Otto Jespersen

For the Norwegian comedian, see Otto Jespersen (comedian).
Otto Jespersen

Otto Jespersen, 1915.
Born Jens Otto Harry Jespersen
(1860-07-16)16 July 1860
Died 30 April 1943(1943-04-30) (aged 82)
Residence Copenhagen
Nationality Danish
Occupation Academic

Jens Otto Harry Jespersen or Otto Jespersen (Danish: [ʌtˢo ˈjɛsb̥ɐsn̩]; 16 July 1860 – 30 April 1943) was a Danish linguist who specialized in the grammar of the English language.

Early life

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.[1] 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,[2] 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 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

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] 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.[4] 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.

Jespersen was a proponent of phonosemanticism and wrote: “Is there really much more logic in the opposite extreme which denies any kind of sound symbolism (apart from the small class of evident echoisms and ‘onomatopoeia’) and sees in our words only a collection of accidental and irrational associations of sound and meaning? ...There is no denying that there are words which we feel instinctively to be adequate to express the ideas they stand for.”

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.[5]

Jespersen was an important figure in the international language movement. He was an early supporter of the Esperanto offshoot Ido and in 1927 published his own project Novial. He also worked with the International Auxiliary Language Association.[6]

Jespersen received honorary degrees from Columbia University in New York (1910), St. Andrews University in Scotland (1925), and the Sorbonne in Paris (1927).[7] He was one of the first six international scholars to be elected as honorary members of the Linguistic Society of America.[8]


Essays and articles (selected)


  4. Falk, Julia S. 1992. Otto Jespersen, Leonard Bloomfield, and American Structural Linguistics. Language 68(3):465-491.
  5. Falk 1992
  6. 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.
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