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Otto Jespersen

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: ; 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

  • "Otto Jespersen", by Niels Haislund, in: Englische Studien 75 (1943), pp. 273–282 (reprinted in: Thomas A. Sebeok, Portraits of Linguists, vol. 2, Bloomington & London: Indiana U.P. 1966 [ISBN 1-84371-006-4], pp. 148–57).
  • Otto Jespersen Online Bibliography
  • Otto Jespersen in University of Warwick ELT Archive
  • Otto Jespersen in Encyclopædia Britannica

External links

  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  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.
  7. ^
  8. ^ Falk 1992.


  • What is the use of phonetics?, in: Educational Review (February 1910)
  • Nature and Art in Language, in: American Speech 5 (1929), pp. 89ff (Part 1, Part 2)
  • Adversative Conjunctions, in: Linguistics (1933)

Essays and articles (selected)

  • 1889: The articulations of speech sounds represented by means of analphabetic symbols. Marburg: Elwert.
  • 1894: Progress in Language. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co.
  • 1904: How to teach a foreign language. London: S. Sonnenschein & Co. 1928 printing available online through
  • 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.)
  • 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)


He is said to be comparable in philology to Einstein and Schroedinger in physics in C.S.Lewis' science fiction novel Out of the Silent Planet.

He appears as a character in Joseph Skibell's 2010 novel A Curable Romantic.


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]

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]

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 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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

Academic life and work

system. He successfully defended his dissertation in 1891. case, he returned to Copenhagen in August 1888 and began work on his doctoral dissertation on the English Vilhelm Thomsen. Following the advice of his mentor Oxford University and attending lectures at institutions like Paul Passy and Henry Sweet 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 Latin, with English and French and in 1887 earned his master's degree in [2]

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