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Linguistic Aesthetics from the Nineteenth to the Twentieth Century: The Case of Otto Jespersen’s “Progress in Language”

From the early nineteenth century up until the first half of the twentieth century, many leading scholars in the emerging field of linguistics were occupied with what would today be considered a kind of linguistic typology. The various classifications of languages they proposed were generally intertwined with speculation about the “racial” traits or national mentalities that different language types might represent and their putative value relative to one another. This article investigates these schemes from the perspective of Otto Jespersen’s (1860–1943) theory of “progress in language.” It first shows how Jespersen, inspired by theoretical developments in linguistics and neighboring sciences, inverted the traditional rankings and praised the modern “analytic” European languages over their classical “synthetic” ancestors. It then explores contemporary reactions to Jespersen’s theory and traces the gradual disappearance of language evaluation and related questions from the discipline. Charles Bally (1865–1947) receives special attention for his nuanced critique of Jespersen’s position, which casts unique light on linguistic ideology in the period that saw the birth of structuralism in its different varieties.