Rask was born in Brændekilde on the Danish island of Funen. His father was a smallholder and tailor, but studious, and he sent his thirteen-year old son to the Latin school in Odense in 1801. One of his friends from elementary school, Niels Matthias Petersen (1791-1862) who went on to be the first professor of Nordic languages at the University of Copenhagen, later remarked that "His short stature, his lively eyes, the ease with which he moved and jumped over tables and benches, his unusual knowledge, and even his quaint peasant dress, attracted the attention of his fellow students". This is where Rasks interest in the Old Norse and Icelandic language and literature was awakened, as his teacher Jochum E. Suhr loaned him a copy of Snorri Sturlusson's Heimskringla, and the rector, Ludvig Heiberg gave him a new translation as a prize for his diligence. By comparing the original work and the translation he was able to make an Icelandic wordlist -comparing the Icelandic vocabulary with that of Danish, Swedish, German, Dutch and English. In addition to Danish and Latin, at Odense Rask studied the Greek, Hebrew, French and German languages.
In 1807 he traveled to Copenhagen to continue his studies at the University there, and he stayed at Regensen, the university dormitory. In spite of not being particularly religious, and even having expressed serious doubts, he signed up as a student of theology - although in practice he simply studied the grammar of various languages of his own choosing. By 1812 he had systematically studied everything about Sami, Swdish, Faroese, English, Dutch, Gothic, Old English and Portuguese - and had started studies of German, French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Latin, Russian, Polish and Czech, although Icelandic continued to be his main interest.
In 1809 he finished his first book, the Introduction to the Grammar of the Icelandic and other Ancient Northern Languages, which he published in Danish in 1811. It was an didactic grammar based on printed and manuscript materials accumulated by his predecessors in the same field of research. According to Hans Frede Nielsen, the work exceeded anything previously published on the topic.
The Prize Essay
In 1811 the Danish Academy of Sciences requested a prize essay on the topic of language history. They requested the essay to "use historical critique and fitting examples to illuminate the source whence the old Scandinavian tongue can be most probably derived, to explain the character of the language and the relations that it has had through the middle ages to the Nordic as well as Germanic dialects, and to accurately ascertain the basic tenets upon which all derivation and comparison of these tongues should be constructed."
Rask proposed a trip to Sweden in order to undertake studies of Sami and Finish to be able to evaluate any possible relation they might have to the Scandinavian languages, and in 1812 he traveled with his friend Rasmus Nyerup. Upon his return he was recommended to the Arnamagnæan Institute, by which he was employed as editor of the Icelandic Lexicon (1814) of Björn Halldórsson, which had long remained in manuscript. Rask visited Iceland, where he remained from 1813 to 1815, mastering the language and familiarizing himself with the literature, manners, and customs of Iceland. In 1814, while still in Iceland, he finished his prize essay on the "Investigation of the Origin of the Old Norse or Icelandic Language", in which he argued that the Old Norse language was related to the Germanic languages, to the classic Latin and Greek languages and to the languages of the Orient - but not to Basque, Greenlandic, Finnish or Celtic (On this last instance he was wrong, which he later recognized). The essay received the approval of the academy, although they felt that he could have delved more deeply into comparing Icelandic with the Oriental and Persian languages. This made Rask envision a trip to India, to undertake further studies of the Asian languages, such as Sanskrit, which was already being taught by philologists such as Bopp and Schlegel in Germany.
Travel to India and Ceylon
In October 1816, Rask left Denmark on a literary expedition financed by the king to investigate the languages of the East and collect manuscripts for the university library at Copenhagen. He proceeded first to Sweden, where he remained two years, and during the course of which he made an excursion into Finland to study the language. Here he published, in Swedish, his Anglo-Saxon Grammar in 1817. In 1818, he published an essay in Danish entitled Essay on the Origin of the Ancient Scandinavian or Icelandic Tongue, in which he traced the affinity of that idiom to the other European languages, particularly Latin and Greek.
In the same year, he brought out the first complete editions of Snorri's Edda and Sæmundr's Edda (more commonly known as the Poetic or Elder Edda), in the original text, along with Swedish translations of both Eddas. From Stockholm, he went in 1819, to St Petersburg, where he wrote, in German, a paper on "The Languages and Literature of Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Finland," in the sixth number of the Vienna Jahrbücher. From Russia, he proceeded through Tartary into Persia and resided for some time at Tabriz, Teheran, Persepolis, and Shiraz. In about six weeks, he is said to have mastered enough Persian to be able to converse freely.
In 1820, he embarked from Bushire for Bombay, and during his residence there, he wrote, in English, "A Dissertation on the Authenticity of the Zend Language" (Trans. Lit. Soc. of Bombay, vol. iii., reprinted with corrections and additions in Trans. R. As. Soc.). From Bombay, he proceeded through India to Ceylon, where he arrived in 1822, and soon afterwards wrote, in English, "A Dissertation respecting the best Method of expressing the Sounds of the Indian Languages in European Characters," in the Transactions of the Literary and Agricultural Society of Colombo. Rask returned to Copenhagen in May 1823, bringing a considerable number of Oriental manuscripts, Persian, Zand, Pali, Sinhalese, and others, with which he enriched the collections of the Danish capital. He died in Copenhagen on the 14th of November 1832, at Badstuestræde 17, where a plaque commemorating him is found.
During the period between his return from the East and his death, Rask published, in Danish, a Spanish Grammar (1824), a Frisian Grammar (1825), an Essay on Danish Orthography (1826), a Treatise respecting the Ancient Egyptian Chronology (1827), an Italian Grammar (1827), and the Ancient Jewish Chronology previous to Moses (1828). He also edited an edition of Schneider's Danish Grammar for the use of Englishmen (1830), and superintended the English translation of his Anglo-Saxon Grammar by Thorpe (1830).
He was the first to draw a connection between the ancient Northern and Western/Eastern Germanic languages, as well as connect the Lithuanian, Slavonic, Greek, and Latin languages. He also formulated the first working version of what later became "Grimm's Law" for the transmutation of consonants in the transition from the old Indo-European languages to Teutonic, although he only compared Teutonic and Greek, as Sanskrit was unknown to him at the time.
In 1822, he was master of no fewer than twenty-five languages and dialects, and he is believed to have studied twice as many. His numerous philological manuscripts were transferred to the Royal Library at Copenhagen. Rask's Anglo-Saxon, Danish and Icelandic Grammars were brought out in English editions by Thorpe, Repp, and Dasent, respectively. Karl Verner was one of the later philologists inspired by Rask's work.
- Undersøgelse om det gamle Nordiske eller Islandske Sprogs Oprindelse (Essay on the Origin of the Ancient Norse or Icelandic Tongue), 1818
- Anvisning till Isländskan eller Nordiska Fornspråket, 1818
- Spansk Sproglære (Spanish Grammar), 1824
- Frisisk Sproglære (Frisian Grammar), 1825
- Dansk Retskrivingslære (Essay on Danish Orthography), 1826
- Italiænsk Formlære (Italian Grammar), 1827
- Den gamle Ægyptiske Tidsregning (Ancient Egyptian Chronology), 1827
- Vejledning til Akra-Sproget på Kysten Ginea (Introduction to the Accra language on the Guinea Coast), 1828
- Den ældste hebraiske Tidsregning indtil Moses efter Kilderne på ny bearbejdet og forsynet med et Kart over Paradis (Ancient Jewish Chronology previous to Moses according to the Sources newly reworked and accompanied by a Map of Paradise), 1828
- A Grammar of the Danish language for the use of Englishmen, 1830
- Ræsonneret lappisk Sproglære (Sami grammar), 1832
- Engelsk formlære (English grammar), 1832
- Über das Alter und die Echtheit der Zendsprache und des Zend-Avesta, und Herstellung des Zend-alphabets (Avestan language, "The age and the authenticity of the Zend language and Zend-Avesta, and manufacture of the Zend alphabet: in addition to an overview of the whole linguistic family").
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Rask, Rasmus Christian". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Rask's Singalesisk Skriftlære online
- Google book link to Anvisning till Isländskan eller Nordiska Fornspråket
- Rasmus Rask at Find a Grave
- "Rask, Rasmus Christian". The Nuttall Encyclopædia. 1907.