Beaton, K. B, 1996:

A Practical Dictionary of German Usage

Oxford: Clarendon Press. Pp. xvii + 921.
ISBN 0-19-824002-3 (hardback) £75.00.

reviewed by

Jonathan West

Department of German Studies, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU

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First published in Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics in association with the publishers (to be announced). © 1997 Jonathan West.

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It is well known that the vocabularies of individual languages divide up the world of phenomena they refer to in different ways. This is true even when the languages are, like English and German, closely related. So "there are few one-to-one correspondences between English and German items of vocabulary. Learning German [...] involves learning to break out of the framework and structure of meaning characteristic of English and acquiring the knowledge to operate in the framework peculiar to the second language" (p. vii). A Practical Dictionary of German Usage addresses this problem, like Farrell (1953) and Eggeling (1961), by re-working their material and producing "a new text which owes to its predecessors little more than the selection of words treated" (p. vii). It "aims to supply the information which is not needed by the native speaker, but is essential for learners who speak another language" (p. viii). It is certainly more extensive: my edition of Farrell (1977) runs to 414 pp., Eggeling (1961) to 418 pp. To take a concrete example, Farrell (1977:1) takes rather less than a page to deal with "accept"; Beaton (1996:1-3) treats the meanings in much greater detail and includes an extra meaning related to German anerkennen, dealt with by Farrell under "recognize, acknowledge" (1977:273). Sadly, Bruce Beaton died on 1 August 1994, but has left a monumental tome. It invites comparison with Farrell and Eggeling, but also with Durrell (1992), a guide to contemporary German usage which, as it does not concentrate exclusively on lexical correspondences, complements Farrell to some extent.

The method Beaton uses is to describe the meanings of a word in English and then to map these onto German equivalents. This is Farrell's organizational principle; Eggeling's material is organized under German words, difficult words and expressions in English (e.g. abreast, 1961:5) and grammatical terms (e.g. Ablaut, 1961:4). Beaton will not tell me how to translate abreast, or what ablaut is, for the "dictionary concentrates on common words" (p. xvii). However, the choice of words is not entirely determined by Farrell -- achieve/ accomplish (pp. 8-9), after (pp. 21-24), aim (pp. 29-30), and amount (pp. 32-33), are examples of additions; anxious, however, is dealt with under timid (pp. 730-732). On the other hand, Farrell's Abdruck, Abgabe, Abrede (in Abrede stellen), and Akte, to name but a few, have no equivalent entries in Beaton. An index of English terms (pp. 811-857) helps the user find any words not listed in the main text. Counting both German words and the concepts they denote (i.e. counting abbrechen once for "break off" and once for "stop"), Beaton has well over 10,000 entries in his index as against Farrell's 3000 plus.

How does the book compare against Durrell (1992), my copy of which cost £13.95? Durrell has ca. 1500 words in his index, but the index itself is far from complete. It includes only those words on which "specific information is given on points of usage". This is a pity, but one consequence is that examples of syntactic patterns (e.g. verbs with the genitive or dative) are not indexed, and therefore the coverage is greater than it seems. Taking these into consideration, Durrell's coverage compares favourably with Farrell's, and therefore, by implication, with Beaton's. But Durrell is "user-friendly" in a way that Beaton is not. Durrell eschews long explanations, the intention being to complement rather than replace a dictionary. For example, Durrell's section on sound (1992:67) takes a third of a page with much white space around it; Beaton's (p. 653-4) takes almost two full pages black with text. Under B, Durrell gives information on the translations of English bank and brush which are absent from Beaton. Under C, I note that Beaton has no equivalent entries for Durrell's castle, cathedral, content(s), cow/cattle, and cry (= weinen / heulen / schreien / rufen / brüllen). We should have to look hard in Beaton for information on regional and register variation: the salient information is listed in Durrell (1992:17-28). Beaton seldom notes easily confused words, such as der Akt and die Akte: this information is collected in Durrell (1992:77-88).

In the light of these all-too-brief comparisons, I have two worries about Beaton's book. First, there is the question of its size and cost and whether, in view of this, it really wins out over Farrell. I am intrigued by the facts that both worked in the University of Sydney, that Beaton is disparaging about Farrell's dictionary (p. vii), but only uses the second edition (I used the third), and that both books show similarities of organization and detail. Alas, I have no inside track on this. For much additional money, one would expect Beaton to have many additional entries, not just a detailed re-working of already available information, but this is not the case. Under B, boast and burst are additions, but burst can be accessed in Farrell via break. Under C, clean, and contribute are additions, but there are no entries either in the text or in the index for ceiling, charm, or cupboard. The omission of charm is serious, as English learners seldom imagine it is der (and not *die) Charme, or investigate the possibility of using der Reiz, der Zauber or any of the other equivalents listed in the relatively long Oxford-Duden entry (1994:943). One might have expected Beaton to include index entries for problem words such as capacity, capital, cast, cat, cease, chip, clean the adjective, cold, contact, and the like. The difference in size between Beaton and Farrell can largely be accounted for by the extensive English commentary, which the hard-pressed prose composition writer will have to wade through. Some pruning here might have produced a more accessible text.

My second worry is that it does not "supply the information which is not needed by the native speaker, but is essential for learners who speak another language" (p. viii). Some information is given regarding the syntax of words and some is implied by the examples, of which there are admittedly plenty. But am I being too pessimistic in fearing that learners will not necessarily put two and two together and deduce from Ich entsinne mich. and Ich entsinne mich dessen nicht mehr. that sich entsinnen takes a compulsory subject complement and an optional genitive complement? More systematic marking of valency structures, also for nouns and adjectives, would have been helpful, as this information is regularly omitted from both monolingual and bilingual dictionaries.

The further restrictions on how these complements can be realized are hardly ever given. For example, to translate The loudspeaker was calling the number of the flight., learners could be led to p.36 by the "loudspeaker" entry in the index, where durchsagen "to announce information by loudspeaker" is given, and possibly to p. 126, where aufrufen "to announce [...] make known by calling" would provide a good hint. But they are not told that aufrufen needs an animate subject and therefore that a sentence such as *Der Lautsprecher rief die Nummer des Fluges auf. would be unacceptable. Even those who chanced to use the passive Die Flugnummer wurde über den Lautsprecher aufgerufen. might be led astray by the example given on p. 126 -- über / durch die Lautsprecher --, which could be taken by a learner to suggest that Lautsprecher is feminine, and certainly there is no hint anywhere that "number" could be omitted to arrive at Der Flug wurde über den Lautsprecher aufgerufen. Neither is there any entry under flight to suggest that you use der Flug and not die Flucht here. Similar information is needed to translate describe in many English contexts, such as This book describes how northern Australia was opened up. The last example under describe v. 1 is indeed In diesem Buch wird geschildert, wie der Norden Australiens erschlossen wurde., but there is no warning that both schildern and beschreiben in this sense require an animate subject so that one cannot say *Dieses Buch beschreibt / schildert, wie [...]. Learners would also benefit from knowing whether a complement can be realized as a noun phrase or a subordinate or infinitive clause.

There is no guidance on whether one can and whether one should use a passive with certain verbs. Take a sentence such as These words must be followed by deeds. The passive is the most common construction for this verb, but there is no warning that we should not translate *Diese Worte müssen von Taten gefolgt werden., except the example Auf den strengen Winter folgte ein milder Frühling. Additional essential information in this context might be advice on how to form the passive and maybe arrive at Diesen Worten muß von Taten gefolgt werden.. And any attempt to translateThe nodules are formed by deposits of substances dissolved in the seawater. will be frustrated by the fact that there is no entry for the verb form either in the text or the index, despite the fact that this is a notorious problem area for English learners. I would have expected a note under get to the effect that bekommen and kriegen are alternative passive auxiliaries (Engel 1988:484-462). The result is that no translator will get the idea to render He got a uniform made which suited him admirably. as Er hatte eine Uniform angefertigt bekommen, die ihm glänzend stand. (cf. Schuhmacher 1986:117). Similarly under people (p. 501 ff.) there is no suggestion that this can be rendered by the so-called impersonal passive, so that an English sentence such as People were singing and dancing. will never become Es wurde gesungen und getanzt.

These examples are not culled from the sharp end of language teaching, but are derived from experiences teaching university students and demonstrate that your German needs to be fairly good to benefit from Beaton. I doubt whether the additional investment would justify many people consigning their copy of Farrell to the top shelf. For the regular learner up to and including university level -- and I guess that means everybody -- this guide, though impressive, is no substitute for a good dictionary such as Oxford-Duden (1994) and a grammar such as Durrell (1992). My feeling is that the concept of Beaton's book is fundamentally flawed: the information which it contains is already to be found elsewhere in a more systematic and comprehensive form.


Durrell, Martin, 1992. Using German. A guide to contemporary usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Engel, Ulrich, 1988. Deutsche Grammatik. Heidelberg: Groos.

Farrell, R. B., 1977. Dictionary of German Synonyms. Cambridge, London: Cambridge University Press. (third edition; first edition 1953).

Eggeling, H. F., 1961. A Dictionary of Modern German Prose Usage. Oxford: Clarendon.

Oxford-Duden 1994. The Oxford-Duden German Dictionary. German-English/English-German. Ed. by the Dudenredakton and the German section of the Oxford University Press Dictionary Department. Chief editors W. Scholze-Stubenrecht and J. B Sykes. Oxford: Clarendon. (Fourth edition; first edition 1990.)

Schuhmacher, Helmut, 1986. Verben in Feldern. Valenzwörterbuch zur Syntax und Semantik deutscher Verben. Berlin: de Gruyter. (Schriften des Instituts für deutsche Sprache 1.)

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