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Otto Jespersen

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Otto Jespersen
Jespersen, c. 1915
Born(1860-07-16)16 July 1860
Randers, Denmark
Died30 April 1943(1943-04-30) (aged 82)
Roskilde, Denmark

Jens Otto Harry Jespersen (Danish: [ˈʌtsʰo ˈjespɐsn̩]; 16 July 1860 – 30 April 1943) was a Danish linguist who specialized in the grammar of the English language. Steven Mithen described him as "one of the greatest language scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries."[1]

Early life[edit]

Otto Jespersen was born in Randers in Jutland. He was inspired by the work of Danish philologist Rasmus Rask as a boy, and with the help of Rask's grammars taught himself some Icelandic, Italian, and Spanish.[2] He entered the University of Copenhagen in 1877 when he was 17, initially studying law but not forgetting his language studies. In 1881 he shifted his focus completely to languages,[3] and in 1887 earned his master's degree in French, with English and Latin as his secondary languages. He supported himself during his studies through part-time work as a schoolteacher and as a shorthand reporter in the Danish parliament.

In June, 1886, Jespersen became a member of the International Phonetic Association, then called The Phonetic Teachers' Association. In fact the idea of creating a phonetic alphabet that could be used by every language was first put forward by Jespersen in a letter he sent to Paul Passy.[4]

In 1887–1888, he traveled to England, Germany and France, meeting linguists like Henry Sweet and Paul Passy and attending lectures at institutions like Oxford University. Following the advice of his mentor Vilhelm Thomsen, he returned to Copenhagen in August 1888 and began work on his doctoral dissertation on the English case system. He successfully defended his dissertation in 1891.

Academic life and work[edit]

Jespersen was a professor of English at the University of Copenhagen from 1893 to 1925, and served as Rector of the university in 1920–21. His early work focused primarily on language teaching reform and on phonetics, but he is best known for his later work on syntax and on language development.

He advanced the theories of Rank and Nexus in Danish in two papers: Sprogets logik (1913) and De to hovedarter af grammatiske forbindelser (1921). Jespersen in this theory of ranks removes the parts of speech from the syntax, and differentiates between primaries, secondaries, and tertiaries; e.g. in "well honed phrase," "phrase" is a primary, this being defined by a secondary, "honed", which again is defined by a tertiary "well". The term Nexus is applied to sentences, structures similar to sentences and sentences in formation, in which two concepts are expressed in one unit; e.g., it rained, he ran indoors. This term is qualified by a further concept called a junction which represents one idea, expressed by means of two or more elements, whereas a nexus combines two ideas. Junction and nexus proved valuable in bringing the concept of context to the forefront of the attention of the world of linguistics.

He was most widely recognized for some of his books. Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin (1922) is considered by many to be his masterpiece.[3] A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles (1909–1949), concentrated on morphology and syntax, and Growth and Structure of the English Language (1905) is a comprehensive view of English by someone with another native language, and still in print, over 70 years after his death and more than 100 years after publication. Late in his life he published Analytic Syntax (1937), in which he presents his views on syntactic structure using an idiosyncratic shorthand notation. In The Philosophy of Grammar (1924) he challenged the accepted views of common concepts in grammar and proposed corrections to the basic definitions of grammatical case, pronoun, object, voice etc., and developed further his notions of Rank and Nexus. In the 21st century this book is still used as one of the basic texts in modern structural linguistics. Mankind, Nation and Individual: from a linguistic point of view (1925) is one of the pioneering works on sociolinguistics.

Jespersen visited the United States twice: he lectured at the Congress of Arts and Sciences in St. Louis in 1904, and in 1909–1910 he visited both the University of California and Columbia University.[5] While in the U.S., he took occasion to study the country's educational system. His autobiography (see below) was published in English translation as recently as 1995.

After his retirement in 1925, Jespersen remained active in the international linguistic community. In addition to continuing to write, he convened and chaired the first International Meeting on Linguistic Research in Geneva in 1930, and acted as president of the Fourth International Congress of Linguists in Copenhagen in 1936.[6]

Jespersen was an important figure in the international language movement. He was an early supporter of the Esperanto offshoot Ido and in 1928 published his own project Novial. He also worked with the International Auxiliary Language Association.[7]

Jespersen received honorary degrees from Columbia University in New York (1910), St. Andrews University in Scotland (1925), and the Sorbonne in Paris (1927).[2] He was one of the first six international scholars to be elected as honorary members of the Linguistic Society of America.[8] He was elected a foreign member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1931.[9]


  • 1889: The articulations of speech sounds represented by means of analphabetic symbols. Marburg: Elwert.
  • Progress in Language. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co. 1894. OCLC 607098829. New York: Macmillan & Co.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  • 1899: Fonetik: En systematisk Fremstilling af Læren om Sproglyd. Copenhagen: Schubothe
  • 1904: How to teach a foreign language. London: S. Sonnenschein & Co. 1928 printing available online through OpenLibrary.org.
  • 1905: Growth and Structure of the English Language (ISBN 0-226-39877-3)
  • 1909–1949: A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles (in seven volumes; the title should be understood as 'A grammar of Modern English') originally published by Carl Winter, Heidelberg, later vols. by Ejnar Munksgard, Copenhagen and George Allen & Unwin, London (ISBN 0-06-493318-0) (Vols. 5–7, issued without series title, have imprint: Copenhagen, E. Munksgaard, 1940–49; Imprint varies: Pt.5–6: London: Allen & Unwin; pt.7: Copenhagen: Munksgaard, London: Allen & Unwin.)
  • 1917: Negation in English and Other Languages. Det Kgl. Danske Videnskabernes Selskab: Historisk-filologiske Meddelelser I, 5. Copenhagen: Andr. Fred. Høst og søn. 1917. OCLC 457568567 – via Internet Archive.
  • 1922: Language: Its Nature, Development, and Origin (ISBN 0-04-400007-3)
  • 1924: The Philosophy of Grammar (ISBN 0-226-39881-1)
  • 1925: Mankind, nation and individual: from a linguistic point of view. H. Aschehoug (det Mallingske bogtryk.), 1925
  • 1928: An International Language (the introduction of the Novial language)
  • 1930: Novial Lexike Novial to English, French and German dictionary.
  • 1933: Essentials of English Grammar
  • 1937: Analytic Syntax (ISBN 0-226-39880-3)
  • 1938: En sprogmands levned, Copenhagen, Jespersen's autobiography
  • 1941: Efficiency in linguistic change
  • 1993: A literary miscellany: proceedings of the Otto Jespersen Symposium April 29–30, edited by Jørgen Erik Nielsen and Arne Zettersten 1994
  • 1995: A Linguist's Life: an English translation of Otto Jespersen's autobiography, edited by Arne Juul, Hans Frede Nielsen and Jørgen Erik Nielsen, Odense (ISBN 87-7838-132-0)

Essays and articles (selected)[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mithen, Steven (2005). The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body. London: Orion Publishing Group. p. 15. ISBN 978-1-7802-2258-5.
  2. ^ a b "Otto Jespersen". interlanguages.net.
  3. ^ a b "Otto Jespersen's life and career".
  4. ^ "The Principles of the International Phonetic Association: 1949". Journal of the International Phonetic Association. 40 (3): 299–358. 2010. JSTOR 44526579.
  5. ^ Falk, Julia S. 1992. Otto Jespersen, Leonard Bloomfield, and American Structural Linguistics. Language 68(3):465-491.
  6. ^ Falk 1992
  7. ^ Falk, Julia S. "Words without grammar: Linguists and the international language movement in the United States, Language and Communication, 15(3): pp. 241–259. Pergamon, 1995.
  8. ^ Falk 1992.
  9. ^ "J.O.H. Jespersen (1860 - 1943)". Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Archived from the original on 16 October 2020.

External links[edit]