading for the West would pass through Prague; it was at the time the center of Slavonic studies. (...) Bucharest, on the other hand, was more provincial, more peripheral, if you ask me. Nonetheless, more isolated from the world. Rostás 2003 290 pub-229600

3Arriving in Prague in this political and cultural context, Pop had the chance to connect with the philological movement that was dominating in Europe at that time and to witness the birth of structuralism, an intellectual movement that would leave its mark on the entire 20th century. Pop associated swiftly with the members of the Prague Linguistic Circle [Pražský lingvistický kroužek], which started its activity in 1926 when the Czech linguist Vilem Mathesius invited his collaborators to listen to German linguist H. Becker‘s lecture on syntax.

4One year after the first meeting which resulted in the emergence of the Circle, Roman Jakobson - professor in Bratislava at the time - wrote a manifesto for the Circle, which he subsequently presented at the International Congress of Linguistics in Hague (1928). The manifesto addressed issues of linguistic theory in general and of phonology in particular. Before its publication, Jakobson presented the program to the attention of his Russian colleagues: Nikolai Trubetzkoy – who was teaching in Vienna at the time - and Sergei Karcevski – former student of Ferdinand de Saussure.

This manifesto, which Trubetzkoy modestly called «a declarative small program», was actually the starting point of the Prague linguistic movement. Fontaine 1974 10 pub-137562

5The three Russian linguists shared a friendship dating back to the days of the Moscow Linguistic Circle, founded in 1915, when Jakobson and Trubetzkoy were still students. Karcevski enabled access for his colleagues to Saussure’s General Linguistic Course, thus favoring their understanding of the discipline.

6In the wake of the 1917 revolution, most of the circle members left Russia, some voluntarily, others chased by the new regime. Jakobson came to Prague in 1920 as a member of the Red Cross, with a recommendation for the Czech Slavists written for him by Saxmatov, his former professor. In the 1920s, Bogatyrev also moved to Czechoslovakia as an employee of the Soviet Diplomatic Mission in Prague.

7In 1929, coinciding with Pop’s arrival in Prague, Jakobson and Bogatyrev published “Die Folklore als eine Besondere Form des Schaffens” [“Folklore as a Specific Form of Creation”], with the intent to emphasize the characteristics of folklore in comparison with literature - as a social and artistic phenomenon on the one hand, and with language, on the other. Published originally in German, followed by English only in 1966, the article profoundly influenced the debate on the nature of folklore in the Western intellectual world.

8The meetings of the Circle were held in one of the back rooms of the Café Louvre, used for such occasions. Back then, Café Louvre was renowned and visited by many world-famed celebrities, several associations and organizations having been founded there. In 1925, the Čapek brothers founded the Cafe Louvre Czech Pen Club. Franz Kafka used to go there with his friends; the place was visited by Albert Einstein himself during his stay in Prague in 1911-1912.

9For the present-day researchers it is not easy to reconstruct the atmosphere of those meeting, as there are not many anecdotal elements in the rich exegesis of the Prague Linguistic Circle. There are many books and articles, but the vast majority focus on the theoretical findings of the members of the Circle and not on their intellectual habitus. The article "Sound, Sign and Meaning", by Milada Součková is one of the few writings that reclaims the memory of those days. The author describes in detail the meetings of the linguists and draws the portraits of the colorful characters of the group:

Whenever I come across a catalogue card with the heading Prague Linguistic Circle or a reference to it, I am amazed that this group of people whom I used to see assembled around a long table in the Café Louvre achieved wide internationally renown. One of the conditions of the cultural climate which favored the Circle’s birth and growth was the atmosphere of the First Czechoslovak Republic, which was podnĕtna a plodna (stimulating and fruitful), one of Roman Jakobson’s favorite expressions. Součková 1978 5 pub-229602

10Unlike the Moscow Linguistic Circle, the one in Prague had a cosmopolitan participation. The meetings were crowded with guests from abroad who ““brought with them the air of the great intellectual world"” and, given that they were mostly linguists and foreign languages connoisseurs, who managed to turn the debate into a real Babylon, Součková remembered.

11It is still unclear how Mihai Pop got to be close to the Jakobson – Trubetzkoy – Bogatyrev triumvirate. Although he repeatedly mentioned the close relationship he had with each of the three, Pop never mentioned the precise circumstances of his meeting with them. Most likely, his smooth admittance into the Circle could have had something to do with his heritage, namely that he came from Transcarpathia, an area Bogatyrev had already been interested in and researched. The year Pop came to Prague, Bogatyrev was publishing ”Actes magiques. Rites et Croyances en Russie subcarpathique”. In an interview, aged 90, Mihai Pop recalled how he persuaded the Russian folklorist to do a research together in his native country, with the aim to put him in connection with the Romanian musicologist Constantin Brăiloiu.

12The First International Congress of Slavists took place between the 6th and 13th of October 1929 in Prague, in the main aula of the Charles University. There is a picture of Pop among the participants at the Congress, as an observer in the back rows of the aula (cf. Figure 1). The Circle’s Manifesto was presented there.

13Interestingly enough, in the interviews covering the Prague experience, Mihai Pop doesn’t mention his graduate school years, only the relations with the members of the Prague Circle. One thing is certain, though: Pop did not finish his PhD in Prague, but only much later, in 1942, when he was already a cultural attaché to the Romanian embassy in Slovakia. His thesis was a pure linguistic research, with the title “Compound words of Church Old Slavic origin in old written Romanian language”. The work had been written under the coordination of Professor Miloš Weingart from Prague and subsequently presented under professor I. Stanislav’s assistance at the Istropolitan Academia in Bratislava.

14In the interviews he gave, Jakobson made multiple references to the years in Prague, but the subjects were generally of a more academic nature. Even in the book of dialogues with his second wife, Kristina Pomorska, references to the atmosphere of those years or to relationships with other members of the circle, some of whom close were friends, are rather scarce. The end of the Prague Circle’s activity was marked by the publication of the last issue of “Travaux du Cercle Lingvistique”, which coincided with Trubetzkoy’s death in 1938 as well as with Jakobson fleeing the country. The occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Nazis forced Jakobson to leave his teaching position at the Brno University. “A bon vivant, a “veritable globe-trotter of structuralism”, Jakobson had arrived in New York after a tortuous flight across Central Europe and Scandinavia, never more than a few paces ahead of the galloping Nazi frontier. Wilcken 2010 143 pub-229603 ”

15It was in New York, that Jakobson met the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Both of them started teaching at the École Libre des Hautes Études, a sort of university-in-exile.

Jakobson was twelve years older than Levi-Strauss, and with his vast and varied academic experience in universities across Europe, he became a kind of mentor for the young anthropologist. Wilcken 2010 144 pub-229603

16This intellectual encounter would change the course of their carriers, but also of the disciplines those men were teaching.

17In 1943, Jakobson became a visiting professor of linguistics at Columbia University, then he was appointed to the Thomas G. Masaryk Chair of Czechoslovak Studies, a position he occupied from 1946 to 1949. In 1949 he joined the faculty of Harvard University, as a Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and General Linguistics until 1965. In 1957 he concurrently started teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, until he became emeritus in 1970.

18Throughout his studies abroad, Pop returned to Romania for the summer months each year. It was during that time he engaged in the most important project in social sciences - the monographic campaigns led by the sociologist Dimitrie Gusti. During the campaigns which took place at Fundu Moldovei (1928), Drăguș (1929), Runcu (1930) and Cornova (1931), he worked with the musicologist Constantin Brăiloiu, transcribing the lyrics of the folk songs that they were recording on wax cylinders. Perhaps the biggest discovery that Pop made while working in Brăiloiu’s “Folklore Laboratory” was that folk music had to be treated as part of the social life of the village. Surrounded by specialists from across so many different disciplines, during the monographic campaigns, the young Pop also became interested in various aspects of the community. Zoltán Rostás, who did extensive interviews in the 1980s with several members of Gusti’s teams, mentioned that Pop had a special sensitivity for the social problems of the studied villages. The research experience he gained while part of Gusti’s multidisciplinary teams was to be highly valued by Pop. In time, Pop became one of the core member of the teams brought together by Gusti around the Romanian Social Institute.

19His encounter with this sociological research influenced Pop’s future to such a point that the materials collected in Brăiloiu’s archive during the interwar campaigns constitute the basis on which the Institute of Folklore in Bucharest was built in 1949. Mihai Pop would work at the Institute for almost tree decades, first as a research coordinator and then as a director. While the years spent in Prague gave him a strong theoretical background and an international opening, the experience gained by working with Gusti teams offered Pop not only solid research know-how, but also a better understanding of the art of managing a research institute – an art that equally requires scientific vision and bureaucratic ability.

In actuality, under his guidance, the Institute flourished, and became one of the finest ethnographic institutes on the continent. Pop initiated ambitious programs for fieldwork. Procedures for the collection of data and the organization of the archives were established; to these ends, Pop introduced the usage of technical aids such as film and tape. He was also responsible for the systematization of data, the development of typologies for Popular literature and music (tales and ballads, in particular). Along more analytic lines, Pop encouraged new approaches to the study of social processes and meaning; he stimulated the study of folklore as a cultural act, incorporating semiotic perspectives into the interpretive process.” Kligman 1984 ix-x pub-229606

20As a director of the Institute of Folklore, Pop initiated numerous fieldwork trips, which culminated with the campaigns in Cosău Valley, Maramureș, in the early 1970s, where he led interdisciplinary teams of Romanian and foreign researchers. Pop was also the editor of the Journal of Ethnography and Folklore (Revista de Etnografie si Folclor), the scientific publication of the Institute.

21Pop re-connected with his mentor from Prague later in the 50s. In Roman Jakobson’s archives at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there are series of letters exchanged between him and Pop. It is surprising that all of these letters are written in English, given the fact that Mihai Pop learned this language only in the 60s and the two scholars shared at least 3 common languages: Russian, Czech and French. Actually, the two had in common this incredible talent to accumulate languages. An article published by New York Times on his 75th anniversary, mentions the fact that the Russian linguist could read 25 languages, especially scholarly works. Mihai Pop, who was also a Slavic languages specialist was also fluent in more than 10 languages.

22The earliest letter in the MIT archive, in which Pop recalls the Prague period, dates from 1957, and the last one is from December 1971.

Dear Mr. Jakobson,

Professor Emil Petrovici, who had the pleasure to meet you in Prague, talked to me about the interesting conversations the two of you used to have. I remembered, not without nostalgia, of our philology and linguistics circle in Prague which I gave up for Folklore.1

23In this letter, Pop mentions the fact that he would send to his Russian mentor the magazine the Institute of Folklore was editing – The Folklore Magazine (rom. Revista de Folclor). Adriana Stan, who wrote a comparative history of Structuralism in Romania, sees this magazine, appearing from 1956 under Pop’s editorship, as the publication that offered Pop a space to display his theoretical position, a position strongly influenced by jakobsonian ideas. Another stage used by Mihai Pop to disseminate the Structuralist theory, according to Stan, was Bucharest University, where Pop started to teach Folklore in 1957.

Through these channels, Mihai Pop gradually revives the formalist-structuralist principles acquired during his training period; for example, an article in 1958 points out that "the stages of folklore development must be inferred from the internal criteria of folklore". In the following years, the quoted journal will constitute a constant tribute to the dissemination of European formalism and structuralism, not only in terms of contributions in the direction of Slavic folklore, but also through post-war developments in French ethnology. Stan 2017 62 pub-229337

24The aforementioned letter was followed by the first reunion between the two researchers, in Moscow, at the Fourth Congress of Slavists. This Congress was the first occasion, after 1945, when Mihai Pop travelled abroad. Nicolae Jula, deputy director of the Folklore magazine, recollects the fact that, in the first place, the communist authorities did not allow Pop to leave the country on this occasion, refusing to issue a passport in his name. The legend says that it was Jakobson who insisted with the Romanian authorities that they allow Pop to travel to Moscow. A telegram found in Mihai Pop archive backs up this legend, at least partially. While vacationing at the sea side, Pop received a telegram informing him that he needed to return urgently to Bucharest, as his passport was finally issued and he received the permission to go to Moscow.

25After the Congress in Moscow, Jakobson was invited to Bucharest to give a lecture on mathematical linguistics. He went there, accompanied by his wife, Svatava, also a linguist. This visit in Bucharest marked a revolution for the field of semiotics in Romania. But it also took the friendship between the two scholars one step further.

26Stan notes that “Roman Jakobson legitimized by his simple presence, symbolical and physical, the re-birth of structuralism in the linguistics of the Eastern countries” Stan 2017 70 pub-229337 . In the early 60s, Mihai Pop started to play an active role in the development of semiotics as a field in Romania, “and in the theoretical orientation of the young Romanian structuralists” Stan 2017 62 pub-229337 . Beginning in 1961, he lead together with the linguist Alexandru Rosetti and the literary critic Tudor Vianu the Poetics and Stilistics Circle where linguists, folklorists and literary scholars met on a regular basis and revolutionized their disciplines by exploring structuralist techniques.

In the Romanian research field, especially in the ‘60s, Mihai Pop was an active agent of theoretical dissemination, and his formative energy came to fruition despite the fact that he did not produced a rich body of written works. His presence was essential in the quotidian of his discipline: "he was predominantly active in conducting research in the field of folklore and theorizing it." Moreover, in addition to the theoretical component - systematically illustrated with the occasion of symposia, lectures, articles, the professor conducted field research campaigns, in which he attracted and trained prestigious Romanian researchers. Stan 2017 62 pub-229337

27As a result of their meetings in Moscow and Bucharest, Roman Jakobson took his role as a mentor even more thoroughly. He was the one who recommended Pop to be invited as a fellow at the Center for Advance Behavioral Sciences, a prestigious institution of the University of Stanford. Jakobson was one of the alumni of the Center. Obviously, getting to the United States was a much bigger adventure for Pop than going to Moscow. There is a rich correspondence between Jakobson, Ralph Tyler - the director of the Center - and Pop, which show the enormous tribulation involved with obtaining this fellowship. Due to the problems encountered with the authorities, Pop arrived later than he was supposed to and left a couple of months earlier. With the occasion of this fellowship, Pop discovered American anthropology, which radically revolutionized his thinking. The months spent as a visiting scholar at Stanford shifted Mihai Pop’s entire career.

Then I went to America, and I had contact with American anthropology. I have learned English when I was already old, almost 65, and I started reading American anthropology, which is both method and theory, and is also English functionalism - ie malinowskian. Then there were the new currents - that is, linguistics was not only structural linguistics. Structural linguistics have enriched with the communication theory. And with the semiotics. (..) And I have bought many books, and I talked to a lot of people. Rostás 2003 290 pub-229600

28Later on, Jakobson made it possible for Pop to be included in one of the most select academic circles at the time. A letter sent by Mihai Pop to Jakobson on the 11th of January 1966 is revealing in this respect:

Dear Professor Jakobson,

(…) A lot has happened lately. I’ll start with the fact that in Paris I had the great pleasure of meeting professor Lévi-Strauss, who told me the two of you had met in the past and also that you had the great kindness of having mentioned me in your conversations. Needless to say, the meeting was very important to me and the conference held by me was introduced by Lévi-Strauss himself. I hope that I managed to create a good relation with the Communication Center of Roland Barthes. All these happened because of you.

29It is incontestable that the years Mihai Pop spent in Prague were formative years for him and they epitomize a decisive chapter in his life and career as a scientist. The entire work of Mihai Pop is tributary of the structuralism established in that period in the Czechoslovak capital. Furthermore, his interest for semiotics definitively has its origins in the meetings with the representatives of the Prague Linguistic Circle. The writing of the members of the Circle endorsed Mihai Pop’s vision of folklore, his works abound in references to their studies. He cites Jakobson and Bogatyrev not only in “Romanian Literary Folklore” (rom. Folclor Literar Românesc) Pop & Ruxandoiu 1976 pub-229720 , written with Paul Ruxăndoiu in 1976, but also in several other works. Another reverence to his mentors in Prague is the anthology “What is literature? The Russian Formal School” (rom. Ce este literatura? Școala formală rusă) Pop 1983 pub-229721 , edited and prefaced by Mihai Pop in 1983.

30The sociologist Zoltán Rostás believes that

What we today call the “Mihai Pop” Ethnological School is not a school connected to the Romanian space, and it is not even a school following Pop’s line of thinking, but it is a school following the tradition of structural anthropology. The American anthropology school does not make use of as many elements from semiotics as Pop’s School does, just because he was also a linguist and very few anthropologists were at the same time linguists. He did not come up with a system as Gusti did. (…) Having the experience of the Gusti School and the American cultural anthropology school, Mihai Pop, I believe, came up with a synthesis that he did not pass on through his writings, but through his personal example (Rostás, interview 2010).

31In the opinion of the anthropologist Vintilă Mihăilescu, it is difficult to say which was the role of Mihai Pop in the development of the social sciences in Romania:

He had many roles, and it is necessary to analyse them thoroughly. At the Institute [of Folklore] he had a role, at the University [of Bucharest] he had a different role, and yet another different role at an international level. (…) Moreover, semiotics and structuralism were introduced in Romania to a great extent - certainly not exclusively - by the Professor, who encouraged, and guided this vision (Mihăilescu, interview 2009).

32Without Jakobson’s mentorship and friendship, it goes without saying that the Romanian folklorist presumably would not have had such success in building the strong international carrier he had. It is extremely hard to measure the impact that the Russian linguist had on Romanian intellectual life, because the cultural transmission happened through many channels and on different occasions. First, through physical presence, as Jakobson was invited to lecture in Romania at several scientific events in 1958 and in 1963. Then, through the Jakobson writings that were translated, sometimes almost simultaneously with there publication in United States, and this was mainly due to his relationship with Pop. As their correspondence shows, Jakobson would send Pop his texts as he was writing them. And, even more importantly, he would send various important publications on linguistics and semiotics to the Institute. In fact, the books received by Pop from Jakobson and other international scholars informed an entire generation of Romanian scientists, from various fields. Scientific information was very precarious at that time and many of the researchers that had access to it were reluctant to share it with their colleagues. Mihai Pop was an exception – he would not only share the scientific literature with others, but he was reknowned for facilitating connections between other Romanians scholars and international intellectual stars, such as Jakobson, Levi-Strauss, Margaret Mead or Julien Greimas. He actually was for his younger colleagues what Jakobson was to him – an intellectual godfather.


  • 1 Roman Jakobson Papers, MC 72, box X. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Publication details

Published in:

Apostolescu Iulian (2021) Romanian Structuralism. Acta Structuralica Special Issue 3.

Pages: 7

Full citation:

Pop Rucsandra (2021) „Roman Jakobson's influence on Mihai Pop's thinking and career“. Acta Structuralica 3, 7.