Rasmus Christian Rask Biography: Pioneer of Comparative Linguistics and Multilingual Exploration


Who was Rasmus Christian Rask? Explore the remarkable life and contributions of Rasmus Rask, a Danish philologist born in 1787. From his early education at the Katedralskole in Odense to groundbreaking linguistic research, extensive travels through Europe and Asia, and a significant legacy in Germanic philology, delve into the achievements of this influential figure.

Rasmus Christian Rask

Rasmus Christian Rask; Danish philologist: b. Braendekilde, Fyn, Denmark, Nov. 22, 1787; d. Copenhagen, Nov. 14, 1832.

He was educated at the Katedralskole in Odense. His father wanted him to become a pastor, but his interests lay in philology, and he found a sympathetic supporter in the literary historian Rasmus Nyerup (1759-1829), whom he helped with the translation of the Snorra Edda (1808). In 1811 he published his first independent work, an introduction to Icelandic entitled Vejledning til det islandske eller gamle nordtske sprog. His research on the origin of Icelandic, conducted in Iceland in 1813-1815, was embodied in his greatest work, Unders0gelse om det gamle nordtske eller islandske sprogs oprindelse (1818). From 1816 to 1823 he traveled through European Russia, the Caucasus, Persia, India, and Ceylon, collecting more than 50 valuable manuscripts and much data on languages. Meanwhile, in 1817, he published in Stockholm Angelsaksisk sproglaere (Eng. tr., A Grammar of the Anglo-Saxon Tongue, 1830) ; and in Colombo in 1821, Singalesisk skriftlaere, in which he proposed a system for the romantization of the Dravidian languages. Among his later works are Spanish (1824), Frisian (1825), Italian (1827), Danish (1830), and Lapp (1832) grammars; Egyptian (1827) and Hebrew (1828) chronologies; and Om Zendspfogets og Zendavestas aelde og aegthed (1826; On the Antiquity and Genuineness of the Zend Tongue and Zend-Avesta).

In 1826, Rask declined an appointment in Edinburgh for patriotic reasons. When finally, in 1831, he was named professor of Oriental languages at the University of Copenhagen, he was so exhausted by his strenuous travels and studies that he remarked: “I fear it is too late.” He died the next year. With Jacob Grimm, he can be considered a founder of Germanic philology.


Travel to India and Ceylon

In October 1816, Rask embarked on a literary expedition sponsored by the Danish monarchy to explore Asian languages and amass manuscripts for the University of Copenhagen library. Initially journeying to Sweden, he spent two years there. Amid his stay, he made a brief excursion to Finland for the study of the Finnish language, and he published his Anglo-Saxon Grammar (1817) in Swedish.

During the same year, he released the inaugural complete editions of Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda. These editions were bilingual, presenting the original Icelandic text alongside Rask’s Swedish translations. In 1819, he departed from Stockholm to St. Petersburg, Russia, where he composed the paper titled “The Languages and Literature of Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and Finland.” This work was published in German within the sixth volume of the Vienna Jahrbücher. After leaving Russia, Rask traversed Central Asia to Persia, residing in Tabriz, Tehran, Persepolis, and Shiraz. Remarkably, within about six weeks, he reportedly achieved fluency in Persian, enabling him to converse effortlessly.

In 1820, he journeyed from Bushehr, Persia to Mumbai, India (then known as Bombay). During his stay in Mumbai, he authored “A Dissertation on the Authenticity of the Zend Language” (1821) in English. Subsequently, he traversed India, arriving in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1822. Shortly thereafter, he composed “A Dissertation respecting the best Method of expressing the Sounds of the Indian Languages in European Characters” in English.

Return to Denmark

Returning to Copenhagen in May 1823, Rask brought back a substantial collection of manuscripts in Persian, Zend, Pali, and Sinhala for the libraries in Copenhagen. His contributions enhanced the scholarly resources available in Denmark. In 1825, Rask attained the position of a professor of literary history, and by 1829, he assumed the role of a librarian at the University of Copenhagen. In a significant development in 1831, merely a year before his passing, he was honored with the appointment as a professor of Eastern languages at the University of Copenhagen.

Following his repatriation, Rask continued his prolific scholarly output. Notable publications during this period included his Spanish Grammar (1824), Frisian Grammar (1825), Essay on Danish Orthography (1826), Treatise respecting the Ancient Egyptian Chronology (1827), Italian Grammar (1827), and Ancient Jewish Chronology previous to Moses (1828). Additionally, he released A Grammar of the Danish Language for the use of Englishmen in 1830 and supervised the English translation by Benjamin Thorpe of his A Grammar of the Anglo-Saxon Tongue, also published in 1830. Rask’s enduring contributions to linguistics and literature persisted until his passing.


In 1832, Rasmus Rask succumbed to tuberculosis in Copenhagen, passing away at Badstuestræde 17. A commemorative plaque at this location honors his memory. His final resting place is at Assistens Cemetery in Copenhagen, where he was laid to rest. In a testament to his scholarly legacy, Rask bequeathed his manuscripts to his brother. Notably, the Old Norse-Icelandic materials among his possessions were later sold to the Arnamagnæan Commission in Copenhagen, where they remain housed to this day.


Rasmus Rask played a pioneering role in establishing the connections between ancient Northern Germanic languages and their counterparts in the Western and Eastern Germanic language groups. Additionally, he demonstrated their relationships with Lithuanian, Slavonic, Greek, and Latin languages. Notably, he formulated an early version of what would later become known as “Grimm’s Law,” outlining the changes in consonants during the transition from ancient Indo-European languages to Germanic ones. It’s worth noting that his comparison primarily involved Germanic and Greek, as he was not acquainted with Sanskrit at the time.


By the year 1822, Rask had a command of twenty-five languages and dialects, and it is believed that he delved into the study of twice as many. His extensive collection of philological manuscripts found a home in the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen. Furthermore, Rask’s grammars for Anglo-Saxon, Danish, and Icelandic were later published in English editions by Benjamin Thorpe, Þorleifur Repp, and George Webbe Dasent, respectively. Rask’s influence extended to many subsequent linguists, with Karl Verner, in particular, continuing his explorations in comparative and historical linguistics.

Leave A Reply