Tag Archives: Otto Jespersen

on the glories of English


It is organic. It is unstructured and unregulated. It has developed naturally. It seems to a native speaker such as myself unequaled in its richness, by which I mean to say the variety of source languages — such as the Germanic and French — out of which it grew, and its astonishing richness of vocabulary.

— Roger W. Smith



“The learned among the French will own that the comprehensiveness of expression is a glory in which the English tongue not only equals, but excels it neighbours.

“… it really is the noblest and most comprehensive of all the vulgar languages of the world.”

— Daniel Defoe, “Of Academies,” An Essay Upon Projects (1697)


NOTE: By “vulgar,” Defoe meant the word not in the sense commonly used today, but a commonly spoken tongue — as opposed to a language such as Latin, which was used at his time for scholarly writing and discourse.



“Viewed freely, the English language is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time, and is the culling and composition of all. From this point of view, it stands for Language in the largest sense, and is really the greatest of studies. It involves so much; is indeed a sort of universal absorber, combiner, and conqueror. The scope of its etymologies is the scope not only of man and civilization, but the history of Nature in all departments, and of the organic Universe, brought up to date; for all are comprehended in words, and their backgrounds. This is when words become vitalized, and stand for things, as they unerringly and very soon come to do; in the mind that enters on the study with fitting sprit, grasp, and appreciation.”

— Walt Whitman, “Slang in America,” North American Review, November 1855


“The English language befriends the grand American expression … it is brawny enough and limber and full enough.”

– Walt Whitman, Preface to Leaves of Grass


“What would you name as the best inheritance America receives from all the processes and combinations, time out of mind, of the art of man? One bequest there is that subordinates any perfection of politics, erudition, science, metaphysics, inventions, poems, the judiciary, printing, steam-power, mails, architecture, or what not. This is the English language—so long in growing, so sturdy and fluent, so appropriate to our America and the genius of its inhabitants.

“The English language is by far the noblest now spoken – probably ever spoken – upon this earth. It is the speech for orators and poets, the speech for the household, for business, for liberty, and for common sense. It is, indeed, as characterized by Grimm, the German scholar, ‘a universal language, with whose richness, sound sense, and flexibility, those of none other can for a moment be compared.’ ”

— Walt Whitman, “America’s Mightiest Inheritance” (an article published in the magazine Life Illustrated, April 12, 1856)


“Never will I allude to the English Language or tongue without exultation. This is the tongue that spurns laws, as the greatest tongue must. It is the most capacious vital tongue of all—full of ease, definiteness and power—full of sustenance.—An enormous treasure-house, or range of treasure houses, arsenals, granary, chock full with so many contributions from the north and from the south, from Scandinavia, from Greece and Rome—from Spaniards, Italians and the French,—that its own sturdy home-dated Angles-bred words have long been outnumbered by the foreigners whom they lead—which is all good enough, and indeed must be.—America owes immeasurable respect and love to the past, and to many ancestries, for many inheritances—but of all that America has received from the past, from the mothers and fathers of laws, arts, letters, &c., by far the greatest inheritance is the English Language—so long in growing—so fitted.”

— Walt Whitman, “An American Primer”



“[T]he English [language] is like an English park, which is laid out seemingly without any definite plan, and in which you are allowed to walk everywhere according to your fancy without having to fear a stern keeper of rigorous regulations. The English language would not have been what it is if the English had not been for centuries great respecters of the liberties of each individual and if everybody had not been free to strike out new paths for himself.”

— Otto Jespersen, Growth and Structure of the English Language (1905)


— posted by Roger W. Smith

   October 2017; updated August 2018



Addendum: Such statements should not be taken for granted. Comments I have received on at least two of my recent posts

Brummagem (more thoughts about language policing)


an exchange about political correctness, pedagogy, and LANGUAGE

show that some, perhaps many, of my readers do not necessarily have a sensitivity to or appreciation of the fact that language is organic or of the magnificence of the English language as it has evolved.