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Otto Jespersen's life and career

Otto Jespersen (1860–1943) was almost the same age as two other important figures in the late 19th Century pan-European Reform Movement in modern language teaching, Felix Franke and Paul Passy (q.v.). He entered into an early correspondence with both of them following the publication of Franke’s seminal (1884) pamphlet on the psychology of language learning, and he developed a particularly strong friendship with Passy. He felt similarly close to Franke before the latter’s premature death in 1886, despite never being able to meet him (Kabell 2000).

Jespersen was born in Jutland, but after his father died in 1870 the family moved to Northern Zealand. He chose the language ‘stream’ in school, with its heavy emphasis on Latin and Greek, and took the entrance examination to Copenhagen University in 1877. At first he studied law, following in his father’s, grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s footsteps, but in his spare time he pursued interests in French, Italian, Spanish and English literature. To make ends meet, he also worked part-time as a lower secondary school teacher and as a shorthand reporter in the Danish parliament.

In 1881 came a major turning-point: he decided to give up law and devote himself instead entirely to the study of languages. In autumn 1881 he began attending lectures on phonetics given by Vilhelm Thomsen (1842–1927), and he also took classes in Old and Modern French, aiming for a degree in French and other Romance languages. At the same time, though, he was developing interests in English and German, as his early (1885) grammar of English and even earlier translation of Franke (1884) were to show, and becoming inspired by the work of Sweet (1877a), Storm (1879) and Viëtor (1882).

His first publication while still an undergraduate was a review in the Nordisk Tidsskrift for Filologi (1883–84), but it was his (1884) translation into Danish of Franke’s pamphlet, itself published earlier in the same year, and his (1885) Kortfattet engelsk Grammatik (‘Brief English Grammar’) which first brought him fame. Jespersen was later to describe the friendship with Franke and the genesis of these early works in a ‘Farewell lecture’ cited by Haislund (1943/1966: 149–50; see also Kabell 2000): '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 [. . .]. The reason of my first letter to him was the wish to obtain permission to translate his little book Die praktische Spracherlernung [. . .]. Franke’s Phrases de tous les jours, which he managed to finish just before his death, and my own [. . .] Kortfattet engelsk Grammatik for tale- og skriftproget (1885), both with phonetic spelling throughout, were the fruits of our common work'.

The 1885 work mentioned here is a ‘Brief English Grammar of the Spoken and Written Language’, whose influence on subsequent grammars of English published in Denmark has been profound (Kabell (2000: 33)). Along with Viëtor’s (1879) Englische Schulgrammatik, Franke’s (1886) Phrases de tous les jours, Passy’s (1886a) Le français parlé and Sweet’s (1885b) Elementarbuch des gesprochenen Englisch, this was one of the earliest examples in Europe of learning material produced according to phonetic principles (Passy 1887b: 8). By 1886 the book had been translated into Swedish, and it was in this year that he met J.A. Lundell and August Western at the 3rd Nordic Philological Congress and, together with them, formed the Quousque Tandem Society (as reported on by Passy 1887b). This was also the year in which he joined the Phonetic Teachers’ Association and met Passy, with whom he had only corresponded previously.

In 1887 he at last obtained his undergraduate degree in French (with a minor in English and Latin, though he had led agitation at the university against the compulsory inclusion of this language). In the same year he contributed an article to Englische Studien, ‘Der neue Sprachunterricht’.

At the end of his (1887) article in Englische Studien (p. 437), Jespersen presents a summary of the four basic principles of language teaching reform which had been agreed at the 1886 Stockholm Conference and which were built in to the constitution of the Scandinavian ‘Quousque Tandem’ Society, signed by Jespersen as the Danish representative (see Passy 1887b: 32­–33), namely (1) the use of ordinary everyday spoken language presented through the medium of phonetically transcribed texts; (2) the use of connected foreign language texts in the classroom, not disconnected sentences; (3) the inductive teaching of grammar (i.e. after the intensive study of the texts, not before); and (4) the replacement of translation exercises by re-tells, free composition and extended reading. The paper itself is Jespersen’s account of these principles and his interpretation of them in the context of language teaching in Denmark.

After graduating from the University of Copenhagen in 1887, Jespersen spent almost one year abroad, visiting England (where he met Sweet, Ellis, Viëtor and Sayce), Germany (meeting the phoneticians in Leipzig, Sievers in Halle, and Klinghardt in Reichenbach), and France (where he stayed for two months at the Passys’ in Neuilly-sur-Seine). During this period Vilhelm Thomsen, who had taught him phonetics at the University of Copenhagen, wrote to advise him to develop a specialism in English language and literature, since an academic post in that field was likely fall vacant in the future. Jespersen took his mentor’s advice, and, following a short period in Berlin (where he attended lectures on Old and Middle English), returned to Copenhagen in August 1888. He then started work on a doctoral thesis on the English case system which he was to defend successfully in 1891. To support himself while writing his thesis he taught English and French part-time, and published a Fransk Lœsebog efter Lydskriftsmethode (‘French Primer in Accordance with the Transcription Method’, 1889a). This was later (in 1895) to be followed up with the Engelsk Begynderbog (‘English Primer’), co-authored by Christian Sarauw, which was the most widely-used introductory textbook for English in Denmark until well into the twentieth century.

Having gained his doctorate, Jespersen took up his automatic right to work as an (unpaid) ‘Privatdocent’ at the University, giving classes in Old English and Chaucer in order to prove his worth beyond ‘merely’ phonetics. This paid off when a Professorship of English language and literature was advertised in 1893. Despite being only thirty-three at the time, Jespersen was judged the most suitable candidate, and he was appointed to the Chair on 1 May 1893.

During the 1890s, Jespersen continued to be best-known as a language teaching reformer and as a phonetician, although he is now remembered among linguists primarily for his (mostly later) pioneering in the fields of syntax and language development. His contributions to phonetics in the 1890s included his (1889b) The Articulations of Speech Sounds, in which he presented a new analphabetic system for scientific transcription (in other words, a system, like Bell’s ‘Visible Speech’, which does not employ Roman letters). This was in spite of his support for the standardising of Sweet’s Broad Romic for more practical purposes which was to characterise developments within the IPA at around the same time. Jespersen’s (1897–99) Fonetik was also a major contribution, and was translated into German in 1904.

Although Jespersen’s pioneering treatments of (English) syntax and the history of language were mostly published in the twentieth century, two fundamental principles on which this work was to be based had already emerged in his early academic work (see Haislund 1943/1966: 151–52), namely (1) his assertion of the close connection between sound and sense (or, as this was later to be expressed, form and function) in language, and (2) his strong belief in the idea that languages tend to ‘progress’ rather than ‘decay’, as they adapt to meet new communicative needs.

In both of these areas, Jespersen’s emphasis on the importance of ‘meaning’ or ‘function’ as fundamental to ‘form’ continued to represent a refreshingly humane alternative to the predominantly form-focused views which dominated linguistics in the twentieth century (Saussure, Bloomfield, Chomsky, etc.); it is tempting to view this emphasis as a development out of his early work as a language teaching reformer, including his reaction against the sterility of grammar–translation, and the emphasis he placed on the integrity of connected texts as instruments of communication (as Hjelmslev (1942–43/1966: 171) has suggested, ‘les seules influences qu’il a vraiment subies sont celles de sa première jeunesse. Jespersen est toujours resté ce qu’il était d’abord’). On the surface, though, Jespersen’s ideas were developed against a backdrop of linguistic theory: he opposed the German neo-grammarians’ ‘mechanistic philosophy, according to which sound laws operate blindly [in the history of a language] like the laws of natural science’ (Christophersen (1989: 10), asserting instead that many sound-changes are due to semantic, not to internal phonetic factors. In line with this view, Jespersen expressed his opposition to Romantic notions of the ‘decay’ or ‘degeneration’ of languages from purer primitive forms: instead, languages make progress, attaining greater clarity, regularity, ease and pliancy as they adapt to convey new meanings.

These developing views were first expounded in early articles, in the introduction to his doctoral thesis, and in his (1894) Progress in Language with Special Reference to English. They also found practical expression later on in Jespersen’s support for the development of an effective international auxiliary language, with this project engaging his internationalist, progressivist and rationalist leanings. He was a leading member of the committee that worked out ‘Ido’, a reformed version of Esperanto (see Forster 1982: 126–27). Later, in 1928 and 1930 works, he presented his own, alternative, system, Novial (NOV = new, I = International, A = Auxiliari, L = Lingue).

The linguistic work for which Jespersen is best remembered, though, was carried out in two or three main areas, mostly in the first three decades of the twentieth century: (1) linguistic evolution, most fully treated in his (1922) masterpiece, Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin, and reconsidered in his last book, Efficiency in Linguistic Change (1941); (2) syntax, with his points of view being summarized in two main works, The Philosophy of Grammar (1924) and Analytic Syntax (1937): syntax, according to Jespersen, must start with meaning and investigate how particular grammatical notions are expressed, as distinct from morphology, which starts from the form and asks what it stands for. Grammatical categories such as negation and tense are, then, seen in a completely new way. Earlier, Jespersen had brought together his interests in syntax and the history of language in another original work, The Growth and Structure of English and Other Languages (1905); finally (3), he had also begun putting his syntactic principles into practice in his monumental A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles (7 vols., 1909–49) (the last volume was published posthumously). Everywhere in this work he distinguishes carefully between form and function (for example, in considering ‘tense’ and ‘time’ separately). His (1933) Essentials of Grammar provides a succinct summary of the main body of this work.

As with Sweet’s Practical Study (and as I hope the above notes have made clear), Jespersen’s (1901/1904) How to Teach a Language can only be seen as one major contribution among many in the context of a brilliant linguistic career. However, Jespersen, unlike Sweet, had begun this career as a language teaching reformer, had been a school teacher himself, and was to remain not only committed to the reform of school teaching but able to promote it in practice throughout his career, by reason of the prestigious academic status he had gained early on in his life (in this sense, his role in the 1890s and beyond was closer to Viëtor’s than that of Sweet, who had little contact with (future) school teachers). Thus, during the thirty-two years between his appointment in 1893 and his retirement from the University of Copenhagen in 1925 Jespersen was to make ‘an outstanding contribution towards raising the professional level of numerous future teachers of English’ (Sœrensen 1989: 38), indeed, for a generation, all future secondary school teachers of English are said to have been taught by him at the University of Copenhagen (ibid.). Jespersen’s own prior experience as a (part-time) secondary school teacher made him, like Viëtor in Marburg, particularly well-suited to the responsibility of preparing future teachers, and his familiarity with the practical problems of secondary school teaching is clear throughout Sprogundervisning (How to Teach a Foreign Language), which provides a necessary counterweight in this respect to Sweet’s Practical Study.

From the beginning Otto Jespersen had been at the forefront of the Reform Movement in Scandinavia, as Palmgren’s (1887) report makes clear (see also Jespersen’s own early (1887) article on ‘Der neue Sprachunterricht’), and he was to encapsulate his experience of the previous fifteen years in the book Sprogundervisning. In this book, Jespersen advances basically the same principles which he had stated in his 1887 article for Englische Studien, though in greater detail: (1) the importance of spoken language and phonetic transcription as a basis, (2) the importance of connected texts with sensible content and limited vocabulary, and (3) the need for grammatical observation in close connection with the study of texts, though this should be limited to a minimum in the initial stages of learning. In this connection, Jespersen reaffirms his support for the analytic(al) method, or, as he terms it, ‘inventional grammar’ (not approved of by Sweet), which, in his conception, involves students going treasure-hunting in the text for examples on the basis of which they can form grammatical rules for themselves. The text can also be used as a basis for transformational exercises (whereby simple present sentences are transformed to simple past, for example). Jespersen is not against the use of systematic grammatical study, though, especially at later stages. Finally, (4) the role of translation should be severely limited, particularly translation into the foreign language. Instead, students should be engaged in more creative exercises, for example retelling the contents of the text, in their own words.

During his career Jespersen received many honours, including honorary doctor’s degrees from three universities abroad, was a member of many academies and scientific associations, and was Rector of his university for a year (1920–21), but he never ignored the importance of modern language teaching in schools. The effects of this commitment are made clear in the following overall assessment by his close collaborator, Niels Haislund, written in 1943: 'His revolutionary work for the improvement of the teaching of modern languages has had great effects far beyond the boundary of his own country. […] In his opinion scientific work should be done for the sake of mankind, and he has tried to do his share. […]. 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' (Haislund 1943/1966: 157). Although this wish was not to be realized –– Jespersen died in the same year, 1943 –– his example and teachings live on, not least in his Sprogundervisning.


Christophersen, P. 1989. ‘Otto Jespersen’. In Juul and Nielsen 1989. Forster, Peter G. 1982. The Esperanto Movement. The Hague: Mouton.

Franke, Felix. 1884. Die praktische Spracherlernung auf Grund der Psychologie und der Physiologie der Sprache dargestellt. Heilbronn: Henniger.

–––––– 1886. Phrases de tous les jours. Publisher unknown. [As cited by Jespersen in Haislund 1943/1966: 149–50.]

Haislund, Niels. 1943/1966. ‘Otto Jespersen’. Englische Studien 75: 273-83. [Reprinted in Sebeok 1966.]

Howatt, A.P.R. and Richard C. Smith (eds.). 2002. Modern Language Teaching: The Reform Movement (five volumes). London: Routledge.

Kabell, I. 2000. ‘Jespersen and Franke: an academic friendship by correspondence’. Henry Sweet Society Bulletin 35: 27–37.

Jespersen, O. 1884. Praktisk Tilegnelse af fremmede Sprog. [Translation of Franke 1884.] Copenhagen: Larsen.

–––––– 1885. Kortfattet engelsk Grammatik for Tale- og Skriftsproget. Copenhagen: Larsen.

–––––– 1887. ‘Der neue Sprachunterricht’. Englische Studien 10: 412–37.

–––––– 1889a. Fransk Lœsebog efter Lydskriftsmethode. Copenhagen.

–––––– 1889b. The Articulations of Speech Sounds Represented by Means of Analphabetic Symbols. Marburg: Elwert.

–––––– 1894. Progress in Language with Special Reference to English. London: Swann Sonnenschein.

–––––– 1897–99. Fonetik: en systematisk fremstiling af lœren om sproglyd. Copenhagen.

–––––– 1901/1904. How to Teach a Foreign Language. London: Swan Sonnenschein. [Translation by S. Yhlen-Olsen Bertelsen of Sprogundervisning, Copenhagen: Schuboteske Forlag.]

–––––– 1905. The Growth and Structure of the English Language. Leipzig: Teubner.

–––––– 1909–49. A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles, 7 volumes. Heidelberg: Winter.

–––––– 1922. Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin. London: Allen & Unwin.

–––––– 1924. The Philosophy of Grammar. London: Allen & Unwin.

–––––– 1933 Essentials of English Grammar. London: Allen & Unwin.

–––––– 1937 Analytic Syntax: A System of Expressing Grammatical Formulae by Symbols. London: Allen & Unwin.

–––––– 1941. Efficiency in Linguistic Change. Copenhagen: Munksgaard.

–––––– and Christian Sarauw. 1895. Engelsk Begynderbog. Copenhagen.

Palmgren, F. 1887. ‘Verhandlungen zur Reform des Sprachunterrichts auf der dritten nordischen Philologenversammlung zu Stockholm 10–13 August 1886’. Englische Studien 10: 335–52.

Passy, Paul. 1886a. Le français parlé. Morceaux choisis à l’usage des étrangers avec la prononciation figurée. Heilbronn: Henninger.

–––––– 1887b. Le phonétisme au congrès philologique de Stockholm en 1886. Rapport présenté au Ministre de l’instruction publique. Paris: Delagrave & Hachette.

Sœrensen, K. 1989 'The teaching of English in Denmark and Otto Jespersen', in Juul and Nielsen 1989.

Storm, J. 1879. Engelsk Filologi, I: Det levende Sprog. Christiania: Cammermeyer. [Translated into German (1881) as Englische Philologie, I: Die lebende Sprache, Heilbronn: Henninger.]

Sweet, Henry. 1877a. A Handbook of Phonetics, Including a Popular Exposition of the Principles of Spelling Reform. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

–––––– 1885b. Elementarbuch des gesprochenen Englisch (Grammatik, Texte und Glossar). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Viëtor, Wilhelm. 1879. Englische Schulgrammatik, I. Leipzig: Teubner.

–––––– 1882. Der Sprachunterricht muss umkehren! Ein Beitrag zur Überbürdungsfrage. Heilbronn: Henninger [Published under the pseudonym ‘Quousque Tandem’.]


The above essay by Richard C. Smith (uploaded here in 2007) is adapted from Introductions to different volumes in Howatt and Smith 2002. Details of Jespersen’s life and career here are derived mainly from Haislund (1943/1966), Hjelmslev (1942–43/1966), Nielsen (1989) and Sœrensen (1989). See also Jespersen’s (1938/1995) autobiography.