Alexander Potebnja was born into a noble family in 1835 on his family's khutir Manev, near the village of Havrylivka in Romny county, Poltava oblast . He received his primary education in the Polish school of the city of Radom. 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. His teachers were the brothers Peter and Nikolai Lavrov and Professor Ambrose Metlinsky. He graduated from the University in 1856, served briefly a teacher of literature at a school in Kharkiv, and then in 1861 he defended his master thesis "Certain characters in the Slavic folk poetry," before beginning to lecture at the University of Kharkiv. In 1862 he published his work "Thought and Language", and in the same year he went on a trip abroad. He attended lectures at the University of Berlin, he studied Sanskrit and visited several Slavic countries. In 1874 he defended his doctoral dissertation entitled "Notes on Russian Grammar". In 1875, he became a professor 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).
As a linguist Potebnja 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 Potebnja'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, Potebnja protested vehemently against denationalization in general and the Russification of Ukrainians in particular, and equated this process with spiritual and intellectual disintegration. Potebnja's philosophy of language is rooted in Wilhelm von Humboldt's romantic idealism, but he was also influenced by J. Herbart's and H. Lotze's associative psychology, and particularly by Heymann Steinthal's psycholinguistic writings.
Potebnja 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, Potebnja 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 Potebnja 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.
Potebnja 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 aesthetics 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.