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Four Great Danish Linguists – How They Influenced Each Other and the World

Andet forskningsprojekt | 23/04/2018

The great Danish linguists presented here have reflected intensely on the change and diversification of language, and their works have had consequences for the principles of Danish orthography, for what we mean by Danish, and for how we (also internationally) understand the relationship between different languages and different stages of a language.

By Professor Emeritus Hans Basbøll, Department of Language and Communication, University of Southern Denmark

Why does language change? Why are languages different? Why do youngsters not speak like their parents? Why are there different dialects, e.g. in Denmark, and why is the situation not stable? How different is the spoken and written language, and how should we spell? 

These questions are important, but the answers are not simple. Today we have Dansk Sprognævn – the official Danish Language Council – but its role is limited outside the written standard (the orthography): there is no official normalisation of the spoken language. 

The great Danish linguists presented here have reflected intensely on such issues, and their works have had consequences for the principles of Danish orthography, for what we mean by Danish, and for how we (also internationally) understand the relationship between different languages and different stages of a language.

Rasmus Rask (1787–1832). He discovered Rask-Grimm's Law (1814/1818), wrote pioneering grammars based upon his own system, founded Scandinavian philology and laid the foundation for later reforms of Danish orthography. He is the only foreigner pictured on an Icelandic stamp.

Rasmus Rask (1787–1832). He discovered Rask-Grimm's Law (1814/1818), wrote pioneering grammars based upon his own system, founded Scandinavian philology and laid the foundation for later reforms of Danish orthography. He is the only foreigner pictured on an Icelandic stamp.

Rasmus Rask is generally considered the Greatest Danish linguist ever. He was admired for his work on comparative linguistics, and he wrote important grammars including descriptions of languages that were virtually undescribed. 

Rask recognised Høysgaard's decisive influence on his work. As it is well known, Karl Verner was heavily influenced by Rask, but he also owed a lot to Høysgaard, in particular with respect to prosody, a key competence of Verner's.

Finally, although Louis Hjelmslev was not directly influenced by Høysgaard, he knew Rask's work extremely well – having edited his books, articles, manuscripts and letters – and admired him. 

Hjelmslev emphasised Rask's importance not as a historical linguist, but rather as a typologist and a structuralist grammarian, and particularly in the latter domain, Rask was influenced by Høysgaard.

Rasmus Rask (1787–1832)

Rasmus Rask studied languages intensely being just a school boy. For instance, he learnt Icelandic himself and taught it to his school-mates. Later on, he virtually founded the study of Nordic languages and was also a pioneer in describing numerous other language systems.

Already as a boy, Rask knew and studied several of Høysgaard's works, and he was influenced both by Høysgaard's grammatical system and by his analyses of prosody. In a description of his own Funish dialect, Rask employed a Høysgaard-like prosodic notation, and he continued to be occupied with prosodic distinctions.

In his largest published work (1826), on Danish orthography, Rask praised Høysgaard highly, and in most respects followed his system (e.g. by not writing aa but a single letter, to-day written å, for the single vowel sound in sål 'sole'). 

However, like Høysgaard, Rask was controversial: The Royal Danish Academy rejected to publish his works if he continued to insist on using his own "bizarre" orthography, which he did!

Jens Høysgaard (1698–1773)

Jens Høysgaard's (1698–1773) anonymous Concordia res parvæ crescunt (1743) where he discovered the Danish stød. He gave the first analysis of the Danish vowel system, analysed the Danish prosody and wrote two important grammars (1747, 1752). Høysgaard was a university caretaker and later bell-ringer.

Jens Pedersen Høysgaard was  the great Danish linguist of the Enlightenment. He was a caretaker (the third out of three) at University of Copenhagen  in 1737–1759 and subsequently a sacristan and bell-ringer at The Trinity Church. Very little is known about his life, and even though he is considered the greatest Danish linguist before Rasmus Rask, there exists no pictures of him.

His works on the Danish language were published anonymously, whereas two small works on mathematics (on algebraic quadrature and integral calculus) were in his own name. 

In 1743 (in Concordia res parvæ crescunt), he presented the first linguistic analysis ever of the Danish stød, and he developed this analysis further in (1747) and (1769) where he also presented a coherent – and utterly original – analysis of Danish prosody. 

These two latter works, together with his 500-page treatise on syntax (1752), constitute a comprehensive integrated analysis (of almost 800 pages) of the Danish language – far superior to anything prior to it – organised in 2,022 consecutively numbered paragraphs.

Karl Verner (1846–1896)

Karl Verner (1846–1896). His claim to world fame was his 1875/1877 paper on an exception (Verner's Law) to the sound shift Rask-Grimm's Law. He was busy with accents and tones (prosody) throughout his career, and he even built an instrument for phonometric investigations.

Karl Verner is famous for having discovered Verner's Law. Already as a teenager, he had interesting reflections on the relation between spoken language – in different dialects with e.g. tonal differences – and the writing taught in school. 

In his twenties, he did important fieldwork on Slavonic dialects, in particular on their prosody in relation to their evolution. 

That was an area that occupied Verner throughout his career.

Through his letters (1903) we can follow how he studied Høysgaard's works intensely, and he registered the very many word accents – for Danish stød and vowel length – which Høysgaard had indicated in his writing. 

Unfortunately, Verner did not publish anything from his planned studies on Danish stød and Scandinavian tones, except for an important review (1881) of the Swedish scholar Axel Kock's studies of Swedish accent (1878).

Louis Hjelmslev (1899–1965)

Louis Hjelmslev (1899–1965). Professor of comparative linguistics at Copenhagen University from 1937. Together with Hans J. Uldall (1907–1957) he founded Glossematics, an important theory of structuralist linguistics. Hjelmslev was the leading figure of the Cercle linguistique de Copenhague.

In the mid 20th century Glossematics was the dominant linguistic theory in Denmark and the best known Danish contribution to structural linguistics internationally. Louis Hjelmslev was generally considered the leading Danish linguist.

He had published important books on general grammar (1928), a dissertation on Baltic (1932), on case (1935-37), and Prolegomena to a Theory of Language (Danish 1943). His influence was strong through the Cercle linguistique de Copenhague.  

Hjelmslev's most important analysis of the sound side of language was his "Outline of the Danish expression system with particular reference to the stød" (1948).

It had profound impact on Danish dialectology: with Poul Andersen (1901–1985) as the central figure, an original tradition of structuralist descriptions of Danish dialects, strongly influenced by Glossematics, flourished in the middle of the century. Poul Andersen also acknowledged his debt to Høysgaard and Rask.

Life and Work Compared of these Four Great Danish Linguists

Common to Høysgaard, Rask and Verner is that they had no regular university career, as opposed to Louis Hjelmslev. Høysgaard and Rask never completed a higher university degree, whereas Verner took his degree in Slavonic very hesitantly. 

Høysgaard never had a position with the possibility of teaching at a university – but as a researcher, he was second to none. Rask and Verner obtained a salaried professorship late in life, whereas Hjelmslev got the most prestigious chair of linguistics in Denmark already in his thirties.

Høysgaard lived in a family (three marriages) and seemed to have good order in his finances. He had a long life, in contradistinction to Verner, and in particular to Rask. Both Rask and Verner’s health suffered from their poor lives as travelers and unstable family conditions: They practically lived alone, without wives, partners and children. Hjelmslev, on the other hand, had one stable marriage all his life.

Glossematics is the linguistic theory developed by Hjelmslev (right) and Uldall (left) around 1935-1943. Glossematics emphasizes the formal side of language – rather than its "substance", whether sound or meaning – with logical relations, and is immanent, discarding psychological and other "external" factors.


Rask was incredibly productive and broad; he was also, like Høysgaard, a great grammarian, which Verner was not. But Verner was – like Høysgaard – a great phonetician, and he also – like Høysgaard – studied mathematics seriously. 

Høysgaard, Rask and Verner all emphasised the importance of studying spoken language, also in their reflections on orthography.

Rask and Verner are world-famous due to the dominance of diachronic points of view on language in the 19th century. 

Hjelmslev is famous for his contributions to structural linguistics, and he emphasised the aspects of Rask's work that he saw as connected to his own version of structuralism. 

Rask's double competence, both as a founder of comparative Indo-European linguistics and as a pioneer of structuralism, may explain why he is generally considered the greatest Danish linguist ever.

Hans Basbøll about the Grant from the Carlsberg Foundation

The grant from the Carlsberg Foundation supported my participation in three international meetings where I presented papers on evolutions in the science of language (linguistics), focusing on four great Danish linguists. 

Three of them are famous in the international scientific community – Rasmus Rask, Karl Verner and Louis Hjelmslev – while the oldest one, Jens Høysgaard, is practically unknown. But in fact, he had a strong influence on Rask and Verner and shaped their view of language.

Language has, and should have, a central role in the discussions of Danish identity in a modern rapidly changing world, and this question, in different historical contexts, was important for the great Danish linguists (and for the international linguistic community as well). 

The grant also financed my participation in an international network on first language acquisition, investigating how infants and children learn their mother tongue. This work can contribute to a knowledge-basis so that the many resources used on language in Danish child institutions can be based upon facts.

Peer Reviewed Papers

Basbøll, Hans. 2018. Chapter Two. The discovery of Danish phonology and prosodic morphology: from the third university caretaker Jens P. Høysgaard (1743) to the 19th century. The Meaning of Language (ed. Hans Götzsche). Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 17-45.

Basbøll, Hans (under revision). Chapter 15. Developments in Northern and Western Europe: Glossematics and beyond. The Oxford Handbook of the History of Phonology (eds. Elan Dresher & Harry van der Hulst). Oxford University Press.

Basbøll, Hans. 2017. Glossematikken i dansk fonologi – og nogle linjer i dansk sprogvidenskabs historie. 16. Møde om Udforskningen af Dansk Sprog (eds. Inger Schoonderbeek Hansen, Tina Thode Hougaard & Kathrine Thisted Petersen). Århus. 39-56.

Other Relevant Papers in Scientific Journals and Newspapers

Hovdhaugen, Even, Fred Karlsson, Carol Henriksen & Bengt Sigurd. 2000. The History of Linguistics in the Nordic Countries. Jyväskylä: Societas Scientiarum Fennica.


The picture of Louis Hjelmslev is from the archive of the Royal Danish Academy and the picture of the author is from his webpage. The other pictures are reproduced from Dansk Sproghistorie 1. Dansk tager form (eds. Ebba Hjorth et al., 2016), pp. 194, 282, 53 and 63, with permission from Det Danske Sprog- og Litteraturselskab and Aarhus Universitetsforlag.