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Louis Hjelmslev

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Louis Hjelmslev (October 3, 1899 - May 30, 1965) was a Danish linguist whose ideas formed the basis of the Copenhagen School of linguistics. Born into an academic family, Hjelmslev studied comparative linguistics in Copenhagen, Prague and Paris (with a.o. Antoine Meillet and Joseph Vendryes). In 1931, he helped to found the Cercle Linguistique de Copenhague. Together with Hans-Jørgen Uldall he developed a new theory on language, coining the word Glossematik (in English, glossematics; the word was partially derived from the Greek "glossa" which means "tongue" or "language").

The Linguistic Circle of CopenhagenEdit

The Linguistic Circle of Copenhagen was founded by Hjelmslev and a group of Danish colleagues on 24 September 1931. Their main inspiration was the Prague Linguistic Circle, which had been founded in 1926. It was in the first place a forum for discussion of theoretical and methodological problems of linguistics. Initially, their interest lay mainly in developing an alternative concept of the phoneme, but it later developed into a complete theory which was coined glossematics, and was notably influenced by structuralism. Membership of the group grew rapidly and a significant list of publications resulted, including an irregular series of larger works under the name Travaux du Cercle Linguistique de Copenhague. A Bulletin was produced, followed by an international journal for structuralistic research in language, Acta Linguistica (later called Acta Linguistica Hafniensia), which was founded with the members of the Prague Linguistic Circle. It was, at that time, the sole journal explicitly dedicated to structuralism. With one short break from 1934 to 1937, while he lectured at the university of Aarhus, Hjelmslev acted as chairman of the Circle until shortly before his death in 1965.

His theoretical workEdit

Hjelmslev published his first paper at the age of 25. His first major book, Principes de grammaire générale, which he finished in 1928, is an invaluable source for anyone interested in Hjelmslev's work. During the 1930s Hjelmslev wrote another book, La catégorie des cas, which was a major contribution to linguistics. In this book, Hjelmslev analysed the general category of case in detail, providing ample empirical material supporting his hypotheses. It is important to read Hjelmslev's work as a continuous evolving theory on the epistemology of linguistics.

His most well-known book, Omkring sprogteoriens grundlæggelse, or in English translation, Prolegomena to a Theory of Language, first published in 1943, critiques the then-prevailing methodologies in linguistics as being descriptive and not systematising. He proposed a linguistic theory intended to form the basis of a more rational linguistics and a contribution to general epistemology. Like Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), he accepted language as a system of signs, from the point of view of language use. However, from the point of view of the linguist, language has to viewed as a system of figurae or ultimate small units.

In Hjelmslev's analysis, a sign is a function between two forms, a content form and an expression form, and this is the starting point of linguistic analysis. However, every sign function is also manifested by two substances: the content substance and the expression substance. The content substance is the psychological and conceptual manifestation of the sign. The expression substance is the material substance wherein a sign is manifested. This substance can be sound, as is the case for most known languages, but it can be any material support whatsoever, for instance, hand movements, as is the case for sign languages.

Hjelmslev also referred to purport as a non-linguistic element in his calculus of language, i.e. a level of connotation independent of linguistic form.

In short, Hjelmslev was proposing an open-ended, scientific method of analysis as a new semiotics. In proposing this, he was reacting against the conventional view in phonetics that sounds should be the focus of enquiry. This begins a more serious philosophical tradition. When an individual's ear detects sound waves, a cognitive process begins to translate the waveforms into meaningful data. Similarly, when the eye receives light carrying data about the world, it must be interpreted. Hjelmslev reacted against the notion that images had to be translated into a phonetic "substance" or a concretely perceived object in order to be understood.

Although some have interpreted his work as if Hjelmslev argued that no sign can be interpreted unless it is contextualised -- treating his functives, expression and content as the general connotative mechanisms (for instance by Algirdas Julius Greimas) -- for Hjelmslev the point of view of the linguist on meaning is that of the form of content. Even if the content substance is important, one has to analyse it from the point of view of the form. Not only do pictures and literature manifest the same organising principles, but, more broadly, seeing and hearing must be taken to be identical on a deeper level.


Hjelmslev made a bold proposal to transform technical analysis into a broad enquiry, emphasising that the true focus of linguistics should be the language and the human culture that continually reinvents it, and all society's memory of its accumulated knowledge preserved through language. This was a challenging but constructive argument at the time, and remains one that still has relevance today. Most conspicuously, Hjelmslev's lines of inquiry have been taken up by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (see the "Postulates of Linguistics" chapter of A Thousand Plateaus), and subsequently their followers.


  • Hjelmslev, Louis (1928). Principes de grammaire générale. Copenhague: Bianco Lundo.
  • Hjelmslev, Louis (1935/37). Catégorie des cas (2 volumes). Acta Jutlandica VII, IX.
  • Hjelmslev, Louis (1953[1943]). Prolegomena to a Theory of Language. Baltimore: Indiana University Publications in Anthropology and Linguistics (IJAL Memoir, 7) (2nd OD (slightly rev.): Madison: Univ. Of Wisconsin Press, 1961. Dt.: Hjelmslev 1974.
  • Hjelmslev, Louis (1975). Resumé of a Theory of Language. Travaux du Cercle linguistique de Copenhague, vol. XVI. Copenhague: Nordisk Sprog- og Kulturforlag.

Authors on Louis HjelmslevEdit

  • Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
  • Siertsema, Bertha. 1965. A study of glossematics. Critical Survey of its fundamental concepts (2nd rev. edition). Den Haag: Martinus Nijhoff.
  • Rasmussen, Michael. 1992. Hjelmslev sprogteori. Glossematikken i videnskabshistorisk, videnskabsteoretisk og erkendelsesteoretisk perspektiv. Odense: Odense Universitetsforlag
  • Badir, Sémir. 2000. Hjelmslev. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.
  • Derrida, Jacques. "Of Grammatology" Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

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