Roelcke, Thorsten. 1997.

Sprachtypologie des Deutschen. Historische, regionale und funktionale Variation.

Berlin, New York: de Gruyter. Pp. 248. (Sammlung Göschen, 2812)
ISBN 3-11-015276-2 (paperback), DM 29,80

reviewed by

Nils Langer

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

[Download this Review (15K, Rich Text Format)]

Copyright Notice:
First published in Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics in association with the publishers (to be announced). (c) 1998 Nils Langer.
The moral rights of the author(s) to be identified as author(s) of this work are asserted in accordance with §§.77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. This work may be reproduced without the consent of the author, in part or in whole in any manner and in any medium subject only to the two following conditions:
(a) no charge shall be made for the copy containing the work or the excerpt,
(b) a copy of this notice shall precede the work or the excerpt.

This book provides a typological description of Modern Standard German, taking into account and discussing briefly aspects of all major regional, historical and functional features. The book is aimed not only at researchers in the field of typology but also at undergraduate students of German (p.5). This is reflected in the stringent organization of the sub-chapters according to a fixed pattern which, in conjunction with an impressively large bibliography facilitates the use of the book as a source of reference. Furthermore, the novice to typology is eased into the subject by the introduction to the methodological and theoretical foundations of the field before, in the second chapter, a typological sketch of German as an idealized whole ("idealisiertes Ganzes," p.5) is drawn. This part is followed by a systematic description of phonetic, phonological, morphological and syntactic variation, using Modern German as a starting point. The book concludes with a summary of these variations on historical, regional and functional axes.

The chapters are as follows: 1. Foundations ( Grundlagen; pp.11-21), 2. Typological Characteristics of German ( Sprachtypologische Grundzüge des Deutschen; pp.22-61), 3. Sound Variation (Lautliche Variation; pp.62-96); 4. Morphological Variation (Morphologische Variation; pp 97-146), 5. Syntactic Variation (Syntaktische Variation; pp.147-165); 6. Systematic Comparison (Systematischer Vergleich; pp.166-202), 7. Final Remark (Schlussbemerkung; p.203), 8. Bibliography (Literatur; pp.204-246).

Many university students first exposed to the linguistic study of German are often faced with a choice. To acquire the basics of German linguistics, the student will generally opt for either a history of German (e.g. Schmidt, W. 1993 as a recent example) or a synchronic grammar (e.g. Engel 1988). Whilst both choices have their obvious benefits, it is often argued that a purely synchronic grammar is too "dry" and restricts the student's view to only one variety of the language (i.e. Modern Standard German). As regards the option of choosing a history of German, there is an argument that students who today are often not sufficiently competent in Modern German when they enter Higher Education should not be exposed to varieties that are far removed from Modern German, at least in the initial stages. In effect this means that one should refrain from using e.g. Old High German texts from a history of German as the starting texts to teach introductory German Linguistics. A way out of this dilemma might be either the use of a "reverse" (rückläufige) history of the language German, where Barbara Strang's (1970) History of English might serve as an example. A different solution is provided by Roelcke's Sprachtypologie which crucially uses Modern German as a starting point to explore the language systematically with all its functional, regional and historical variations.

Variation features as an important issue in the book. Roelcke criticizes earlier attempts at German language typologies which presented German as an "idealized whole", "ignoring, therefore, the manifold differences which characterize the German language historically, regionally, and functionally" (p.4). However, Roelcke is not attempting to provide a history of German, a comprehensive dialect survey and a functional grammar under one heading and the sheer brevity of his book (with 203 pages of text) precludes this anyway. He does succeed, instead, in producing a neat overview of and introduction to the linguistic foundations of German. Roelcke adopts a purely descriptive approach, using the well-established terminology of traditional grammar and refrains from endorsing a specific theoretical framework (he mentions Dependency Grammar in passing (pp.41f) although it does not become very clear why; the discussion of Greenbergian methods and terminology appear much more relevant to the topic of the book (pp.42ff)). This and his comprehensible written style result in a book of examplary clarity, in which even simpler technical terms are explained and illustrated with examples. There are some inconsistencies, however. For example, the terms tenues / fortes and mediae / lenes are explained on p. 170, long after they had been first introduced on page 23. Furthermore, Roelcke explains the common concept of Imperativ as "Aufforderung" (p.35) whilst leaving the more unusual term avulsiv unexplained (p.24). (Incidentally, this is another word for Schnalzlaut "click", see Bußmann 1990:118.) An overall glossary at the end of the book would both resolve these minor irritations and be more appropriate to a student readership. A similar criticism holds for the use of examples which were thin on the ground. The lack of examples is particularly noticeable in the final chapters, where the mere listing of linguistic phenomena does not ease the readibility and comprehension of the text. The reviewer understands that brevity of explanation is often necessary; here, however, an undergraduate student would surely welcome very much a more reader-friendly approach.

Roelcke uses Standard German as a starting point (where he might be criticized for not providing an explicit definition of what he considers to be Standard German) to lead into the topical discussions (phonology, morphology, syntax) which concentrate on those issues which most Germanists would probably agree to be significant. So, for example, the chapter on "phonetic and phonological variation" covers in particular (i) German vowels which are typologically characterized as opposition between monophthongs and diphthongs, short and long vowels, and rounded (labialized) and non-rounded vowels, (ii) the crucial consonant developments relating to pairs of plosives vs fricatives / affricates, with regional variation existing with respect to the Second Sound Shift and High German Lenition (binnenhochdeutsche Konsonantenschwächung), and (iii) a discussion of syllables in German, especially the variation between strong and weak syllables.

With regard to morphological variation, German is shown to be a Mischtyp between analysis and synthesis, a term that is perhaps a little problematic because, as Roelcke shows, most individual aspects of German morphology can be clearly polarized. Rather, it is the sum of German morphology that is mixed, not its individual parts. In addition, it is not always clear whether some of the generalizations are not rather too sweeping, e.g. in the discussion of auxiliary tun where Roelcke claims that its construction is restricted to the Upper German area and that its function is always and only imperfective (p.119). A check with the dialect dictionaries shows this not to be the case: auxiliary tun occurs in a range of functions and is attested in many Central and Low German dialects (cf. Erb 1995 for a summary). Similarly, Roelcke's statement on the loss of the preterite (p.107) is at variance with some established opinions (cf. e.g. Abraham 1998) as regards the degree and distribution of the phenomenon in the German-speaking area. Thirdly, Roelcke's insistence on a traditional framework seems to prevent him from benefiting from recent but widely accepted theoretical insights. For example, he remarks (p.130) that one of the important diachronic tendencies in German is the reduction of grammatical cases since the Old High German period. Here the notions of abstract and overt case might have been useful to present the picture rather differently and more plausibly, i.e. where cases did not disappear but began to be marked in different way, say by determiner marking or preposition (cf Durrell 1990 on the development of noun inflection and case - marking in this respect). Bearing in mind that this book aims to cater for undergraduate students, it would seem justifiable, however, to characterize German as reflecting a morphological mixed type, where the overall trend from synthesis to analysis is interrupted and reversed on several occasions in the history of German to the present day.

This holds for the discussion of German syntax, too: the overall positive impression of the chapter is not blemished by the occasional minor criticisms one may want to raise. An example of the latter can be based on the statement that "the verbal position is comparatively flexible" (p.148). Roelcke justifies this as it appears not to be straightforward to categorize German as an head-initial (" emissiv ") or head-final (" receptiv ") language since in main clauses the lexical (theta-assigning) verb may precede its complements, whilst in sub-clauses it typically follows them. Abraham & v. Gelderen 1997 as one example of many, showed how the complexity of German verbal syntax can be explained without postulating positional freedom of the verb. Nonetheless, it is well-known that the typology of German with regard to its headedness is notoriously difficult, as is shown by the existence of pre-, post-, and circumpositions ( mit anderen Studenten vs dem Haus gegenüber vs um des Friedens willen ) as well as the variation of Genitive complement positions, either preceding or following the head noun ([[ Marcs ] Auto ] vs [ Das Auto [ meines Vetters ]]).

The final chapter of the book provides a concise "systematic comparison" of German with regard to historical, regional and functional variation. Drawing on the analyses and illustrations of the most important features of German, this chapter categorizes the historical development und synchronic variations according to the increase, stabilization or decrease in various parameters and tendencies, providing the reader with interesting bundles and overlaps of development. To illustrate this, I will single out the discussion of the morphological variation in German.

The development of synthesis to analysis had already been recognised by Grimm (1854) as the major, overarching theme of the morphological history of German. Roelcke shows that this development is still ongoing and important also for a typology of German that take into account a functional and a dialectal perspective. Synthetic aspects still feature strongly in present day German in the form of the singular-plural distinctions, the morphological differentiation between present and preterite tense, the marking of the imperative and the preservation of gender distinction. Roelcke groups his presentation of the phenomena according to Extension, Preservation and Reduction of Synthesis vs the Extension, Preservation and Reduction of Analysis, each treated independently with regard to historical (pp. 171-180), regional (p. 187-191) and functional (p. 195-199) variation. Focussing on verbal morphology for the purposes of this review, we find that a common phenomenon is the loss of the preterite, where speakers use the more analytic perfect periphrasis instead of the synthetic preterite to mark the "simple past tense". The loss of the preterite features diachronically (since the Early New High German period (1350-1650), regionally (much more frequent in Upper German than elsewhere), and functionally (no loss in the Standard Language, where the retention of the phase / anteriority distinction between the preterite and the perfect prevents the replacement of one by the other). The tendency towards analysis can also be seen in the historical emergence of the six - tenses-system ( Sechstempussystem) where the four new tenses (perfect, pluperfect, future, and future perfect) can only be formed analytically. This ties in also with the emergence and diachronically increasing frequency of the passive, which, too, is always analytic. Finally, the variants of German are evident in the distribution of the use of tun as an auxiliary: according to Roelcke, this construction is restricted to Low and Upper German and used only to mark the present tense periphrastically. Hence the periphrasis ties in with the general trends towards analysis by excorporated grammatical marker (present tense) from synthetic clusters (the lexical verb). Recent research has shown (Fischer & Abraham 1998, Langer, forthcoming) that auxiliary tun was used in all dialects of German and in a great variety of functions, some of which did not exist in previous stages, e.g. durativity and habituality. This is particularly important for the morphological history of German as it shows that grammatical categories still emerge and are marked in verbal constructions (rather than as adverbial phrases).

Synthesis prevails in some regional constructions in the North of Germany where the preterite is used more frequently than in the South (though it is on the whole declining), whilst the subjunctive is more synthetic in the South than in the North. A third major regional difference of the verbal morphology is the plural formation which is not distinguished at all in Northern dialects (Einheitsplural), is distinguished between two persons in Central and Standard German (2nd vs non- 2nd person) and continues to preserve its historical three person distinction in the southernmost areas of Upper German. In this context, Roelcke draws the attention to the mechanism of compensation by pronouns where e.g. the accompanying subject pronoun in Standard German ensures the correct identification of the verb person ( wir1pl sehen vs sie3pl sehen ). A similar compensatory mechanism is evident, also, in the development of case marking which in Old High German took place on the head noun and which in Modern German is marked on the determiner (or, the Noun Phrase).

In his Final Remark (p.203), Roelcke concludes that the variation encountered in the German language is sufficiently diverse to show those typological studies which view German as an idealized whole cannot do justice to the complexity of the language. To appreciate the German language fully, historical, regional and functional variation must enter the equation to present the diversity of German appropriately.

My overall impression is that Roelcke has provided a well-balanced introduction to the most important aspects of German. It bridges the gap between the often rather shallow introductions to German linguistics designed for First-Year students and the specialist courses which are frequently very narrow in scope, aimed at Final-Year and postgraduate students. The British system, in particular, with its stringent three (four) year degree courses does not allow the keener students to acquire a secure foundation in every major area of linguistics before embarking on postgraduate degrees. The reviewer feels that those students might well find the desired overview of the German language in this book.


Abraham, W., 1998. Parsing specifics of the preterite decay in Southern German and Yiddish. Talk given at the Annual Conference of SLE, University of St. Andrews.

Abraham, W. & E. van Gelderen, 1997. German - Syntactic Problems - Problematic Syntax. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Bußmann, H., 1990. Lexikon der Sprachwissenschaft. Stuttgart: Kröner. (2nd edn; 1st edn 1983.) Durrell, M., 1990. "German Noun Inflections: Synchrony and Diachrony." In German Life and Letters. 113-124.

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

Erb, M.C., 1995. Zur Theorie expletiver Verben. (unpubl.) M.A. dissertation. Frankfurt am Main: JWG-University

Fischer, A. and W. Abraham, 1998. "Die diskursfunktionale Begründung der tun - Stütze im Deutschen." in Eichinger, L. (ed.). Festschrift für Hans-Werner Eroms. Heidelberg: J. Groos

Grimm, J., 1854. "Vorrede". in Grimm, J. & W. Grimm. Deutsches Wörterbuch. Vol 1. Leipzig: Hirzel. [reprinted 1984. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag]

Langer, N., forthcoming. "The distribution of non-lexical DO in Early New High German." in Watts, S., Solms, H.J. & J. West (eds). The Germanic Verb. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Schmidt, W., 1993. Geschichte der deutschen Sprache. Ein Lehrbuch für das germanistische Studium. Leipzig: Hirzel. (6th edn; first edn Berlin: Volk und Wissen Verlag, 1969.)

Strang, B., 1970. History of English. London: Methuen
Return to The Issue 3 Contents Page | The WJMLL Home Page