Publication details [#54213]

Publication type
Article in book
Publication language
Place, Publisher
John Benjamins


Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895–1975) has been characterized as one of the most powerful thinkers of the 20th century (Emerson 1997). His thinking covers several areas, and in the literature, he is sometimes referred to as literary scholar, sometimes as philologist, semiotician, linguist, culturologist, or philosopher. This paper concentrates on Bakhtin’s linguistic thinking, but first offers a brief sketch of the course of his life and of the whole industry that has developed around his person and work. Bakhtin’s insistence on the need to consider language as it is manifested in concrete whole utterances used in given contexts dates back to 1924. But linguistics in the 1920s was poorly equipped for the study of utterances. In what follows, the paper will outline the main tenets of Bakhtin’s thoughts about language, discussing in brief the most famous Bakhtinian catchwords. The dialogic conception of language was central to Bakhtin’s thought, in at least three senses, which can be viewed as dialogue at different levels. First, to begin from the widest sense, dialogue stands for a view of the whole human existence in the world. Second, and consequently, every utterance is dialogic, not only the speeches in everyday dialogue, but also long written texts, such as novels. The third sense of dialogue concerns the level of individual discourses (or words, Bakhtin uses the Russian word slovo, which normally means ‘word’, but also ‘discourse’) and allows some utterances to be dialogic, while others are more or less monologic (i.e. in this third sense; in the second sense they are always dialogic). The issue is here whether words (or other linguistic expressions) that are used in the utterance are felt to be someone else’s words or not. A basic distinction is thus made between single-voiced discourse (odnogolosoe slovo) and double-voiced discourse (dvugolosoe slovo; see Bakhtin 1973). Double-voiced discourse is also said to be internally dialogized (Bakhtin 1981). Such discourse makes use of, among other things, what Bakhtin calls hybrid constructions. The hybrid construction containing two ‘languages’ brings us to another Bakhtinian catchword, namely heteroglossia. Polyphony is another Bakhtinian term that has to do with dialogue. Bakhtin introduced the term metalingvistika (‘metalinguistics’) in his notes ‘The problem of the text’ (1959–1961) to cover the study of “concrete forms of texts and concrete conditions of the life of texts, their interrelations, and their interactions”. He introduced the concept of speech genre in 1952–1953 in ‘The problem of speech genres’, meaning relatively stable and normative types of utterances developed in different spheres of communication. The term chronotope (literally time-space) was borrowed from Einsteinian theory of relativity, but used “almost as a metaphor". The concepts of carnival and carnivalization are elaborated on in the study of Rabelais and in the 1963 Dostoevsky book. They were the first Bakhtinian concepts to be introduced in the West (the Rabelais book was translated into English as early as in 1968) and they have been extensively used (to the point of being overused) in literary, folkloristic, and cultural studies, but they have not really found their way into linguistic studies. Bakhtin is, no doubt, an “original and profound thinker” (Morson and Emerson 1990), and his ideas about language were certainly challenging at the time when he advanced them. But as pointed out by Paducheva (1996), by the end of the 1970s, a dialogic conception of language had become an axiom in linguistics, and contemporary linguistics, enriched with pragmatics, is well equipped to answer Bakhtin’s challenge.