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LINGUIST List 25.529

Sat Feb 01 2014

Review: Historical Linguistics: Rask (2013)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <monicalinguistlist.org>

Date: 27-Sep-2013
From: Angela Andreani <angela.andreanigmail.com>
Subject: Investigation of the Origin of the Old Norse or Icelandic Language
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/24/24-2017.html

AUTHOR: Rasmus Rask
INTRODUCTION BY: Frans Gregersen
TITLE: Investigation of the Origin of the Old Norse or Icelandic Language
SUBTITLE: New edition of the 1993 English translation by Niels Ege
SERIES TITLE: Amsterdam Classics in Linguistics, 1800–1925 18
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Angela Andreani, Università degli Studi di Torino


The volume presents Niels Ege’s 1993 English translation of Rasmus Rask’s 1818 prize-winning essay “Undersøgelse om det gamle Nordiske eller Islandske Sprogs Oprindelse”. Based on the definitive 1932 Danish edition of Rask’s “Undersøgelse”, Ege’s “Investigation of the Origin of the Old Norse or Icelandic Language” is the only full translation of the work available to non-Danish speakers. The new edition of the translation, appearing in the Amsterdam Classics in Linguistics series, is complemented by Frans Gregersen’s substantial introduction.

Section 1 of the introduction defines the scope and purpose of the new edition. The publication history of Rask’s essay is outlined, and the circumstances which limited its readership to the Danish-speaking world are taken into account.

Section 2 is dedicated to Rask’s career from his early years as a student in Odense to his voyages in Iceland and South Asia, and to the difficult path towards permanent professorship after his return to Denmark in 1832. The account traces the development of Rask’s interest in Old Norse, the definition of his scholarly aim, and, importantly, it also reconstructs the scholar’s network of intellectual and professional connections, as well as the early 19th century Danish academic milieu.

In section 3, Gregersen focuses on the genesis and publication of Rask’s essay and examines the question posed by the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters on June 10, 1810: “To investigate, by means of historical criticism, and to illustrate with appropriate examples, from what source the ancient Scandinavian language can most correctly be derived [...]” (p. xxxi).

Finally, section 4 is dedicated to the translator, Niels Ege, one of Hjelmslev’s most gifted students in the 1940s, professor of linguistics at the University of Copenhagen starting in 1965, and professional code-breaker for the Defense Intelligence Service until his death in 2003.

Following the editorial introduction, the volume presents a photographic reprint of Ege’s translation prefaced by a Translator’s Note, which includes Ege’s presentation of his work, its genesis, and a commentary on Rask’s style and terminology.

The translation is based on the definitive edition of the essay published in 1932 by Hjelmslev, and reference to the page numbers in the original Danish text are provided in square brackets throughout the text. The essay itself is organised into three chapters laying out the foundation of language analysis as a science.

The first chapter, “On Etymology in General” (pp. 11-53), examines the concept, subdivisions and uses of etymology and its relevance to the comparative study of languages, underscoring its applications at both lexical and grammatical (morphological and syntactic) levels.

The second chapter, “On Icelandic and the Gothic class of languages” (pp. 54-69), describes the structure of Icelandic and discusses the characteristics of the Germanic languages by comparing Icelandic, Anglo-Saxon, Mesogothic, High German, Plattdeutsch and Dutch.

The third chapter is “On the source of the Gothic languages, esp. Icelandic” (pp. 70-289). Rask’s comparative analysis takes into account Greenlandic, Celtic, Basque, Finnic, Slavic, Lettic, Thracian and the Asiatic languages, concluding that among the Thracian languages, Greek must be counted as the “nearest and true clear source of our ancient language” (p. 288).


By providing an authoritative new edition of one of the original sources of modern linguistics, the volume makes a hugely useful resource for the investigation of the early beginnings of Indo-European scholarship . Together with Markey’s 1976 edition of Dasent’s 1843 translation of Rask’s other important work on Icelandic, “A Grammar of the Icelandic or Old Norse Tongue”, it also significantly complements our understanding of the contribution given by the Danish scholar to the development of the comparative historical study of Indo-European languages.

The book gives access to the full text of Rask’s essay in its English translation, on which Ege, a Danish scholar in linguistics himself, worked for about three decades. By laying down the foundations of language analysis as a science, Rask deals with important theoretical and methodological implications that will make the essay a rewarding read for linguists in general.

In the thoroughly researched introductory section, Gregersen stresses Rask’s pioneering intellectual profile in the comparative historical study of Indo-European languages by combining epistolary and biographical sources (see “References. B. Secondary Sources”, p. xliii), and by including a brief yet informative assessment of Rask’s position in the history of Danish linguistics. The wealth of sources is conflated into a vivid portrait of the scholar and his voyages, highlighting Rask’s enduring search for “the acquaintance of men who had studied the local language, or indeed any language,” thus making his travels “a truly linguistic expedition” (p. xxi).

The close examination of the genesis, evaluation and publication history of the 1818 essay are a further virtue of Gregersen’s introduction, which addresses such significant themes as to what extent the formulation of the question announced by the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences might have influenced the structure of Rask’s work. Interestingly, he points out that while the question indeed imposed Icelandic as the pivot for comparison, this in fact perfectly suited Rask’s own research approach, “having Icelandic as the core around which he built his successive raids into foreign territory” (p. xxxiii). Furthermore, advancing the discussion on the origin and wording of the essay question published in Hjelmslev’s 1932 edition, Gregersen identifies the Academy members who signed the document and reconstructs the intellectual milieu in which it originated.

The comprehensive account of Rask’s historical and intellectual context provided by the editorial introduction is complemented by the brief yet significant Translator’s Notes, offering readers an interesting glimpse into Rask’s own language and terminology, through poignant observations and a learned discussion of the translation problems encountered. For instance, Ege underscores the scholar’s penchant for “Danish words (or Danish-loan translations from German)” (p. lii), which gave the original text that “air of purism”(p. lii) which was regretfully impossible to transpose into English. Thus, this section points at new research directions in the study of Rasmus Rask’s language and style, while it raises significant issues pertaining to its translation.

Both the introduction and the Translator’s Note contribute to enhance the significance of Rask’s work, while allowing appreciation of the essay as a whole. For instance, in Rask’s own introduction to his study, the reader can readily identify significant echoes of the essence of early Indo-European scholarship, concerned with the origins of language and with language viewed as the key means to access the knowledge lying beyond the limits of human memory: “Within one generation a people may change its religion, customs, conventions, laws and institutions [...] but throughout these vicissitudes language endures continuously, if not exactly the same, still quite recognizable” (pp. 6-7). Furthermore, the essay makes invaluable reading for historical linguists too, since, while it lays down the theoretical and methodological implications of language analysis, it provides the earliest formulation of the system of principles underlying the comparative historical study of languages: the observation of special rules for the “shifts of individual letters” (p. 48), and, famously, the relation between the Icelandic, Greek and Latin obstruents; the distinction between the theoretical and applied aspects of linguistics; and the development of a system of principles to establish the historical relatedness of languages.

The volume is enriched by the presentation of such material as the image of the original manuscript of the question signed by the four members of the Historical Class of the Academy, and the full transcript of the evaluation of the essay. An account of the vicissitudes of the copies of Ege’s 1993 English translation notably contextualises their serendipitous survival.

To conclude, Gregersen’s excellent and clear introduction, Niels Ege’s notes on the original Danish text and the rich body of sources and materials presented will make the volume an illuminating resource for both specialists and students in the field of language sciences.


Hjelmslev, Louis (ed.). 1932. Rasmus Rask. Udvalgte Afhandlinger. Vol. 1. København: Levin & Munksgaard.

Markey, Thomas (ed.). 1976. Rasmus Rask. A Grammar of the Icelandic or Old Norse Tongue. Translated by sir George Webbe Dasent. (Amsterdam Classics in Linguistics, 1800-1925, 2). Amsterdam / Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.


Angela Andreani is a postdoc at the University of Turin, where she works on lexicography and corpus linguistics. Her research interests include philology, historical linguistics and early Indo-European scholarship.

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