Pedersen, Holger (1867–1953), Irish-language scholar and comparative linguist, was born 7 April 1867 in Gelballe, Lunderskov, Denmark, one of eleven children of Kristen Pedersen, teacher and small farmer. His father was particularly interested in mathematics and foreign languages, and was also a supporter of the movement to develop a common written language throughout the Scandinavian countries. Pedersen received his earliest education in his father's school, and after his father's death, when he was ten years old, he moved to the local grammar school. A bright student, he paid for his education by means of scholarships. In 1885 he enrolled in the University of Copenhagen, where he studied Greek, Latin and Danish. He graduated with a Master of Arts (MA) degree (1890), one of the highest achievers the university had ever experienced. He also learned a number of other languages while an undergraduate – Sanskrit, Gothic, and Hebrew – with a view to later studying comparative Indo-European linguistics.
After graduating he began learning Old Bulgarian, Russian, and Lithuanian. He spent the period from March 1892 to the summer of 1896 on a European study trip, travelling first to Italy, where he spent a month learning Italian, and from there to Leipzig to study under Karl Brugmann for two semesters. His subjects there included comparative linguistics, Sanskrit, Persian, Slavonic languages, Lithuanian, and Celtic languages. He also began learning Armenian and Albanian, and during his semester holidays he went to Geneva to study French. In the spring of 1893 he travelled to Greece to learn Albanian and spent most of his time doing so on the island of Corfu. While there, he collected stories and folklore, which were subsequently published under the title Albanische Texte mit Glossar (1893), one of the first modern books published in Albanian. He published a German translation of the text, Zur Albanesischen Volkskunde, in 1898. In September 1893 he registered in the University of Berlin, where he spent two semesters, travelling to Moscow during his holidays to learn Russian. He subsequently moved (September 1894) to Greifswald to study Celtic languages under Heinrich Zimmer (qv).
The following year he travelled to Ireland to learn Irish, spending three weeks in Dublin learning English and Irish. He spent the period 31 August 1895–11 January 1896 in Baile na Creige on the Aran Islands, learning Irish from the storyteller Máirtín Ó Conghaile. As a means of learning the language he collected folklore, transcribing 350 pages of material, consisting mainly of tales, from Ó Conghaile. This collection was published in 1994 by Ole Munch-Pedersen under the title Scéalta Mháirtín Neile, bailithe ag Holger Pedersen, curtha in eagar ag Ole Munch-Pedersen. The collection was edited from his notebook, which had been deposited in the Royal Library, Copenhagen, after his death. He is believed to have been the first to collect stories of the ‘Taming of the shrew’ type in Ireland. With the assistance of Ó Conghaile he also compiled a dictionary of the Aran dialect. A number of his letters written while living on the island were published by Ruth Bentzen in Fund og Forskning (1984–5).
On his return to Denmark (July 1896) he began work on his thesis on the séimhiú (lenition) in Irish, Aspirationen i Irsk. He was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree in June 1897, just eleven months later. In the autumn of that year he began teaching Celtic and Slavonic languages in the University of Copenhagen as a ‘private lecturer’ (unpaid lecturer). He was appointed to his first paid post in the university in 1900 and was offered a professorship in the University of Basel in 1902 but declined it. Initially appointed professor of Slavonic languages and comparative linguistics, he subsequently became professor of linguistics in the University of Copenhagen.
A supporter of the campaign to preserve the Irish language, he became involved in a controversy surrounding its status in the Irish education system, and assisted Douglas Hyde (qv) in refuting the submission to the commission on secondary education (1899) by J. P. Mahaffy (qv), who had attacked the teaching of the language and claimed that it had no practical use in the education system. A letter in support of the preservation of Irish, which Pedersen sent to Richard Henebry (qv) in Washington, was published in the American newspaper, the Irish World and American Industrial Liberator, on 18 March 1899 in Irish, English, and Danish. It was republished in An Claidheamh Soluis (8 April 1899).
Pedersen wrote a number of articles on the Celtic languages, including the essay ‘A Hittito–Celtic etymology’, a contribution to Féil-sgríbhinn Eoin Mhic Néill (1940). His Vergleichende Grammatik der keltischen Sprachen (1908–13), which appeared in an abridged form in English in conjunction with Henry Lewis, under the title A concise comparative Celtic grammar (1937), is considered one of the most important works ever published on the Celtic languages. On its publication he received an invitation to give a series of lectures in the School of Irish Learning (1913). This was his last visit to Ireland. Other works include a Russian grammar, Russisk Grammatik (1919), considered one of the best written on the subject; and two works on the history of comparative linguistics, Et Blik på Sprogvidenskabens Historie (1916) and Sprogvidenskabens i det Nittende Århundrede (1924), translated as Linguistic science in the 19th century … methods and results (1931). He continued learning other languages, including Finno-Ugric, Turkish, and Semitic. In addition, he conducted extensive research on extinct languages such as Hittite and Tokharian.
During his life he was awarded a number of honorary degrees. He was president of the University of Copenhagen 1926–7 and president of the Royal Danish Academy 1934–8. He died 25 October 1953 in Hellerup, Copenhagen. His papers and diaries are held in the Royal Library, Copenhagen.
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).