Rasmus Rask

Rasmus Rask
Born Rasmus Christian Nielsen Rasch
(1787-11-22)November 22, 1787
Brændekilde, Denmark
Died November 14, 1832(1832-11-14) (aged 44)
Copenhagen, Denmark
Cause of death Tuberculosis
Nationality Danish
Academic background
Alma mater University of Copenhagen
Academic work
Discipline Linguistics, Philology
Sub discipline Historical linguistics
Comparative linguistics

Rasmus Kristian Rask (Danish: [ˈʁɑsmus ˈkʰʁæsd̥jan ˈʁɑsɡ̊]; born Rasmus Christian Nielsen Rasch;[1] sometimes rendered as Erasmus Rask; 22 November 1787 – 14 November 1832) was a Danish linguist and philologist. He wrote several grammars and worked on comparative phonology and morphology. Rask traveled extensively to study languages, first to Iceland, where he wrote the first grammar of Icelandic, and later to Russia, Persia, India, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Shortly before his death, he was hired as professor of Eastern languages at the University of Copenhagen. Rask is especially known for his contributions to comparative linguistics, including an early formulation of what would later be known as Grimm's Law.[1][2]



Rask was born to Niels Hansen Rasch and Birthe Rasmusdatter in the village of Brændekilde near Odense on the Danish island of Funen. His father, a smallholder and tailor, was well-read and had a decently-sized book collection. As a child, Rask's scholastic abilities became apparent, and, in 1801, at the age of thirteen, he was sent to the Latin school in Odense, now known as the Odense Katedralskole. One of his friends from Latin school, Niels Matthias Petersen (1791-1862), who went on to be the first professor of Nordic languages at the University of Copenhagen, later remarked that "His short stature, his lively eyes, the ease with which he moved and jumped over tables and benches, his unusual knowledge, and even his quaint peasant dress, attracted the attention of his fellow students".[1] This is where Rask's interest in Old Norse and Icelandic language and literature was awakened. His teacher, Jochum E. Suhr, loaned him a copy of Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla, and the rector, Ludvig Heiberg, gave him a new translation as a prize for his diligence. By comparing the original work and the translation, he was able to make an Icelandic vocabulary, cross-referencing the Icelandic words with cognates in Danish, Swedish, German, Dutch and English. In addition to Danish and Latin, Rask studied Greek, Hebrew, French and German at Odense. An interest in orthography also led Rask to develop his own spelling system for Danish that more closely resembled its pronunciation, and it was at this time that he changed the spelling of his last name from "Rasch" to "Rask".

University years

In 1808, Rask traveled to Copenhagen to continue his studies at the University of Copenhagen, where he stayed in the Regensen dormitory. Although he was not particularly religious and even had expressed serious doubts, he signed up as a student of theology, although in practice he simply studied the grammar of various languages of his own choosing.[2] By 1812, he had systematically studied everything about Sami, Swedish, Faroese, English, Dutch, Gothic, Old English and Portuguese, and had started studies of German, French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Latin, Russian, Polish and Czech, although Icelandic continued to be his main interest.

In 1809, he finished his first book, the Introduction to the Icelandic or Old Norse Language, which he published in Danish in 1811. It was a didactic grammar based on printed and manuscript materials accumulated by his predecessors in the same field of research. According to Hans Frede Nielsen, the work exceeded anything previously published on the topic.[1]

Prize essay

In 1811, the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters requested a prize essay on the topic of language history. They requested the essay to "use historical critique and fitting examples to illuminate the source whence the old Scandinavian tongue can be most probably derived, to explain the character of the language and the relations that it has had through the middle ages to the Nordic as well as Germanic dialects, and to accurately ascertain the basic tenets upon which all derivation and comparison of these tongues should be constructed."[1]

Rask proposed a trip to Sweden in order to undertake studies of Sami and Finnish to be able to evaluate any possible relation they might have to the Scandinavian languages, and in 1812 he made the trip with his friend Rasmus Nyerup. Upon his return, he was recommended to the Arnamagnæan Institute, which hired him to edit Björn Halldórsson's Icelandic Lexicon (1814), which had long remained in manuscript. Rask visited Iceland, where he remained from 1813 to 1815, mastering the language and familiarizing himself with the literature, manners and customs of Iceland. In 1814, while still in Iceland, he finished his prize essay on the "Investigation of the Origin of the Old Norse or Icelandic Language" (1818), in which he argued that Old Norse was related to the Germanic languages, including Gothic, to the Baltic and Slavic languages, and even to classical Latin and Greek, which he grouped together under the label Thracian. He also argued that the Germanic languages were not related to Basque, Greenlandic, Finnish or the Celtic languages (on this last instance he was wrong, which he later recognized). The academy accepted the essay, although they felt that he could have delved more deeply into comparing Icelandic with Persian and other Asian languages. This made Rask envision a trip to India to undertake further studies of Asian languages, such as Sanskrit, which was already being taught by philologists such as Franz Bopp and Friedrich Schlegel in Germany. In 1814, after returning from Iceland, Rask worked as a sub-librarian at the University of Copenhagen library.[2]

Travel to India and Ceylon

In October 1816, Rask left Denmark on a literary expedition financed by the king to investigate the languages of the East and collect manuscripts for the university library at Copenhagen. He traveled first to Sweden, where he remained two years, and during which time he made an excursion to Finland to study the language. Here he published his Anglo-Saxon Grammar in Swedish in 1817.

In the same year, he published the first complete editions of Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda and Sæmundr fróði's Poetic Edda with the original text printed alongside Swedish translations of both Eddas. In 1819, he left Stockholm for St. Petersburg, where he wrote a paper in German on "The Languages and Literature of Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Finland," published in the sixth volume of the Vienna Jahrbücher. Leaving Russia, he traveled through Central Asia to Persia and stayed for some time in Tabriz, Tehran, Persepolis, and Shiraz. In about six weeks, he is said to have mastered enough Persian to be able to converse freely.

In 1820, he embarked in Bushehr for Bombay, and during his residence there, he wrote, in English, "A Dissertation on the Authenticity of the Zend Language" (1821). From Bombay, he traveled through India to Ceylon, where he arrived in 1822, and soon afterwards wrote, in English, "A Dissertation respecting the best Method of expressing the Sounds of the Indian Languages in European Characters".

Return to Denmark

Rasmus Rask's grave at Assistens Cemetery, Copenhagen. Inscriptions in Arabic, Old Norse, Sanskrit and Danish. Translated to English it reads: "If you wish to become perfect in knowledge, you must learn all the languages, and yet, do not neglect your native tongue or speech."

Rask returned to Copenhagen in May 1823, bringing a considerable number of manuscripts in Persian, Zend, Pali and Sinhalese, with which he enriched the collections of the Danish capital. In 1825, he was hired as a professor of literary history, and in 1829, he was hired as a librarian at the University of Copenhagen. In 1831, just a year before his death, he was hired as professor of Eastern languages.[1][2]

After his return to Denmark, Rask published a Spanish Grammar (1824), a Frisian Grammar (1825), an Essay on Danish Orthography (1826), a Treatise respecting the Ancient Egyptian Chronology (1827), an Italian Grammar (1827), and the Ancient Jewish Chronology previous to Moses (1828). He also published A Grammar of the Danish Language for the use of Englishmen (1830) and oversaw Benjamin Thorpe's English translation of his A Grammar of the Anglo-Saxon Tongue (1830).

Rasmus Rask died of tuberculosis in Copenhagen on 14 November 1832, at Badstuestræde 17, where a plaque commemorating him is found. He is buried in Assistens Cemetery in Copenhagen.[1]


Rask was the first to draw a connection between the ancient Northern and the Western and Eastern Germanic languages, as well as to connect the Lithuanian, Slavonic, Greek and Latin languages. He also formulated the first working version of what would later be known as "Grimm's Law" for the transmutation of consonants in the transition from the old Indo-European languages to Germanic, although he only compared Germanic and Greek, as Sanskrit was unknown to him at the time.

By 1822, he knew twenty-five languages and dialects, and he is believed to have studied twice as many. His numerous philological manuscripts were transferred to the Royal Danish Library at Copenhagen. Rask's Anglo-Saxon, Danish and Icelandic grammars were published in English editions by Benjamin Thorpe, Þorleifur Repp and George Webbe Dasent, respectively. Rask influenced many later linguists, and in particular Karl Verner carried on his inquiries into comparative and historical linguistics.[3][4]



  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Nielsen, Hans Frede (2008). "Rasmus Kristian Rask (1787-1832): Liv og levned" [Rasmus Kristian Rask (1787-1832): His life] (PDF). Rask (in Danish). Syddansk Universitet. 28: 25–42. Retrieved 2 July 2016.
  2. 1 2 3 4 "Rasmus Rask". Leksikon (in Danish). Gyldendal. Retrieved 3 July 2016.
  3. Dodge, D. K. (1897). "Verner Dahlerup: Nekrolog över Karl Verner (book review)". The American Journal of Philology. 18 (1): 91–93. JSTOR 287936.
  4. Antonsen, Elmer H. (1962). "Rasmus Rask and Jacob Grimm: Their Relationship in the Investigation of Germanic Vocalism". Scandinavian Studies. 34 (3): 183–194.


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