Otto Jespersen

by Niels Haislund, 1943

The name of Otto Jespersen is a household word to all advanced students of English. Who has not again and again consulted the volumes of the Modern English Grammar, this inexhaustible mine of systematized knowledge, and found there just the information he wanted? Many teachers and scholars have received valuable impulses from the Growth and Structure of the English Language, Essentials of English Grammar, Philosophy of Grammar, and Language, the acme of Jespersen's scientific efforts. Many other books and papers may be mentioned in which he has shed new light on or definitely solved some linguistic problem, or in which he simply is the model teacher. So it seems natural that the Englische Studien, to which, by the way, he has contributed papers from the eighties on, should bring a mention of Otto Jespersen and his work.(1)

Jens Otto Harry Jespersen was born on 16 July, 1860, in the town of Randers in Jutland. His father was a district judge (herredsfoged), and his mother was the daughter of the clergyman who had been Hans Andersen's first teacher of Latin. Jespersen' father died in 1870, and his mother with all her children moved to Hillerød, but she, too, died before all the children had grown up. Otto Jespersen was thirteen years old at the time. He attended the public school of Frederiksborg and seventeen years old matriculated at the University of Copenhagen, during the first four years as an undergraduate holding a scholarship and living at the college of Regensen.

On his first years of study Jespersen tells in his Farewell Lectures at the University of Copenhagen (printed in Linguistica [1933] p. 1 ff.): 'As a boy I read with enthusiasm of Rasmus Rask and by the help of his grammars made a certain start in Icelandic, Italian and Spanish: while I was still at school I had on my own initiative read a good deal in these languages. I count it as a piece of luck that I had as my headmaster Carl Berg, who in a few small books had shown an interest in comparative philology and who lent me books, among others books by Max Müller and Whitney. After my parents' deaths, I was much in the house of an uncle whose main interest was in the Romanic literatures, and his collection of books was a treasured browsing place for me in my last years before going to the University.

In spite of these more or less childish studies I did not at once take to philology, but following a family tradition (my father, grandfather and great-grandfather held legal appointments) I turned to law .... When, after three or four years' study of law I gave it up, the linguistic study came as a freeing of one's personality from the mere learning by heart of paragraphs and the ready-made opinions of professors - which was all that the study of law consisted in at that time. It was this so-called study I reacted against. I wanted to go my own way and not to have my opinions dictated to me from outside.

For seven years I was a shorthand reporter in the house of parliament, this gave me my bread and butter during some years when otherwise I had nothing to live on. If I had not had that at my back, I should not have dared to take the plunge and leave law.'

During a number of years Jespersen pursued a more or less unsystematic study of various langauges, and in 1887 he took his master's degree with French as his main subject and English and Latin as his secondary subjects.

In the 1880's phonetics was the watch-word within linguistics, and there was a great cry for a reform of the teaching of the languages, in which the young pioneers advocated the introduction of practical phonetics. This movement brought Jespersen into contact with Felix Franke, but I had better let Jespersen himself tell about his friendship and collaboration with him (Farewell Lecture, pp. 5-6):

'The one I first got in connexion with, who for a few years came to mean much to me, was a german of my own age, Felix Franke. Our correspondence began in 1884, and quickly became very extensive, as we had many interests in common. Letters passed every week from his side and mine till he died in 1886. Seldom has one seen such an idealistic enthusiast for science as in him and in spite of his youth and tuberculosis he had amassed very wide knowledge. Though I never saw him, I was more closely tied to him than to any of my fellow-students at home, and was spiritually more akin to him than to anyone else. Two years after his death I visited his family in the little town of Sorau in Nieder-Lausitz and was received as a son of the house. I wrote a memoir of him in the journal Phonetische Studien and I published the work he left behind him on colloquial German.

The reason of my first letter to him was the wish to obtain permission to translate his little book Die praktische Sprachenlernung auf Grund der Psychologie und der Physiologie der Sprache. That was one of the first works in which the cry was raised for a reform in the teaching of languages .... Franke's Phrases de tous les jours, which he managed to finish just before his death, and my own [first book] Kortfattet engelsk Grammatik for tale- og skriftproget (1885), both with phonetic spelling throughout, were the fruits of our common work.'

In 1886 Jespersen and other Scandinavian scholars and teachers (among them Lundell and Western) founded a Scandinavian association for a reform of the teaching of languages and named it Quousque tandem, from the slogan Viëtor had used as a motto for his pamphlet Der Sprachunterricht muß umkehren).

Jespersen, in a few cases in collaboration with others, wrote a series of school-books, which have been extensively used in Danish schools. Some of them have been adapted for use in other countries as well. He gave a theoretical discussion of the problem in Sprogundervisning (1901), also translated into English (How to Teach a Foreign Language), Spanish, and Japanese.

Immediately after taking his degree Jespersen went to London, where amongst others he met Viëtor, old Ellis, and Sweet. The three Danish scholars Vilhelm Thomsen, Karl Verner and Hermann Möller, Johan Storm the Norwegian (Englische Philologie), and Sweet probably are those teachers to whom Otto Jespersen owes most, no doubt he was Sweet's dearest pupil.

In October 1887 he went to Oxford, where Dr. Murray told him of the work on the NED, and where he heard lectures by Sayce and others. About New Year 1888 he went to Germany, first visiting Leipzig, where he saw Techmer, Brugmann, and Leskien. He also visited Sievers at Halle, Fr. Beyer as Weißenfels and Klinghardt at Reichenbach. He then went to France for two months, staying at the Passys' at Neuilly-sur-Seine. Every day he went to Paris together with Paul Passy to see sights or hear lectures by Gaston Paris, Darmesteter and Gilliéron, or he was present at Passy's English lessons. Then he returned to Germany to study Old and Middle English in Berlin under Zupitza. Among the students of that term were also Joseph Schick and George Moore Smith, who both became his friends for life. Back in Copenhagen he taught English and French at private schools.

For some years he gave much time to the study of his own native language, and in 1890-1903 was joint editor of and a frequent contributor to the folkloristic and linguistic periodical Dania.

In 1891 his doctor's thesis Studier over Engelske kasus, med en indledning om fremskridt i sproget was published, and 1893 Jespersen succeeded George Stephens as professor of English in the University of Copenhagen, a post he held until retiring in 1925. 1920-21 he was Rector of the University.

Otto Jespersen has been a great traveller, who has visited most countries of Europe. He has been twice to the U.S.A.: in 1904 he was invited to give a lecture at the Congress of Arts and Sciences held at St. Louis, and in 1909-10 he was visiting professor to the University of California and Columbia University.

Jespersen's first important scientific effort, written while he was still and undergraduate, was the paper Til spörsmålet om lydlove, which was at once translated into German (Zur Lautgesetzfrage) and printed in Techmer's Zeitschrift 1886. (Reprinted in Jespersen's Linguistica 1933 with two continuations, one written in 1904 for the Phonetische Grundfragen and another written in 1933. Here he attacks the principal thesis of the Young-Grammarians, that of the 'ausnahmslosigskeit der lautgesetze', emphasizing the close connexion between sound and sense. Language has an outer form, phonetical and grammatical, and an inner form, the meaning in a wide sense, and he shows that many sound-changes are due to semantic factors, a point of view which has proved very fertile in his later work.

This view of the close connexion between linguistic form and contents is one of the two fundamental principles on which Otto Jespersen's work is based. The other is the idea of progress in language, which was first elaborated in the introduction to his doctor's thesis of 1891, Studier over engelske kasus, and later in a fuller form embodied in Progress in Language with Special Reference to English (1894).

In contrast the Romantic school of linguists, who considered language as an independent organism and admired the elaborate morphological systems of the old languages as contrasted with the 'degenerated' modern stages with their poor forms, Jespersen simply maintains that 'language is activity, chiefly social activity undertaken in order to get in touch with other individuals and communicate to them one's thoughts, feelings and will' (Efficiency, p.12), or, in other words, it is an instrument for people to make themselves mutually understood, hence a shortening of the forms and a simplification of the grammatical system which do not injure the understanding must be considered progress. Jespersen never maintained that all linguistic changes in all languages and at all times made for progress, 'but I still think', he says (Efficiency, p. 7), 'that I was right in saying that on the whole the average development was progressive and that mankind has benefited by this evolution.' As will be seen this principle rests on the first, the view of the close connexion between sound and sense.

The chief work in which Jespersen has discussed linguistic evolution in general is Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin (1922; also in German and Japanese), which is also his most brilliant work (dedicated to Vilhelm Thomsen). It falls into four books. In Book I he deals with the history of linguistic science. Book II is about the linguistic development of children, and the material comes in very useful in the concluding chapters of the work: 'Primitive man came to attach meaning to what were originally rambling sequences of syllables in much the same way as the child comes to attach a meaning to many of the words he hears from his elders, the whole situation in which they are heard giving a clue to their interpretation.' Book III, The Individual and the World, includes chapters on The Foreigner, Pidgins and Congeners, The Woman, and Causes of Change, all of them containing material for a discussion of linguistic development in general. In Book IV conclusions are drawn. The author discusses the problem of progress or decay, offers a theory of the origin of grammatical elements, calls attention to the role played by sound symbolism, and finally offers a theory of the origin of speech, concluding: 'Language began with half-musical unanalyzed expressions for individual beings and solitary events. Languages composed of, and evolved from, such words and quasi-sentences are clumsy and insufficient instruments of thought, being intricate, capricious and difficult. But from the beginning the tendency has been one of progress, slow and fitful progress, but still progress towards greater and greater clearness, regularity, ease and pliancy.'

The above hints give a very inadequate impression of the originality and richness of Language. I take it for granted that most readers of the Englische Studien have read it, but those who have not I urge to do so as soon as possible. The book is full of original observations, does away with antiquated theories, advances new ones, and opens up unexpected vistas in many directions.

The question of progress has been made the object of a final discussion in the book quoted above, Efficiency in Linguistic Change (1941), introducing new points of view and material.

The problem of children's language, its influence on linguistic development always interested Jespersen greatly, and he has collected a large quantity of original material from Danish. This has been utilized in various publications in Danish, the latest being Sproget (1941), which may be considered a popular version of Language.

The problem 'the individual and the world' he has dealt with in Mankind, Nation, and Individual in Language (1925), a series of lectures given at Oslo in which he amongst other questions discusses the connexion between dialect and standard language, correctness of language, and slang.

As stated above Jespersen in his youth was highly interested in phonetics. His great Fonetik (1897-99) is one of the principal works within classical phonetics, teeming with original observations from many languages. The book was translated into German, but here divided into two books, Lehrbuch der Phonetik and Phonetische Grundfragen (both 1904). (Twice preparations have been made for a publication of the book in English, but for various reasons it never came off.) In Danish he has further published an Engelsk fonetik, Modersmålets fonetik, and some Engelsk lydskriftstykker.

Jespersen's grammatical points of view have been generally treated in the Philosophy of Grammar (1924), in the System of Grammar (Linguistica 1933; also published separately), and the Analytic Syntax (1937). He treats the grammatical problems according to notional categories (instead of word-classes as eariler grammarians), always keeping in mind his principle of the close connexion between sound and sense. In syntax we must start from within and investigate how a certain grammatical notion is expressed, in morphology we start from the form and ask what it stands for.

Jespersen's most original contribution to grammatical theory is probably his setting up of the two categories of Rank and Nexus. His new theory was first advanced in Danish in Sprogets logik (1913) and De to hovedarter af grammatiske forbindelser (1921). In contrast to previous grammarians who applied the terms substantival, adjectival, and adverbial to the functions in the sentence, Jespersen in his theory of ranks keeps the parts of speech out of syntax, and instead distinguishes between primaries, secondaries, and tertiaries; thus in a cleverly worded remark, remark is a primary, this being defined by a secondary, worded, which again is defined by a tertiary cleverly, and cleverly for that matter might be defined by a quaternary, e.g. very, but as a rule it is sufficient to consider three ranks only.

The term nexus is applied to what may be called sentences and sentences in embryo, thus the dog barks furiously, the door is red, (I heard) the dog bark, (he painted) the door red. A dependent nexus may enter in a sentence as a subject, object, etc., just like a single word, thus the dog bark and the door red are objects in the full sentences. A junction represents one idea, expressed by means of two or more elements, whereas a nexus combines two ideas. Jespersen has also tried to apply the theory of ranks to nexus, but I shall not go into this question here. The new theory of junction and nexus has proved valuable in bringing together organically related elements which in previous grammatical works were often kept apart.

Two other grammatical categories he has treated separately in Tid og tempus (1914) and Negation in English and Other Languages (1917).

Of course a great part of Jespersen's work falls within the study of English. The Growth and Structure of the English Language (1905; also in Japanese), for which he was awarded the French Volney prize, is sufficiently well-known for its originality and brilliancy. His chief work within English is the Modern English Grammar (vol. I was published in 1904, vol. VI has just been published [1942]; vol. VII, which will conclude the great work, is in preparation). The sequence of the volumes is rather haphazard: vol. I is an English sound-history, vols. II-V deal with various syntactical categories and problems, vol. VI with morphology, and vol. VII will again be about syntax, but within each volume the various sections are systematic. Everywhere Jespersen distinguishes between form and function, between grammar and logic, thus between time and tense, the latter term being only grammatical. His own two categories rank and nexus are considered again and again in the syntactical parts. Here and there we find new and fertile points of view, new obvious explanations of various grammatical questions. One of the most valuable things in the MnEG is the wealth of quotations collected at first hand by the author. They greatly contribute to making the MnEG an invaluable mine of information about Modern English grammar.

Essentials of English Grammar (1933) may be considered a succinct edition of MnEG.

At school Jespersen proved himself to be a very good mathematician. And in later life he has preserved an interest in systems of symbols. In the eighties he felt the want of a system of denotation of the articulation of speech-sounds, and so constructed his system of analphabetic (later termed antalphabetic) symbols, which was published in the Articulation of Speech Sounds (1889). Greek letters here stand for the active organs of speech (tongue-tip, etc.), numerals for the degree and form of the opening, if any (0 = closure), small letters for the place of articulation, etc.

The Danish phonetic dialect alphabet is also due to Jespersen (Dania 1890).

In the middle of the thirties when working at vol. V of the MnEG he needed a system of symbols for the denotation of syntactic analysis and set to work at creating one. Symbols were tried and given up and new ones tried again and again till at length he stopped at the set of symbols published in the Analytic Syntax (1937). The symbols denote nexus, rank, composition, extraposition and apposition, types of sentences, etc.

To many people the formulas may look forbidding, but as a matter of fact it is easy to learn the system, and often, like the antalphabetic symbols used in phonetics, it may save the trouble of a long and cumbersome circumspection. The symbols will also necessarily force the user to be consistent in his analyses. It would no doubt be worth while introducing the formulas in schools where parsing of sentences is regularly pursued. A successful attempt of this kind has been made by a Danish teacher. One good thing about the system is that it can easily be modified.

From the first appearance of Volapük Jespersen has been interested in the problem of auxiliary languages, which of course is closely connected with his view of language has (chiefly) a means of communication and his belief in progress in language. He was a member of the committee that worked out Ido, and for many years supported this language, but in 1928 he prepared his own system Novial (i.e. NOV = new-I[nternational]-A[uxiliari]-L[ingue]). In An International Language (1928; also in German) he first reviewed the history and theory of international languages and then gave a Novial grammar and some texts. In 1930 a Novial Lexike was published.

Bernard Shaw in an interview has made a statement on Novial: 'Novial, invented by Professor Jespersen, is really good: there is a good deal of English in it, so that it is delightfully easy to read. Besides, Professor Jespersen has common sense, which is a great advantage in a professor. Everybody can learn Novial, there is very little grammar in it; but one must be English to understand how one can get along splendidly without grammar. These new languages are very interesting.' Professor Uhlenbeck wrote: 'Novial surpasses the other international languages in all respects.' And similar statements were made by other reviewers at the time.

A selection of Jespersen's papers and articles in Danish were published in 1932 under the title Tanker og studier, and in 1933 he published the Linguistica, Collected Papers in English, French and German.

Finally it may be mentioned that Jespersen has written a biography of Rasmus Rask (1918) and a small book about Chaucer (Chaucers liv og digtning, 1893), both in Danish.

In 1899 Otto Jespersen was elected a member of the Danish Videnskabernes Selskab, and later he has become a member of many academies and scientific associations. Honorary doctor's degrees have been conferred on him by three universities (1910 Columbia University, New York, 1925 St. Andrews, Scotland, 1927 the Sorbonne, Paris). He was President of the Fourth International Congress of Linguists in Copenhagen, 1936. On his seventieth birthday, July 16, 1930, was published a large honorary volume, A Grammatical Miscellany Presented to Otto Jespersen with contributions from prominent scholars from fourteen countries. And on his eightieth birthday he received a Hilsen til Otto Jespersen paa 80-Aars Dagen (i.e. Greetings to O. J. on his eightieth Anniversary) with personal contributions from a wide circle of friends, admirers and pupils.

From 1934 he has been the first resident of the country-house Lundehave near Helsingør (Elsinore), which the Danish merchant Andreas Collstrop had bequeathed to Videnskabernes Selskab as an honorary residence for a Danish scholar or scientist.

Through a long life Otto Jespersen has offered valuable contributions to general phonetics and grammar and to our knowledge of English and Danish and other languages, thus being a worthy successor of the great Danish linguists of the last century (Rask, Thomsen, Verner, and others). His revolutionary work for the improvement of the teaching of modern languages has had great effects far beyond the boundary of his own country. He has lived a rich and happy life, he has reaped great honours and won friends from all over the world, always interested and helpful as he is. In his opinion scientific work should be done for sake of mankind, and he has tried to do his share.

On Jespersen's birthday in 1930 Edward Sapir in the Danish newspaper Politiken wrote the following characterization addressed to Jespersen himself: 'Your work has always seemed to me to be distinguished by its blend of exact knowledge, keenness of analysis, ease and lucidity of style, and by an imaginative warmth that is certainly not common in scientific writing'.

He has always been a friend of progress and peace and advocated international collaboration. It is to be hoped that he will live to see a world at peace, a world in which collaboration between nations is again possible, not least within the science to which he has offered so many and valuable contributions, the noble science of the human language (2).

Source: Niels Haislund, 'Otto Jespersen', Englische Studien 75. 273-283 (1943).

1. [Dieser Aufsatz war ursprünglich für den achtzigsten Geburtstag des hervorragenden dänischen Sprachforschers geplant; er wird den Lesern dieser Zeitschrift auch jetzt noch willkommen sein. J. H.]

2. Bibliographical note. The best introduction to the study of Otto Jespersen's life and work is his autobiography, En sprogmands levned, Copenhagen 1938. Some of his articles in Tanker og studier also are of a personal character, the Hilsen til Otto Jespersen contains many bits of biographical material, and the whole volume contributes to a characterization of him. In the honorary volume of 1930 there is a bibliography of Jespersen's work by C. A. Bodelsen. A biographical article in Czech by O. Vocaldo has been published in Casopis pro moderno filologii. R. XXVII, c.l. In the article on Otto Jespersen in Dansk biografisk Leksikon there are further references to biographical articles in Danish.

Back to International Auxiliary Languages

James Chandler 27-Jun-01