Otto Jespersen

To read the linguistic philosophy in Tolkien’s stories we need a guide to linguistic philosophy as it was when he wrote. While I am not sure how far he can take us, we can certainly take our first steps with the Danish linguist Otto Jespersen (1860-1943).

In this post I introduce Jespersen; in the sequel I will show what the first chapter of his Philosophy of Grammar (1924) brings to a reading of the dialogue between Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins in the first chapter of The Hobbit.

Jespersen spearheaded some fundamental changes in the early twentieth-century study of language. His Progress in Language (1891) overturned the nineteenth-century historical evaluation of the Classical inflexional languages Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit as the pinnacle of linguistic development – from which their modern European descendants have ‘degenerated.’ Formulating the basic perspective that language is a human activity requiring energy and attention, he argued that the development of language is always towards more efficient forms of expression. His new vision of the history of language provides the starting-point of Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction (1928):

Mr. Jespersen, in his Progress in Language, builds argument upon argument to prove that the historical development of language is indeed ‘progressive’ and not a kind of falling away from grace, as his predecessors held. These arguments are absolutely convincing and require no comment, as long as we remember that, to the author, ‘progress’ in the history of consciousness does not merely include, but is synonymous with an increasing ability to think abstract thoughts. This fact grows more and more apparent as one reads on, until at last one realizes that, where Coleridge failed, Mr. Jespersen has succeeded in ‘taming down his mind to think poetry a sport or an occupation for idle hours’. (100-101)

Poetic Diction is essentially an attempt to fit a theory of metaphorical meaning into Jespersen’s progressive vision of the evolution of language from ultimate synthetic expressions (‘semantic unities’) to modern analytical language (in which, says Barfield, metaphors capture something of the original words).

Much later, our inquiry will join up with Barfield’s supplement to Jespersen’s first book. For the moment, however, we are concerned with Jespersen’s later Philosophy of Grammar, which outlines the basic grounds of his evolutionary perspective by treating grammar from the two points of view of a conversation: speaker and hearer. His first chapter begins:

The essence of language is human activity – activity on the part of one individual to make himself understood by another, and activity on the part of that other to understand what was in the mind of the first. (17)

Here is laid out one version of the turn from historical comparison and reconstruction to acts of communication that was taken by linguistic science in the early twentieth century. Tolkien speaks of this turn in his essay On Fairy-stories:

…with regard to language it seems to me that the essential quality and aptitudes of a given language in a given moment is both more important to seize and far more difficult to make explicit than its linear history. (OFS 39)

At the basis of any history of language, from conjectured or mythical origins, through the oldest surviving records of written language and down to our own day, we are to imagine a communication between speaker and hearer. Barfield never took this step – Poetic Diction draws the history of language in terms of the perceptions and conceptions of mind in the abstract. But some of Tolkien’s finest craftsmanship follows this modus operandi: Gandalf and Bilbo, Gollum and Bilbo, Galadriel and Frodo…

The Meaning of Meaning, published the same year as Poetic Diction, begins with communication. But where Jespersen sees linguistic communication as an activity, Ogden and Richards see language as an instrument of communication.

But language, though often spoken of as a medium of communication, is best regarded as an instrument; and all instruments are extensions, or refinements, of our sense-organs. The telescope, the telephone, the microscope, the microphone, and the galvanometer are, like the monocle or the eye itself, capable of distorting, that is, of introducing new relevant members into the contexts of our signs. … But in photography it is not uncommon for effects due to the processes of manipulation to be mistaken by amateurs for features of the objects depicted. Some of these effects have been exploited by experts so as greatly to exercise the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his friends. (98)

Ogden and Richards refer to the notorious case of the Cottingely Fairies photographs, which in 1920 the author of Sherlock Holmes published as evidence of fairies. Their analogy suggests that language throws up symbolic fictions that (caught in the myth of word magic in which words are taken as evidence of things) we believe real. More generally, their whole approach to communication is that of the practical engineer. Their method of definition, designed to secure symbols by a referent, amounts to a user manual to aid effective and efficient usage of the machinery of language.

Jespersen gives us not only a more philologically subtle analysis but also a humane perspective on language as a human activity involving a movement between habit and creative expression. In their Preface, Ogden and Richards complain that even “so well-informed an authority as [Otto] Jespersen” hardly touches “the central problem of meaning, or the relations of thought and language” (vi). They appear not to have opened The Philosophy of Grammar, which is conceived around the fundamental idea that the act of communication must be viewed from two sides:

…any linguistic phenomenon may be regarded either from without or from within, either from the outward form or from the inner meaning. (33)

This translates into a dual view on language: considered on the one side as a movement from meaning to symbol, accomplished by a Speaker, and on the other as a relationship between expression and its meaning, as understood by a Hearer.

I am certainly not saying that Tolkien’s linguistic philosophy can be reduced to that of Jespersen. Tolkien was certainly sympathetic to Barfield’s complaint that the Dane had overlooked poetic meaning and his 1932 letter to the British Esperantist dismisses Jespersen’s invented language Novial as a factory-made language of spare parts.

What I am saying is that Tolkien’s approach to meaning also begins with the idea of a conversation between Speaker and Hearer and that Jespersen’s Philosophy of Grammar provides a working theory by which we may approach The Hobbit – and with good sense and a lot of luck, pass through the ‘word magic’ of The Meaning of Meaning and eventually emerge in the House of Tom Bombadil.

In my next post we will see what Jespersen may teach us about Bilbo Baggins’s initial turns of phrase and what Gandalf does with them.

2 thoughts on “Otto Jespersen

  1. Sue Bridgwater

    Jespersen was the first linguist I ever read, but only one of his books and that in the 1960’s – I need to go back and read it again, and read all the others. It’s good that the vast amount of probing we are doing these days into Tolkien’s contexts, milieu, sources and resonances, to list but a few, is shedding light on the development of ideas in so many disciplines. Off to the web to find copies, I’m sure Jespersen must be out of copyright by now?

    1. simon Post author

      Most (not all) of Jespersen’s works are out of copyright:https://archive.org/search.php?query=otto%20jespersen.

      British intellectual life before WWII (especially at Oxford and Cambridge, due to their college system) was not yet beset by the modern regime of disciplines and specialization. Consequently, the only way to understand someone like Tolkien is to approach him from what today looks like the perspectives of many disciplines (but to him was perhaps simply an exercise in thinking about things of interest).

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