Otto Jespersen and progress in international language

James McElvenny
University of Sydney

When it comes to expressing the ideas of our own day, the deficiencies of classical Latin appear with ruthless clarity: telephones and motor-cars and wireless have no room in Ciceronian Latin, and it will be of little use to coin Neolatin words for these and other inventions, for the whole structure of the language with its intricate forms and complex syntax, which tempts the writer to twisted sentences, has become so utterly antiquated that we of the twentieth century wince at the idea of having to clothe our thoughts in that garb.
(Jespersen 1928:19)

Otto Jespersen

Otto Jespersen (immediate source: University of Warwick)

These are the words with which Danish linguist Otto Jespersen (1860–1943) rejected contemporary proposals to revive Latin as a language of international communication. Overcoming the curse of Babel was a problem that greatly exercised Jespersen, as it did numerous other scholars, scientists and enthusiastic amateurs in this period. Jespersen’s eventual solution, NOVIAL (Nov [= new] International Auxiliary Language; Jespersen 1928:52), was a design for a new, constructed language, optimised for ease of learning and efficiency in expression, the embodiment of his well-known views on ‘Progress in language’.1

The search for an international language was a matter of widespread interest from the beginning of the 1880s to the end of the Second World War. The 1880s saw the rapid rise and fall of Volapük, the first major modern international language, which in the 1890s was superseded by Esperanto, a language that would achieve much greater success in both spread and longevity. Between them, Volapük and Esperanto established the pattern for much of what followed.2 There was a need felt for a medium of international communication, to facilitate contacts between the nations of the world, whose affairs were becoming increasingly intermeshed through trade, industry and science, but not without friction. It was generally accepted that this medium would have to be a constructed language: an existing language would only arouse national jealousies. But above all, so thought many in this age of technological marvels, a constructed language would surely improve on the obvious deficiencies of those that had evolved naturally.

Before his first engagement with the international language problem, Jespersen had already elaborated his views on ‘Progress in language’, as the 1894 English translation of his doctoral dissertation, originally in Danish, was titled. He claimed that language change leads inevitably to increased linguistic efficiency, a theory that he maintained throughout his career (Jespersen 1941 returned to this topic). Language change, argued Jespersen, is driven by the often conflicting pressures on speakers to maximise the ‘ease’ of articulating their thoughts while at the same time maintaining ‘distinctness’ in their expression. These pressures operate both on the purely phonetic level of articulation and auditory perception as well as on the conceptual level of grammar and lexis (Jespersen 1941:15-16).3

A key sign of linguistic progress in European languages, according to Jespersen, is the development from ‘synthetic’ to ‘analytic’ grammars: the loss of inflection and corresponding increasing reliance on syntax.4 Treating this trend as ‘progress’ was a new fashion within nineteenth-century European language study. Up until that time the prevailing judgement was to see the highly inflecting classical Indo-European languages — Sanskrit, Greek and Latin — as the height of linguistic development. But for Jespersen (1894:14) the ‘so-called full and rich forms of the ancient languages are not a beauty but a deformity’. ‘In language,’ he argued, ‘analysis means suppleness, and synthesis means rigidity’ (Jespersen 1894:25-26).5 Analysis allows the speaker to express themselves naturally, as they wish; synthesis, by contrast, forces the speaker to fit their expression to complex and arbitrary inherited forms.

But this new attitude to analytic structures in language was clearly gaining ground, especially among those interested in finding the optimal linguistic forms for the modern world. The American Philosophical Society, in their 1888 assessment of Volapük, rejected the language because its extensive repertoire of nominal and verbal inflections rendered it overly synthetic and out of touch with the development of the modern European languages:

Volapük is synthetic and complex ; all modern dialects become more and more analytic and grammatically simple ; the formal elements of Volapük are those long since discarded and outgrown by Aryan speech [… Volapük] seems to us a distinct retrogression in linguistic progress.
(Brinton et al. 1888:12)

This same period saw the rise of logicism, a movement that sought to demonstrate the reducibility of all mathematics to logical principles (see Grattan-Guinness 2000). The major technical advances facilitating this effort were new logical notations that revealed the underlying structure of propositions by expressing them in analytic formalisms composed of atomic operators and variables. Many of these logicians were also language constructors. To mention some of the most prominent names: the Italian mathematician Giuseppe Peano (1858–1932) was both a pioneer of what is now known as first-order logic and the inventor of the language project Latino sine Flexione (‘Latin without inflections’; see Peano 1903; Barandovská-Frank 2003), while the French mathematician Louis Couturat (1868–1914) was both a well-known logicist and one of the instigators of the Délégation pour l’adoption d’une langue auxiliaire internationale. Established in 1901, this was an officially sanctioned scientific body aimed at offering the definitive answer to the international language question.

Couturat led the committee that handed down the Délégation’s final decision, a committee whose members also included Jespersen, along with Peano and the linguists Jan Baudouin de Courtenay (1845–1929) and Hugo Schuchardt (1842–1927). The decision fell in favour of Esperanto, provided some revisions were made to its grammar, intended to make the language more ‘logical’ (see, e.g., Couturat 1910[1909]). These were rejected by the broader Esperanto movement, and the committee’s proposals eventually became the independent project Ido. Ido proved not to be the definitive solution that had been hoped for: in the following years new international language projects continued to proliferate. Jespersen soon joined them with his NOVIAL.

As might be expected, Jespersen’s proposal pares down much of the morphological machinery of preceding constructed languages, but it does not eliminate it entirely. Morphology marks number and natural gender on nouns, and some tenses, moods and aspects on verbs; alongside this are various forms of derivation (see Jespersen 1928:88-149). These are categories that typically find morphological expression in the major European languages and which Jespersen recognised as being salient and significant, as opposed to the redundant, pedantic vestiges of past grammatical ornamentation that cases, person marking and so on represent. In carrying over forms already established in the principal European languages, he was aiming to ease the way of future speakers, who would find waiting for them familiar grammatical tools of languages already mastered. His preference was for an a posteriori language, one based largely on material drawn from existing languages, rather than an a priori language, one built around a philosophical scheme, to use the terms of classification typically employed in the international language movement (see Moch 1897:44; Leau and Couturat 1903:xxvii-xxviii; Blanke 1985:100-103).

A preference for a posteriori forms and structures was becoming increasingly prevalent among language constructors. In his role as head of linguistic research at the International Auxiliary Language Association (IALA), a foundation established 1924 to attempt once again what the Délégation had failed to do, the American linguist Edward Sapir (1884–1939) came to the conclusion that (see also Falk 1995; part II of 1999):

[S]o far as the logical structure of a language is concerned, we are perhaps not at the end of our researches. [… W]e, who are fashioning Occidental culture[,] have been using certain useful linguistic tools. These tools vary from place to place, but by and large are remarkable similar. [… W]hy not use the common bond of experience which is implicit in the use of all these tools in a simplified and regularized form?
(Sapir 1929:17-18)

But the a posteriori path leads not only to ease for learners. According to Jespersen’s progress theory, natural languages should already be heading towards optimal forms. All the language constructor would have to do is take advantage of this natural tendency. This is the conclusion reached, without explicit reference to Jespersen, by the English scholar C.K. Ogden (1889–1957). His proposed international language, Basic English, was simply a controlled subset of the English national language.6 English, argued Ogden, was in the grip of an advanced ‘analytic tendency’ and was ‘the most adaptable language the world has yet seen’ (Ogden 1931:28): international language enthusiasts need not concern themselves with fashioning the most efficient forms when English already provides them.

Such a position entails the abnegation of linguistic neutrality, one of the dearest principles of the mainstream international language movement. Despite being a confirmed Anglophile (see, e.g., Jespersen 1930:2-16), Jespersen could not countenance such a chauvinistic elevation of English.


1 Jespersen’s theory of ‘Progress in language’ has already been mentioned on this blog in a post by Kennosuke Ezawa.

2 There are numerous histories of the international language movement and surveys of international language projects with varying degrees of discussion of their historical background. It must be noted that most of these histories were written by active participants in the movement and so tend to be partisan: the line between propaganda and scholarly research is frequently unclear. The best examples include Couturat and Leau (1903; 1907), Guérard (1922), the annotated bibliography Stojan (1929), and Pei (1968[1958]). Among more recent scholarly studies are the survey Blanke (1985); the historical studies Forster (1982) and Lins (1988), which look at various aspects of the Esperanto movement; and Haupenthal (2005), which offers a contrastive examination of the beginnings of the Volapük and Esperanto movements. Two recent popular accounts of the history of constructed languages — including, to varying degrees, the modern international language movement — are Large (1985) and Eco (1995[1993]). Unfortunately, the scholarship presented in both these books is rather derivative and in many respects limited (see the reviews Tonkin 1988; Maat 1999). See chapter 4 of Blanke (2006) and the accompanying bibliography for an up-to-date guide to the interlinguistic literature.

3 Jespersen (1941:66-78) also saw ‘aesthetic feeling’ as a force driving language change. His notions of ‘ease’ and ‘distinctness’ should perhaps be compared to Gabelentz’ (1901[1891]:181-185) Bequemlichkeitsbedürfniss and Deutlichkeitsbedürfniss.

4 See Morpurgo-Davies (1975) for a comprehensive account of linguistic typology in the nineteenth century, including the use and history of the terms analytic and synthetic.

5 Jespersen (1894) targets the German comparative grammarian August Schleicher (1821–1861) as the most extreme example of the grammarians who admired the classical languages while despising their modern descendants. See Morpurgo-Davies (1975) and Koerner (1989[1983]) for further discussion.

6 Ogden published several grammars, guides and dictionaries of Basic English. The key works are collected in edited form in the posthumous volume Ogden (1968).


Barandovská-Frank, Veřa K. 2003. De Latino sine Flexione Centenario, ein Jahrhundert Latino sine Flexione. Berlin: Institut für Kybernetik.

Blanke, Detlev. 1985. Internationale Plansprachen: eine Einführung. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag.

—-. 2006. Interlinguistische Beiträge: zum Wesen und zur Funktion internationaler Plansprachen. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

Brinton, D.G., Henry Phillips, Jr., and Monroe B. Snyder. 1888. ‘Report of the committee appointed October 21, 1887, to examine into the scientific value of Volapük’. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 25:127.3-17. (Available on

Couturat, Louis. 1910[1909]. ‘On the application of logic to the problem of an international
language’, in Louis Couturat, Otto Jespersen, Richard Lorenz, Wilhelm Ostwald and Leopold Pfaundler International Language and Science, 42-52. London: Constable and Company. (Available on

Couturat, Louis and Léopold Leau. 1903. Histoire de la Langue Universelle. Paris: Hachette. (Available on

—-. 1907. Les Nouvelles Langues Internationales. Paris: Hachette.

Eco, Umberto. 1995[1993]. The Search for the Perfect Language. Oxford: Blackwell. (Trans. by James Fentress of Ricerca della Lingua Perfetta nella Cultura Europea. Rome: Edizione Laterza.)

Forster, Peter G. 1982. The Esperanto Movement. The Hague: Mouton.

Grattan-Guinness, Ivor. 2000. The Search for Mathematical Roots, 1870–1940. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Guérard, Albert Léon. 1922. A Short History of the International Language Movement. London: T. Fisher Unwin.

Haupenthal, Reinhard. 2005. Über die Startbedingungen zweier Plansprachen: Schleyers Volapük (1879/80) und Zamenhofs Esperanto (1887). Schliengen: Edition Iltis.

Jespersen, Otto. 1894. Progress in Language. London: S. Sonnenschein. (Available on

—-. 1928. International Language. London: Allen and Unwin.

—-.1930. Growth and Structure of the English Language, 6th edition. Oxford: Blackwell.

—-. 1941. Efficiency in Linguistic Change. Copenhagen: Ejnar Munksgaard. (Reproduced in Jespersen, Otto. 1962. Selected Writings of Otto Jespersen, 381-466. London: Allen and Unwin.)

Koerner, E.F.K. 1989. ‘August Schleicher and linguistic science in the second half of the nineteenth century’, in Koerner, ed., Practicing Linguistic Historiography, 325-375. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Large, J. Andrew. 1985. The Artificial Language Movement. Oxford: Blackwell.

Lins, Ulrich. 1988. Die gefährliche Sprache: die Verfolgung der Esperantisten unter Hitler und Stalin. Gerlingen: Bleicher Verlag.

Maat, Jaap. Review of Eco (1995[1993]). Semiotica 126:1/4.121-142.

Morpurgo-Davies, Anne. 1975. ‘Language classification in the nineteenth century’, in Thomas A. Sebeok, ed., Current Trends in Linguistics: historiography of linguistics, 607-716. The Hague: Mouton.

Ogden, Charles K. 1931. Debabelization. London: Kegan Paul.

—-. 1968. Basic English: international second language, prepared by E.C. Graham. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Peano, Giuseppe. 1903. ‘De Latino sine Flexione’. Revue des Mathématiques 8:3.74-83.

Pei, Mario. 1968[1958]. One Language for the World. New York: Devin-Adair.

—. 1929. ‘Foundations of language’. International Auxiliary Language Association in the United States, Inc.: Annual Meeting, May 19, 1930, 16-18. New York: IALA.

Stojan, P.E. 1929. Bibliografio de Internacia Lingvo. Geneva: Bibliografio Servo de Universala Esperanto-Asocio.

Tonkin, Humphrey. 1988. Review of Large (1985). Language in society 17:2.282-287.

How to cite this post

McElvenny, James. ‘Otto Jespersen and progress in international language’. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, History, Linguistics
10 comments on “Otto Jespersen and progress in international language
  1. nickriemer says:

    Good to see all this very interesting stuff together in such a concise form, James. Just one question: as far logicism is concerned, how far does the analytic/synthetic distinction really makes sense? What would count as a “synthetic” way of doing logic?

    • James McElvenny says:

      Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure there has to be a ‘synthetic’ way of doing logic for my point about the language constructors who were also logicists to be valid. The claim is simply that the formalisms they developed in logic, which relied only on atomic operators and variables in different syntactic arrangements, had the same character as ‘analytic’ languages. That analytic languages resembled the new logical notations in this respect may have impressed the logicist language constructors and those they worked with.

  2. Ken Ezawa says:

    Man gelangt von zwei verschiedenen Themen, Sprachprodukt und Sprachforschung, ausgehend beim selben Begriffspaar “analytisches und synthetisches Verfahren” (Schleicher: analytische und synthetische Sprachen, Gabelentz: analytische und synthetische Grammatik). Ein analytisches Sprachprodukt ist leichter handhabbar, ein synthetisches dagegen schwerer. Ein komplexes Gebilde wie den Satz bewältigt man aber wissenschaftlich eher synthetisch, vom Inhalt ausgehend nach Formen suchend, nicht umgekehrt. Um ein komplexes Gebilde zu erfassen, hilft schließlich offenbar nur Nachbilden und Selbstschaffen statt Zergliedern und Erkennen. Kennosuke Ezawa, Berlin

    • James McElvenny says:

      The pair of terms ‘analytic’ and ‘synthetic’ is indeed very interesting, and I would like to find out more about it. As you say, Schleicher’s sense (which goes back to A.W. Schlegel) refers to the formal properties of a language, while Gabelentz’ ‘analytic’ and ‘synthetic’ grammars refer to approaches in studying languages. Interestingly, Gabelentz’ ‘synthetic’ grammar was first developed to describe Chinese, long considered the analytic language (in the Schleicherian sense) par excellence. (More precisely: Chinese was considered the ‘isolating’ language par excellence, since analytic/synthetic applied only to historical developments within the inflecting group of languages.)

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  4. elenavil says:

    Thanks for a very interesting post and useful links, James! Do you think that now the discussion about artificial international language is closed (since English is taking its role) or there could be some more alternatives?

    • James McElvenny says:

      I think it’s undeniable that English today has the sort of international status that many people in the period 1880-1945 wanted for a constructed international auxiliary language. Whether this is a good or bad state of affairs is a separate issue. Phillipson (1992) gives some well-known arguments for why it might be bad and how it is probably the result of deliberate self-serving policy.

      However, Esperanto, for one, lives on, although it is maintained by a small number of enthusiasts and has little mainstream influence. For example, the EU last year rejected a ‘European Citizens’ Initiative’ to sing the EU anthem in Esperanto.

      Scholarly research into planned international auxiliary languages continues as well. A fine example here is the Gesellschaft für Interlinguistik, based in Berlin.

      Phillipson, Robert. 1992. Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

      • Well, as Louis Hjelmslev said: Language wants to be overlooked. AFAIK, no English-speaking nation ever had a formulated language policy, and at least the USA doesn’t even have a ministry of culture. If people generally had a habit of looking closer at language, and at the relationships between language and other phenomena, no government could be as self-serving as the norm is today.

  5. Thanks for this very interesting paper. It might be of interest to note that Bloomfield expressed similar views on a progress toward more analyticity, in his “Introduction to the Study of Language” (1914). For example, he says (p.254) that “it is certain that we find in all languages a constant diminution of the unanalyzed content of single words, a lessening of cross-reference, congruence, and government in favor of explicit discursive expression, or, to look at the same thing from another point of view, a growing constancy in the form of words, as opposed to morphologic variation.” I suspect considerations like these played a role in his later emphasis on immediate constituents.
    Bloomfield refers to Jespersen’s Progress in Language in his paper “Sentence and Word” (1914, p.72), in a passage that construes analysis in terms of apperceptive processes (ie the successive conscious focussing on sentential elements).
    All of these views were in accordance with his (then) psychological theory that language structure proceeds from the decomposition of a total experience (i.e.. the Gesamtvorstellung of Wundt).
    This only confirms what you said, “this new attitude to analytic structures in language was clearly gaining ground.”

  6. […] McElvenny, James. 2013. Otto Jespersen and progress in international language. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences, blog collectif, […]

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