Otto Jespersen (July 16, 1860-April 30, 1943) was a Danish linguist who specialized in the grammar of the English language. He was born in Randers in northern Jutland and attended Copenhagen University, earning degrees in English, French, and Latin. He also studied linguistics at Oxford.
Jespersen was a professor of English at Copenhagen University from 1893 to 1925. Along with Paul Passy, he was a founder of the International Phonetic Association. He was an vocal supporter and active developer of artificial international languages such as Esperanto. He was also involved in the delegation that created the artificial language Ido and later developed the Novial language, which he considered an improvement.
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 a 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. His Modern English Grammar concentrated on morphology and syntax. His Growth and Structure of the English Language is a comprehensive view of English by someone with another native language, and still in print, over 60 years after his death and nearly 100 years after publication.
More than once Otto Jespersen was invited to the U.S. as a guest lecturer, and 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.”
- 1905: Growth and Structure of the English Language (ISBN 0226398773)
- 1909ff: A Modern English Grammar (in seven volumes; the title should be understood as 'A grammar of Modern English') (ISBN 0064933180)
- 1922: Language: Its Nature, Development, and Origin (ISBN 0044000073)
- 1924: The Philosophy of Grammar (ISBN 0226398811)
- 1928: An International Language (the introduction of the Novial language)
- 1930: Novial Lexike Novial to English, French and German dictionary.
- 1938: En sprogmands levned, Copenhagen, Jespersen's autobiography
- 1995: A Linguist's Life: an English translation of Otto Jespersen's autobiography ... edited by Arne Juul [et al.]. Odense, 1995. (ISBN 8778381320)