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Event - Rebooting Glossematics

Event - Rebooting Glossematics

For the past four years, a small group of researchers and IT specialists from University of Copenhagen and Aarhus University have worked together to digitize and make available the letters and documents that a group of Danish linguists have left for the Royal Library. The group that left letters and documents for posterity, as individuals and together, stood for the original Danish contribution to the international trend called structuralism. Its main character is Louis Hjelmslev (1899-1965), but the group includes several names that were both well-known and recognized at the time: Paul Diderichsen (1905-1964) and Eli Fischer-Jørgensen (1911-2010) are probably the best known now.

The project is coming to an end. It is presented and discussed at this conference with the title Rebooting Glossematics ((the last word is the name of the theory Hjelmslev created). The discussion is about whether we can learn more from this heroic period of Danish linguistics than we have already done? Can we reboot glossematics?

Rebooting glossematics: PROGRAM

Day one: 29th of November, at the Royal Academy, H.C. Andersen’s Boulevard 35, 1553, København V, Gamle Mødesal

13.00: Welcome greeting

13.10-13.30: Henrik Jørgensen, Lorenzo Cigana and Frans Gregersen: By way of introduction: The INFRASTRUCTURALISM project and its result, the glossematics.dk webpage; the aim of this seminar thanks to Ulla and Børge Andersen

13.30-13.50: Una Canger: Why and how a glossematic analysis of Mam

Abstract: In 1969 I wrote a description of the Mayan language Mam under the supervision of Francis J. Whitfield and based on my reading of Hjelmslev’s Prolegomena to a Theory of Language and of the then unpublished Résumé of a Theory of Language. This article is a presentation of the project and an assessment of it from today’s view, 50 years later.

13.50-14.10: Lorenzo Cigana: On procedure and discovery procedures in glossematics.

Abstract: In inquiring about what a rebooting of glossematic entails, we will focus on the theory in its constituting an algorithm, or “procedure”, devised by Hjelmslev in the Résumé (1975) and talked through with Hans Jørgen Uldall all along the Thirties and early Forties. We will outline its general framework with particular attention to the few applications glossematics had over the years (Canger 1969, Mortensen 1969), trying to identify the conditions of its implementation and thus bringing out strengths and shortcomings. We will make special reference to some key steps: 1) the very idea of a blind, step-by-step operation as opposed to the concept of “discovery procedure” (OSG, p. 17, § 6; “Noter”, p. 115), and its consequences on the theory itself; 2) the interaction between syntax and morphology, 3) the specific set of rules for the identification of formal basic features (glossemes).

14.10-14.40: Discussion

14.40-15.00: COFFEE AND TEA

15.00-15.20: Viggo Bank Jensen: From Hjelmslev to Coseriu: On the tripartite division of the language system

15.20-15.40: Amin Shakeri (and Sémir Badir): The Last Glossematic Conference: A Rich Source of Comparison with American Structuralism.

Abstract: The idea of rebooting Glossematics – the rigorous and demanding structural theory (also addressed as a “science”, an “epistemology”, or a “meta-theory”) which often discourages today’s readers from approaching – calls for comparative investigation on historical, epistemological, theoretical and technical level. Coincidentally, Hjelmslev himself provided a theoretical comparison in his last major contribution: the series of lectures “Glossematics and Contemporary Linguistic Theory” delivered at the University of Texas in 1961.

In our talk, we will discuss the (unpublished) transcription of these lectures, setting a particular emphasis on the references made by Hjelmslev to contemporary American linguistics. After sketching a presentation of the material under study, we will discuss the limits of the comparison between “structural” linguistic theories. Next, while introducing the American linguists referred to in these lectures, we will consider the affinities that Hjelmslev recognized between their ideas and his own – where “immediate constituent” is the most distinguished.  Finally, we will examine the critical points of such approaches, as highlighted by Hjelmslev himself. These shortcomings may be classified under four themes: 1. distributionalism, 2. syntacticism, 3. dismissal of content-form, 4. problem of substance (phonological definition of expression-form). Finally, we will highlight the advantages that this source holds for further comparisons of Glossematics with current theoretical approaches.

15.40-16.00: Discussion

16.00-16.20: Peter Harder: Glossematics: The basic flaw and the inspiring ideas.

Abstract: Hjelmslev’s thinking has not lost its power to fascinate, long after the linguistic mainstream has moved on. This makes the question that is raised by this conference pertinent: Is it possible, by reassessing the impressive abandoned ruins, to uncover something that can be given renewed relevance?

                     In this talk I will try to demonstrate why I think it is not possible to revive the project in its canonical form. Roughly speaking, the fundamental problem is that Hjelmslev assumed that it was form that constituted the basic property, and substance properties were secondary. He assumed that the alternative to a theory based on form would be an ‘a priori’ approach to language description, in which categories were recruited outside language – as in the ‘notional’ approach of the grammatical tradition. 

                     However, this assumption introduces a false polarity. There is a third option, which is to view the categories of language itself as something that is superimposed on pre-existing categories based in the world that is outside of, or prior to language. This differs from a purely a priori approach, but at the same time it permits linguistic theory to include categories that are not based on language itself. 

                     This third possibility still has some difficulties in getting widely recognized in present-day discussions about the role and significance of structure in language, which is one motivation for recurring polemics between formally and functionally oriented linguists (cf. Harder 2013).

                     A discussion predicated on this basic conception may allow aspects of glossematics to enrich linguistics also today. It might also cast new light on the question of how to rethink the ultimate integration of linguistics and theories about the non-linguistic world that also on the glossematic agenda, both for Hjelmslev and Uldall (cf Cigana fc).


Cigana, L.(forthcoming), “Beyond linguistic languages. Glossematics and the origins of connotation”, in Gregersen, F. & Cigana L. (eds.), Structuralism as one – structuralism as many. Studies in Structuralisms, Copenhagen, Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab. 

Harder, P. 2013. Structure and Function: A Niche-Constructional Approach, in Bischoff, S. T. & Jany, C. (eds.):  Functional Approaches to Language. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, p. 71-106

16.20-16.40: Lars Heltoft: Cliticization as a morphologically and topologically determined phenomenon: reflexive pronouns in Danish.

Ledstilling regnes normalt ikke med til grammatikaliseringsparametrene (Sun & Traugott 2011, men er snarere et epifænomen til grammatikalisering. Klitisering forstås således på baggrund af den næsten altid forudsatte grammatikaliseringsskala fra frit leksem til affiks. (Det omvendte findes, jf.  Frotscher & Mailhammer (2021): Oldgræsk ortotont (hé) (akkusativ, fra enklitisk *swe).

                     Nordgermanske medialformer på -sk eller -s (fra enklitisk *sik/*sis i refleksivkonstruktion) er et klassisk eksempel på denne form for grammatikalisering, men den fulde refleksivform sik og dens efterfølgere bevaredes som alternativ. Medialformen på -sk/-s havde tre hovedfunktioner: refleksiv, reciprok og intransitiv, med passiv som en senere udvidelse.

                     Jeg vil fokusere på hvorledes det refleksive pronomen og den refleksive funktion senere udvikler sig. I nutidsdansk har det fulde refleksive pronomen i 3sg/pl formen sig selv; den fungerer som objekt og som nominalt led i katatagmer mellem Præposition og Nominal.  Derimod er det refleksive sig en medial form (Kemmer 1993, Hvilshøj ). Formen sig er 3sg/pl og er i paradigme med former for 1p og 2p i sg og pl der i udtrykket er identiske med de såkaldte personlige pronomener. På sjusket vis regner man ofte refleksiverne som et vedhæng til de personlige pronomener. Mere forkert kan det dårligt være, for de har ikke samme syntaktiske funktion og topologi som de personlige pronomener.

                     Det er hovedpointen i det følgende at vise at refleksive pronomener er klitiske, men ikke i morfologisk forstand. De er klitiske i den betydning at de er bundet til en anden konstituent i sætningen  og dermed låst med hensyn til position. De kan med andre ord ikke flyttes.

                     Ældre dansk. Medialformen -s mister sin refleksive betydning i sen middeldansk og ældre nydansk. Refleksiv betydning udtrykkes nu udelukkende gennem det refleksive pronomen (reciprok og intransitiv funktion er blevet uproduktive). Former som gemm-es kan ikke længere betyde ‘gemme sig’, ’skjule sig’ (sml. ældre dansk fluerne gemmes ved ovnen ‘fluerne gemmer sig ved ovnen’; sætt-es ikke længere ’sætte sig (ned)’; nutidigt dansk gemme sig, sætte sig). I modsætning til græsk sker denne vending kun på indholdsplanet, bortset fra at refleksiver i modsætning til personlige pronomener ikke kan have fuldtryk. I denne ældre periode kan refleksiverne som de personlige pronomener stå forskellige steder i sætningen, i øvrigt efter regler der svarer mere til middeldansk end til det moderne sprog.

                     Nyere dansk. Klitika kan have syntaktiske konstituenter som vært, fx reanalysen af genitiv i skandinaviske sprog og engelsk som klitikon til en nominalhelhed (the late Queen of England’s favourite castle). I dansk er anaforiske objektpronomener og anaforiske stedsadverbialer klitika til neksusleddet mellem finit og subjekt, enten som proklitika eller enklitika.

(1) oher [bor vi]  stadigvæk                                  (2) [Vi bor] oher  stadigvæk

Det foranstillede proklitikon i (1) udfylder en position i topologien, ligesom det personlige pronomen vi i (2). Denne udfyldning signalerer deklarativ sætningsramme. Klitiske personpronomener er således topologisk intakte. Derimod har refleksive pronomener tabt deres topologiske funktion og de er aldrig en del af en ledstillingskontrast. Overbevisende eksempler er refleksiver i tetiske konstruktioner med der/her, hvor objektpladsen er besat med argument 1 (indholdssubjektet). Denne pronominale opdeling i refleksive pronomener og personalpronomener overses ofte (se fx Vikner 2005).

         (3)       Der        vil        vise sig     en ny stjerne   på himmelen

Lignende eksempler på tab af topologisk funktion findes i oldfransk hvor systemet er V2, med den præcisering at atoniske varianter af de personlige pronomener ikke kan indtage en selvstændig position.

         (4)  [Avez li] (V + atonisk dativ) vos (subj) son pere ne son frere tué?

            har    ham.D                               I                   hans far eller hans bror dræbt?

   Buridant § 587

Sådanne ledstillingsbårne klitika kan udmærket være på kanten til at skifte til univerbering og dermed til morfologisk klise. Danske refleksive pronomener kan kun være topologisk enklitiske og er dermed klart topologisk forskellige fra anaforiske personpronomener.

Denne kontrast viser at topologien er et selvstændigt grammatikaliseringsområde.


Buridant, Claude. 2000. Grammaire nouvelle de l’ancien français. Sedes.

Frotscher, Michael & Robert Mailhammer. 2021. Workshop introduction for ICHL 25.

Hvilshøj, Ulrik. 1999. Refleksivitet i dansk. Sig og sig selv i et typologisk perspektiv. [Reflexivity in Danish. Sig and sig selv in a typological perspective]. Ny Forskning i Grammatik 6, 81-106.

Kemmer, Suzanne. 1993. The Middle Voice. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Luraghi, Silvia. 2011. Clitics. In Silvia Luraghi & Claudia Parodi (eds.), The Bloomsbury Companion to Syntax. 165-193. London: Bloomsbury.

Sun, Chaofen & Elizabeth Traugott. 2011. Grammaticalization and Word Order Change. In Heiko Narroq & Bernd Heine (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Grammaticalization. 378-388. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vikner, Sten. 2005. Object Shift. In Henk van Riemsdijk & Martin Everaert (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Syntax. 392-436. Oxford: Blackwell.

16.40-17.30: Discussion

17.30-18.30: Film presentation: Una Canger and Jacob Mey on Hjelmslev’s heritage.


Day two, 30th of November, at the University of Copenhagen, Southern Campus, room 15A.0.13

9.00-9.20: Frans Gregersen: On morphology, the Hjelmslevian approach and the sentence scheme.

Abstract: In Louis Hjelmslev’s contribution to the 4th Congress of Linguists, arranged on his home turf at the University of Copenhagen in 1936, we get a universal theory of the central grammatical morphemes of any linguistic structure, i.e. case/person and diathesis; comparison/emphasis; number and gender/aspect and tense; article and mode. The first mentioned of the category pairs are the nominal ones, the second of the pairs the verbal ones.

Now this may be taken as an empirical hypothesis that these categories are sufficient in number and sufficiently well described to be taken as the basis for any grammatical description. But in this paper we will rather take the stance that this line of thinking combining nominal and verbal categories and attempting to give them an abstract semantic characterization is fruitful in itself and might lead to insights if taught to students of e.g. Danish language. I contrast the insights from this approach with the insights one gets from the topological approach, in this case the sentence scheme.

9.20-9.40: Camilla Søballe Horslund, Rasmus Puggaard-Rode & Henrik Jørgensen: Glossematics vs. Glossematics: A Discussion of some phonological analyses by Hjelmslev and Uldall in the light of Glossematic Theory.

9.40-10.00: Frederik Stjernfelt: Husserl, Hjelmslev, Peirce, Ingarden: On classification.

10.00-10.20: Discussion

10.20-10.35: COFFEE AND TEA

10.35-10.55: Albert Maršík: A recursive mechanism of sign generation.

10.55-11.15: Heidi McGhee: On Jens Holt: Hjelmslev’s connection in Aarhus.

Abstract: Up until now, Professor Jens Holt (1904-1973) from Aarhus University has been quite anonymous when discussing glossematic theory. From working with the hundreds of letters between Louis Hjelmslev and Jens Holt, we have discovered that Holt actually played a bigger role in the glossematic discussions than first anticipated.

Especially after Hjelmslev’s publication of Omkring Sprogteoriens Grundlæggelse and during the Second World War, we find a wealth of correspondence in which we find Hjelmslev’s reflections on glossematics. We see how Holt challenged Hjelmslev's theory in a collaborative way. From this particular correspondance, we get the opportunity of understanding how Hjelmslev himself wanted others to work with glossematic theory.

For this presentation, I will introduce Holt as Hjelmslev's important connection in Aarhus and present the special collaboration between Hjelmslev and his adept with examples from the exchange of letters.

11.15-11.35: Elisabeth Engberg-Pedersen: Hjelmslev and applied linguistics: Henning Spang-Hanssen’s heritage.

11.35-11.59: Concluding Discussion

11.59-12.00: Farewell and Good bye

12.00-13.00: LUNCH at the Faculty Lounge

Thanks to a grant from the Ulla and Børge Andersen foundation


Please sign up by sending a mail to:

fg@hum.ku.dk and please state any dietary preferences if you want to join us for dinner and/or lunch.