BAUDOUIN DE COURTENAY Jan [John] Niecisław—linguist, publicist, philosopher of language, b. March 13, 1845 in Radzimin, d. November 3, 1929 in Warsaw.
He came from an old French family that had settled in Poland in the eighteenth century. After completing III Gymnazjum Realne [Real Gymnasium] in Warsaw, and finishing preparatory courses from 1862 to 1866, he studied in the historical-philological faculty of the Warsaw General School. He received a scholarship from the Russian Ministry of Education for his outstanding scholarly achievements. This allowed him to spend two years in Western Europe, including Prague, Jena, and Berlin. After returning to Warsaw he intended to take up work at the university, but according to the regulations for professors he could only teach in Russia, and so he moved to Petersburg. In 1870 he made a short trip to Leipzig and completed his doctorate in philosophy at the university there. He returned to Petersburg where he continued his scientific career, first as a docent of grammar (1871), then as a doctor of comparative linguistics (1875). He worked also in universities in Kazan (where with M. Kruszewski he founded the Kazan school of linguistics) and in Dorpat (or Tartu, in Estonia). In 1887 he become a member of the Kraków Academy of Applied Knowledge. The next years he was busy with scientific work at the Jagiellonian University (from 1894 to 1899 he was one of the initiators in work on a dictionary of the Old Polish language), and also did other things), and in Petersburg (1900–1918). A result of his scientific and organizing work was the foundation of philological school of Kraków and Petersburg. he spent the final years of his life as an honorary professor of the University of Warsaw. From 1918 to 1920 he also lectured in Sanskrit and comparative linguistics at the Catholic University of Lublin (KUL). In 1927 he participated in the foundation of the Polish Linguistic Association.
He published over 300 works. They concerned not only questions of language, but also social and political problems. The following are regarded as his most important publications in the fields of linguistics and the philosophy of language: the dissertation with which he earned his doctorate in philosophy in the University of Leipzig, Einige Fälle der Wirkung der Analogie in der polnischen Deklination (L 1868; Kilka wypadków działania analogii w języku polskim [Some cases of the operation of analogy in the Polish language], 1904); O drievniepolskom jazykie do XIV-gi stolietiya (L 1870; O języku staropolskim przed wiekiem XIV [On the Old Polish language before the fourteenth century]), the work whereby he became a private docent of comparative linguistics in Petersburg; Opyt fonietiki riezjanskich govorov (Wwa 1875); O ogólnych przyczynach zmian językowych [On the general causes of linguistic changes] (Wwa 1801); Próba teorii alternacyj fonetycznych [Attempt at a theory of phonetic alterations] (Kr 1894); O psychologicznych podstawach zjawisk językowych [On the psychological foundations of linguistic phenomena] (Wwa 1903); Zarys historii językoznawstwa czyli lingwistyki (glottologii) [Outline of the history of linguistics (glottology)) (Wwa 1909).
His most important works raising social and political questions: Myśli nieoportunistyczne [Non-opportunistic thoughts] (Kr 1898); Jeden z objawów moralno%ci oportunistyczno-prawomyślnej [One of the symptoms of opportunistic-right-thinking morality] (Kr 1898); Nacyonalniy i territorialniy priznak v aftonomii (Ptb 1913), a work for the publication of which he went to prison; Mój stosunek do kościoła [My relation to the Church] (Wwa 1927).
Baoudouin de Courtenay’s views took shaped under the influence of positivistic thought, and his scientific interests were concentrated on questions of language as such, especially the causes of changes that occur in language; in order to grasp them with precision he made comparative studies of particular languages. He treated linguistics as a whole as one of the scientific disciplines that provide knowledge about man; the phenomena that occur in language constitute a reflection of the phenomena that occur in the world, and so linguistics, according to him, is a special completion of philosophical anthropology.
He owed his position in the world of science primarily to his work on problems in the theory of language. The theses he formulated in this area turned out to have essential value for the humanities as a whole. As a scholar he created the foundations for contemporary structuralism in linguistics. He influenced the development of F. de Saussure’s views and influenced the shaping of the Geneva linguistic school.
He made many remarks on social questions. In this area he was an opponent of all irrationalism. He desired that social life would be based on “logical thought and a feeling of justice”. The experiences of the Polish independence uprising in 1863 made him an opponent of all oppression and persecutions. Therefore he joined with passion in the struggle for equal rights for national minorities. Because of his accomplishments in this area he was supported by the national minorities as a presidential candidate in the elections of 1922.
The resolute character of his positions in social and political questions caused him to be regarded as a radical and a freethinker. He confirmed this view himself in 1926 when he formally left the Catholic Church. It seems, however, that this decision was in large measure the result of Baudouin de Courtenay’s dislike of all collective forms of social life, considering that he also regarded the organized freethinkers movement as a complete misunderstanding. He described this movement with the disparaging term “herd freethought”. He strongly stated that such a movement could easily change into fanaticism. He thought that the proper attitude, i.e., the only worthy attitude, of an independently thinking man, is “individual freethought”, and he tried to make this attitude a reality.
H. Ułaszyn, Jan B. de Courtenay. Charakterystika ogólna uczonego i człowieka [Jan B. de Courtenay. General characterization of the scholar and the man], Ps 1934; K. Nitsch, PSB I 359–362; W. Doroszewski, Jan B. de Courtenay na tle swojej epoki i jako prekursor nowych prądow w językoznawstwie [Jan B. de Courtenay upon the background of his epoch and as a precursor of new currents in linguistics], Nauka Polska [Polish Science] 3 (1955) n. 1, 47–58; R. Jakobson, Kazańska szkoła polskiej lingwistyki i jej miejsce w światowym rozwoju fonologii [The Kazan school of Polish linguistics and its place in the world development of phonology], Biuletyn Polskiego Towarzystwo Językoznawczego [Bulletin of the Polish Linguistic Association], 19 (1960); M. R. Mayenowa, FPS 16–17; W. Doroszewski, Jan B. de Courtenay językoznawca i myśliciel [Jan B. de Courtenay, linguist and thinker], in: Jan B. de Courtenay, Dzieła wybrane [Selected works], Wwa 1974, I 9–97; B. de Courtenay Jan Niecisław, in: Biogramy uczonych polskich [Biographies of Polish scholars], Wwa 1983, I 1, 85–91; B. de Courtenay Jan Niecisław, in: Uczeni polscy XIX i XX stulecia [Polish scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth century], Wwa 1994k, I 93–96.
Robert T. Ptaszek