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  • The Marrism syndrome: Stalinism and linguistics by Ferenc Havas
  • Edith Moravcsik
The Marrism syndrome: Stalinism and linguistics. [in Hungarian] By Ferenc Havas. Budapest: Tinta Publishers, 2002. Pp. 452. ISBN 9639372536. 1,960 forints.

As noted in the introduction, the story of Marrism has two protagonists. One is Nikolay Jakovlevich Marr himself, a Georgian linguist (1864–1934) who, in the 1920s, proposed a novel linguistic framework called ‘a new teaching about language’. Marr’s ideas touch upon all areas of synchronic and diachronic linguistics. The best-known among them are his ‘Jafetic theory’, which claims that the Caucasian and Semitic languages are related and that Indo-European is a transformation of the original Jafetic, and his ‘stadial view’ of language change and typology, which is based on the claim that language is a direct reflection of thought which in turn reflects shifts of social order. For the next quarter of a century, Marrism was widely recognized and lauded by Soviet linguists. But in 1950, the second protagonist entered the scene: Josef Vissarionovich Stalin, head of the Soviet state, published an article in Pravda in which he rejected Marr’s teachings. The article sealed the fate of Marrism for the next fifteen to twenty years.

Havas’s book is a comprehensive and objective discussion of Marr’s personal life, his work, and the reception of his theories as closely intertwined with Soviet history and politics. It consists of sixteen chapters divided into four main parts: ‘Marr’, ‘Marrism’, ‘The Marrism debate’, and ‘Metamarrism’ [End Page 624] —that is, Marr’s afterlife and the overall assessment of his work.

It is an excellent book for the following reasons. First, it is one of the few comprehensive discussions of Marr’s work in a language other than Russian, and the most recent. Second, it presents a large number of primary documents in translation, including items from the archives in Moscow that only recently became accessible. In addition to numerous excerpts from Marr’s works and those of other Soviet linguists, the book includes the near-complete text of Stalin’s fateful 1950 article ‘Marxism and linguistics’ mentioned above, along with a thorough analysis.

Third, while the author is fully immersed in his topic and has an amazing degree of familiarity with Marr’s work and Soviet linguistics in general, he succeeds in providing as objective a view of Marr’s ideas as possible. While these ideas were changing in the course of Marr’s lifetime and were never synthesized by Marr himself, H unravels their logical connections and, through a network of cause-effect implications, provides a concise and articulate summary of his theses.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, the book presents a fascinating picture of how, beginning in the 1920s, Soviet linguistics was at the mercy of the various sea-changes in Soviet politics and ideology. In addition to the Marr debate, the book describes some other scientific debates during the Stalinist era that were equally tainted by political and ideological factors, such as those centering on the botanist Trofim Lysenko’s theory of genetics and on the physiologist and psychologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov’s experiments on conditioning.

Unfortunately, the book is at present available only in Hungarian. An English translation would be highly desirable, as this book would be captivating and instructive reading not only for linguists everywhere but also for historians and philosophers of science.

Edith Moravcsik
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee


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pp. 624-625
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