Potebnia, Oleksander (Aleksandr) [Potebnja], b 22 September 1835 on his family's khutir near Havrylivka (now Hryshyne), Romny county, Poltava gubernia, d 11 December 1891 in Kharkiv. (Photo: Oleksander Potebnia.) Linguist, folklorist, and literary scholar; from 1875 a corresponding member of the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences; brother of Andrii Potebnia and father of Andrii O. Potebnia and Oleksander O. Potebnia. He studied law, history, and philology at Kharkiv University (PH D, 1874). In the early 1860s he was active in the Ukrainophile Kharkiv hromada, wrote a Ukrainian primer for Sunday schools, and took part in folklore expeditions in Poltava and Okhtyrka counties. In 1874 he was appointed professor of Russian language and literature at Kharkiv University. He also presided over the Kharkiv Historical-Philological Society (1877–90) and was a member of the Czech Scientific Society (from 1887). In the 1880s he edited collections of Hryhorii Kvitka-Osnovianenko's, Petro Hulak-Artemovsky's, and Ivan Manzhura's works and began a Ukrainian translation of Homer's Odyssey.
As a linguist Potebnia specialized in four areas: the philosophy of language, the historical phonetics of the East Slavic languages, etymology, and Slavic historical syntax. His major works on the philosophy of language are Mysl’ i iazyk (Thought and Language, 5 edns, 1862, 1892, 1913, 1922, 1926); O sviazi nekotorykh predstavlenii v iazyke (On the Relation among Some Representations in Language, 1864); his doctoral dissertation, Iz zapisok po russkoi grammatike (From Notes on Russian Grammar, vol 1, 1874; repr 1958); and the posthumously published ‘Iazyk i narodnost’ (Language and Nationality, in Vestnik Evropy, 1895). He was particularly interested in the relations among language, thought, and reality. Language for him was primarily the means by which the mind ordered the influx of impressions and stimuli. Words carry not only a meaning, but also the past experience of the individual and the nation, through which all new experience is filtered. Thus a word usually has three aspects: an external form, a meaning, and an internal form. It is through the internal form that the objective world is subjectivized. In many cases the internal form is rooted in myth and, hence, acts as a bridge between language and folklore (with its symbols). These ideas constitute the framework of Potebnia's master's thesis, O nekotorykh simvolakh v slavianskoi narodnoi poezii (On Some Symbols in Slavic Folk Poetry, 1860; expanded edn 1914), and his monumental work Obiasneniia malorusskikh i srodnykh narodnykh pesen (Explanations of Little Russian and Related Folk Songs, 2 vols, 1883, 1887). With time the consciousness of a word's internal form fades, and one of the tasks of literature is to restore this consciousness. According to this theory, literature is a hierarchy of genres; the simplest ones (the proverb, riddle, and fable) directly recall or renew the word's internal form, and the other genres do so in a more complicated, sometimes hardly detectable, way through a complex system of subjective (in poetry) or seemingly objective (in the novel) images. Potebnia's principal works on this subject were published posthumously: Iz lektsii po teorii slovesnosti: Basnia, poslovitsa, pogovorka (From Lectures on the Theory of Literature: The Fable, the Adage, the Proverb, 1894; repr 1970; Ukrainian trans 1930), Iz zapisok po teorii slovesnosti: Poeziia i proza, tropy i figury, myshlenie poeticheskoe i mificheskoe, prilozheniia (From Notes on the Theory of Literature: Poetry and Prose, Tropes and Figures, Poetic and Mythical Thought, Addenda, 1905; repr 1970), and ‘Chernovyia zametki ... o L.N. Tolstom i F.M. Dostoevskom’ (Preliminary Remarks ... on L. Tolstoy and F. Dostoevsky) in Voprosy teorii i psikhologii tvorchestva (vol 5 ). Regarding language as an individual's or a nation's only possible means of perceiving the world and of thinking, Potebnia protested vehemently against denationalization in general and the Russification of Ukrainians in particular, and equated this process with spiritual and intellectual disintegration. Potebnia's philosophy of language is rooted in W. Humboldt's romantic idealism, but he was also influenced by J. Herbart's and H. Lotze's associative psychology, and particularly by H. Steinthal's psycholinguistic writings.
Potebnia viewed the history of a language as the history of its dialects and used the concept of phonetic law, although he often tried to find a psychological basis for the concept. He recognized the existence of a proto-Rus’ language, but located the beginning of its disintegration into dialects back in prehistoric times. He made many discoveries in Ukrainian historical phonetics, such as the primordial dž < dj alteration, the so-called second pleophony, and the conditions for the alternation e:o. He was the first to propose the theory that diphthongs were a transitional stage between Old Ukrainian o, e, and Modern Ukrainian i.
As an etymologist, Potebnia paid much attention to semantic development and the history of words against an expansive historical, folkloric, and psychological background. His major etymological writings were collected in K istorii zvukov russkago iazyka (Toward a History of the Sounds in the Russian Language, vols 2–4, 1880–1, 1883). His annotations to Slovo o polku Ihorevi (1878; repr 1914) are a brilliant synthesis of the etymological, folkloristic, and historical approaches.
From the 1870s Potebnia concentrated on the study of the historical syntax of the Slavic languages against a comparative Indo-European background. His Iz zapisok po russkoi grammatike contains his writings on predicate forms and the participle (vol 2, 1874; rev edn 1888; repr 1958), the noun and the adjective (vol 3, 1899; repr 1968), and the verb and indeclinable words (vol 4, 1941; rev edn 1978). Before his work the field of Slavic historical syntax consisted mostly of inventories of constructions collected from literary monuments of various periods. He revised it to create a broadly drawn picture of category and construction changes tied to changes in ways of thinking, by integrating historical, dialectal, and folkloric materials. His comparative analysis uncovered remnants of prehistoric syntax in later constructions and reinterpretations of archaic constructions in later syntactic systems; that is, it demonstrated the historical character of syntactic categories and parts of speech. Anton Budilovich equated Potebnia's contribution to the field of historical syntax with C. Darwin's contribution to the study of the origin of species.
Potebnia was far ahead of his contemporaries and not very popular during his lifetime. In the field of historical syntax his only immediate followers were A. Popov and, to a certain extent, Dmitrii Ovsianiko-Kulikovsky (in his outline of Russian syntax). His ideas on literature were adopted as a theoretical framework by the ‘Kharkiv school’ (B. Lezin, Vasyl Khartsiiev, A. Gornfeld, T. Rainov, Oleksa Vetukhiv, and others) grouped around the serial Voprosy teorii i psikhologii tvorchestva (8 vols, 1907–23). They also had a significant impact on the esthetics of the Russian Symbolists (particularly A. Bely) and an indirect influence on the Ukrainian Symbolists. In 1945 the Institute of Linguistics of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR (now NANU) was named after Potebnia. Collections of his works on accentology (1973) and esthetics and poetics (1976, 1985) have been published.
Chekhovych, K. Oleksander Potebnia: Ukraïns’kyi myslytel’-lingvist (Warsaw 1931)
Shevelov, G.Y. ‘Alexander Potebnja as a Linguist,’ AUA, 5, nos 2–3 (1956)
Bilodid, I.; et al (eds). O.O. Potebnia i deiaki pytannia suchasnoï slavistyky (Kharkiv 1962)
Tsiluiko, K.; et al (eds). Oleksandr Opanasovych Potebnia: Iuvileinyi zbirnyk do 125-richchia z dnia narodzhennia (Kyiv 1962)
Franchuk, V. Oleksandr Opanasovych Potebnia (Kyiv 1975; rev edn, Kyiv 1985)
Presniakov, O. A.A. Potebnia i russkoe literaturovedenie kontsa XIX–nachala XX veka (Saratov 1978)
— Poetika poznaniia i tvorchestva: Teoriia slovesnosti A.A. Potebni (Moscow 1980)
Izhakevych, H.; et al (eds). Potebnians’ki chytannia (Kyiv 1981)
Franchuk, V. (ed). Naukova spadshchyna O.O. Potebni i suchasna filolohiia: Do 150-richchia z dnia narodzhennia O.O. Potebni; Zbirnyk naukovykh prats’ (Kyiv 1985)
Fizer, J. Alexander A. Potebnja's Psycholinguistic Theory of literature: A Metacritical Inquiry (Cambridge, Mass 1986)
George Y. Shevelov
[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 4 (1993).]
Encyclopedia of Ukraine