Johnson, Sally, 1998.

Exploring the German Language.

London: Hodder. Pp. viii + 312.
ISBN 0 340 66330 8 (hardback) £45.00; 0 340 66329 4 (paperback) £15.99.

reviewed by

Jonathan West

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

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This book is the second in a series of introductory texts for the linguistic study of modern languages. The first in the series, Exploring the French Language (Lodge et al. 1997), was a collaborative effort by four members of the same department intended to provide an overarching description of French and has been tolerably well received (e.g. Pooley 1998). The German volume has broadly the same aim, namely to provide "students with a systematic framework for studying both the German language and the German language as culture" (Preface, p. viii, author's italics). It is organized in three parts, each of which is further divided into chapters. Part I, "The history and geography of German", contains "The German language past and present" (pp. 9-37), and "The German-speaking areas" (pp. 38-72). Part II, "The structures of German", contains chapters on "The sounds of German" (75-114), "Putting the sounds together" (115-140), "The structure of German words" (141-170), "The structure of German sentences" (171-196), and "The meaning of German words" (197-219). Part III, "Using German in the real world" has two chapters, "Meaning in context" (223-248) and "Variation in German" (249-276). Each chapter has exercises attached, and the answers are provided on pp. 277-298. The bibliography (299-305) and index (307- 312) conclude the book. However successful the French volume has been, and however splendidly produced the series as a whole is, something has gone drastically wrong with the contents of the German volume and it cannot be recommended to anybody, least of all to the inexperienced undergraduates for whom it is intended. In the first place, this is because the book is full of elementary errors, misleading information, and misconceptions on the part of the author. In the second place, it does not provide readers with the tools and techniques they need to explore the German language -- it is merely a description and a poor one at that.

I begin with examples of errors and miconceptions. The chapter on the history of German naturally begins with a discussion of German as an Indo-European language and the author uses words for father to illustrate this genetic relationship. She sums up by saying: "This one example shows how the German language does not exist in isolation" (p.9). However, as I am at pains to teach my own first-year students, one example proves nothing. Genetic relationship is demonstrated by systematic correspondences in words and forms which cannot be due to borrowing or chance, and this surely means more than one word.

On the following page (p.10), 4000 BC is given as a date for Indo-European, but this must be a terminus post quem non, for by 2000 BC the IE languages had diverged considerably. Whatever one's stance on the Indo-Hittite hypothesis, the striking differences between Hittite on the one hand and the Classical languages on the other surely indicates that the split between the Anatolian languages and the rest of IE must have been much earlier. While one can accept the identification of the IE tribes with the Kurgan culture in the absence of anything more compelling, one has to ask.why they moved from their original homeland. The latest research connects this with the flooding of the Black Sea basin ca. 5000 BC. But if this occasioned the spread -- and therefore the split -- of IE, the proto-language itself must have been earlier. The title of the section 2.1.1, "The Indo-European family of languages (4000 - 2000 BC)", is therefore seriously misleading.

The tree diagram on p. 11 contains several grievous and some less serious errors. First, Anatolian does not give rise to Armenian, as these are two separate branches of IE (Anatolian is a collective term for Hittite, etc.; Armenian is a language group of one, like Greek / Hellenic). Second, there is no good reason to identify Illyrian, of which only the name is really certain, with Albanian. Third, Indo-Iranian may be a "Sprachbund", but none of the Iranian branch are mentioned in the list of languages. In general, few of the most important languages for IE studies are mentioned: Vedic Sanskrit, Old Persian, Old Church Slavonic, and Old Prussian are just a few of the omissions.

Of the phonological structure of IE, the author says (p. 12) "It has been possible to say something about the sounds of PIE. For example, there were 22 vowels and a large number of consonants." I have not been able to work out how she arrives at the figure of 22. Traditionally, IE had eleven monophthongs (six short [i, e, a, o, u] plus schwa, and five long [i:, e:, a:, o:, u:) and six diphthongs [ei, ai, oi, eu, au, ou]. If she includes the so-called long diphthongs, [e:i, a:i, o:i, e:u, a:u, o:u], which are not generally accepted nowadays, she would arrive at 23. Maybe she forgot schwa. At any event, she has forgotten one of the most important features of IE phonology, demonstrated first by de Saussure in his "Mémoire" of 1879, namely the importance of the sonants, which have either consonantal or vocalic allophones according to phonetic context. Thus short [i] and short [u] alternate with [j] and [w] respectively (the "liquids and nasals" also belong in this category), and classical schwa actually reflects a series of prehistoric sonants, usually called laryngeals, e-coloured /H1/, a-coloured /H2/ and o-coloured /H3/, which reduces the number of vowel phonemes by three. We can now dispense with the long vowels, as these arise via loss of a laryngeal and compensatory lengthening of the previous short vowel. We therefore arrive at three vowels [e], [a] and [o], of which [e] and [o] are probably allophones of a single phoneme as they are conditioned by ablaut alternation. We finish up with just two vowel phonemes /e/ and /a/, and nine sonants /i/, /u/, /H1/, /H2/, /H3/ /r/, /l/, /m/, and /n/. Perhaps "22" is just a case of dittography. Admittedly, this is a bit of fun, but it does demonstrate the responsibility the author of a handbook carries. It also depends what you mean by vowel, but the student reader will not know this, and the author does not point it out.

We now turn to the consonants, which will not now include /r/, /l/, /m/, and /n/ or [j] and [w], as these are sonants. How many is a large number? According to the UPSID survey (see Crystal 1987:167), the mean number of consonants is 22.8. PIE had five places of articulation (labial, dental/alveolar, palatal, velar and labio-velar) and, although there is more debate here, three manners of articulation (traditionally "tenues", "mediae" and "mediae aspiratae"). This gives us 15 consonants, plus the fricative /s/, which means that PIE probably had sixteen, not a very large number at all. It is also misleading to say that "[m]any of these consonants still exist in German", as this will surely be interpreted as their having been inherited unchanged. The fact that she goes on to mention sound changes on the next page does little to counteract the misleading impression given here. It will just add to the confusion.

The idea that "a similar pattern [to IE stress] was retained in the Romance languages" (p. 12, para. 5) is quite fanciful, as is the notion (para. 6) that it is possible to reconstruct either a future tense or a pluperfect for PIE. Indeed, the notion of tenses in PIE is rather tendentious. Meillet (Introduction) specifically makes the point that we should get way from the idea of conjugations when thinking about PIE. The passive in PIE is generally thought to be a development of the middle voice.

The impression is given on p. 13 that PIE tribes migrated to the Baltic Sea and became Germanic. There is no mention of the, perhaps more plausible, idea advanced by Renfrew that populations remained relatively static and that a new language was adopted by what were to become the Germanic tribes by a process of cultural accretion.Of the "three main differences between PIE and Primitive Germanic" (p. 13), the accent shift could certainly be listed under this heading, but ablaut cannot, as it is inherited from IE. The "third important development" (p.14) is the First Sound Shift. What about the developments in the vowel system, the sonants, the coalescence of the palatals and the velars, the many other morphological changes? Admittedly, the weak verbs are given brief mention on p. 14, but the account is unbalanced and confusing, typified by the author's use of terms such as "(not) inherited change" ("Another change which was not inherited by the Romance languages was the shift of stress patterns which occurred in Primitive Germanic" (p.14).

On p. 15, we have a table comparing Latin with modern German and English as "Examples of the Germanic sound shift". It is a well-established principle of comparative linguistics that the earliest attested forms of a language should be used as data, and this table shows us why. It has to be annotated to make sense, e.g. "Those German words in brackets (e.g. drei and zwei ) differ as a result of the second (High German) sound shift ...", but what about the [t] in Vater? And is not Lippe actually a Low German word borrowed into High German? To NHG Knie the annotation reads "Note that the 'k' sound in 'knee' was not always silent". This comes dangerously close to confusing sounds and spellings.

On p. 16, the author turns her attention to the changes from Primitive Germanic to German. The reason advanced for the movement of the Gmc tribes from the Baltic region is its "inhospitable geography". It would have been helpful to have a reference here, also for "general tendency towards military expansionism among these groups", as it (so we are told) "led to a process of migration [which] lasted from 1000 BC until well into the Middle Ages" (p. 16). This is just sloppy, as is the impression that Gothic is the direct predecessor of any language "spoken today".

Again, as if today's undergraduate only had three fingers on which to count, we have "three main differences between English and German forms of West Germanic" (p.16). The first is "loss of 'n'", but this is shared by Low German; then we have the "ingvaeonic" palatalization (Anglo-Frisian would have been more accurate); and finally the "High German Sound Shift". Can she mean that West Germanic had dialects which already showed the features of the languages into which it was to evolve?

Students are going to wonder where Old Saxon and Old Low Franconian fit into the tree diagram on p. 17, as well as the "North Sea Germanic" referred to on the previous page. "Old Norse" is a name for the standardized Old Icelandic and Old Norwegian found in the textbooks -- it is not an intermediate stage between West Norse and Icelandic. Afrikaans is not derived from Middle Dutch, but from Dutch dialects of the 17th century. It is now generally recognized that the North and West Germanic languages are more closely related to each other than either of them is to East Germanic, but no intermediate Northwest-Germanic stage appears on the diagram.

It makes no sense to begin the discussion of the development of standard German in the 8th century (p.18). Neither is there any simple equation, as implied on p. 19, between political union and language standardization. 1650 may be too early a date for the emergence of standard German, but nobody has so far suggested 1871! Chapter 2.2.1 is entitled "The earliest forms of German (750-1050)". The author is quite right to emphasize the dialectal nature of German "at this time" (p. 19), but it is inappropriate to speak of dialects in the modern sense (and therefore to use the 19th-century dialect boundaries), as Old High German was written in what are best described as monastery dialects, surely reflecting to a greater or a lesser extent the spoken German of the areas in which they were situated, but certainly not identical to it.

My remarks reflect the problems I had with the first ten pages of Sally Johnson's text. I could fill a book with further criticisms ranging from the nit-picking to the fundamental, but this litany of criticism has already become tedious. Instead, I turn to Part II on the structures of German and what I assume must be the main point of the book. From the title Exploring the German Language one would have expected the author to concentrate on the discovery procedures which underlie her analysis, so that students can learn to analyze the language on their own, but we are presented instead with a largely unjustified description. As will become clear, there are better descriptions available elsewhere.

We turn first to Chapter 4, which is devoted to the sounds of German. How are the sounds of German discovered, or explored? The IPA and articulatory phonetics are presented as if they were an analysis of the sounds of German, whereas they are in fact a way of exploring how sounds are produced and recorded. There is a brief mention of the distinction between articulatory, acoustic and auditory phonetics (p. 76), although the definitions are weak and one could quarrel with the author's remarks regarding their scope. For example, articulatory phonetics is not "what happens to the air from the time we breathe in up to the point at which we produce a sound" (p.76) but rather describes the articulatory movements of the organs of speech, and indeed subsequent mention of "what happens to the air" is made only in the most basic terms, such as "sucking in" or "breathing out". What actually happens to the air is surely more a branch of acoustic phonetics in so far as air molecules are made to vibrate either periodically or randomly and resonances in the oral and nasal cavities are employed to produce speech sounds. Indeed, none of the basic concepts of acoustic phonetics which make exploration of the German sound system meaningful are introduced. My view is that acoustic phonetics would not be "important to anyone interested in the electronic production of music" (p. 76) (acoustics might), but would be of interest to telephone companies, those developing man-machine interface for computers, forensic scientists, and indeed any linguist who wishes to progress beyond the IPA. Neither have I been able to find any mention of the basic fact that speech is a continuum, and I wonder how anyone can explore the German sound system effectively without being aware of this. For instance, the ability of native speakers to segment this continuum continues to fascinate me, but one cannot being to understand the process without knowing something about the description of speech sounds in physical (i.e. acoustic) terms. (Incidentally, this would have been a better way of introducing acoustic phonetics than to say it has a "different focus, concentrating on the pitch, amplitude and duration of sounds.") The confusing framework in which Sally Johnson operates is indicated by her use of phonemes and phonemic brackets before she has introduced the term (not until pp. 108-9). As a student, I would be at a loss to know how to discover the phonemes of German from the guidance given in this book, as there is no introduction to commutation, and would be even less well equipped to explore the status of the phoneme as essentially a mental entity, although some more helpful comments on auditory phonetics might have got me started.

This section too has its share of errors, too many to go into them all in detail. One example is Figure 4.1, in which the blade of the tongue is incorrectly shown as being under the hard palate (it should be under the alveolar ridge); the back of the tongue is shown as forming the front of the pharyngeal cavity (it should be under the velum); the front of the tongue which should be located under the hard palate is missing entirely; the alveolar ridge is shown as flat (whereas it is raised); no distinction is made between the various sorts of tissue, so the teeth could well be sited in the same sort of tissue the tongue consists of; neither the depiction of the uvula nor that of the nasal cavity reflect human anatomy. Alternatives are given for some labels, but not others (some appear in the text). As we are exploring the German language, it would have been helpful to give the German terms as well so that students could graduate to reading German textbooks. One particularly irritating feature of this description is the insistence on using the terms "voiceless" and "voiced" to characterize the opposition /p/ vs. /b/ etc. Yet it is well known that /b/ is realized as a voiceless segment, not only finally, but also initially (e.g. in baden) and medially before all segments except vowels ( laben with syllabic [m]) (examples taken from Kohler 1977:162), and even intervocalically /b/ is seldom fully voiced, especially not in the south and west. Sound spectrograms show this clearly, one easily available example being Wängler's spectrogram of the sentence Hat der Arzt angerufen? (1967:Abb. 8-11) shows a definite break in the voicing associated with [g]. Indeed, full voicing of /b/, /d/, /g/, etc. is associated with a foreign accent in German, especially Slavonic and Turkish. The lesson we must draw from this is that the distinction cannot be one of voice, but is more likely to be fortis vs. lenis. This supposition is given weight by the observation that the distinction is maintained when we whisper and no voicing can be present.

Implicit rather than explicit analytical procedures are a hallmark of the whole book. Words are "broken down into smaller, more manageable [sic!] units" (p. 143), but the principles underlying this procedure are not explained. Similarly, it is "essential to break [sentences] down into smaller units" (p. 172), but how is this done? No discovery method is given, and most students will simply follow their intuitions.

The sources and recommended reading show the author's lack of familiarity with standard texts. For instance, whatever the merits of Chambers and Wilkie (1970) and Wells (1985) as histories of German, the one completely reliable history of German in English is Keller (1978), of which the German edition (1986) is still available to purchase. Apart from Keller (1986), there are more "accessible histories in German" than the author implies. Wolf (1994), and König (1994) are just two I happened to have on my shelves. She should note that von Polenz (1978) has now been replaced by von Polenz (1991, 1994). These comments refer to the first two bullet points on p.34.

The exercises are cringe-making in the extreme. My wife, no slouch, but not a germanist, was able to complete most of them without reading the book! The formulation of the questions is instructive, however. On p. 35, question 3.1 asks "To which area did the tribe known as the Kurgans migrate?": a kurgan is a burial mound, not a tribe, and so when we talk about "Kurgan culture", we are talking about the archaeological remains associated with these gravemounds, not about a tribe. On p. 36, we are asked to choose the rule which "accounts for the change from the German Kirche to the English 'church'". Apart from confusing conventions (italics versus single quotation marks), the impression is given (unintentionally, I'm sure) that German is an antecedent of English. We are also asked to supply the title of " the famous, anonymously written poem of the Middle High German era" (my italics). Real explorers of the German language are referred to Schlosser (1990) for an accessible survey and liberal doses of culture.

My impression of the book as a whole is that the author is completely out of her depth. And I am left with a number of questions. Is it reasonable to expect a young scholar to cope with an introductory reference work of this breadth, when the previous volume was undertaken by a scholar of the stature of Professor Lodge and a team of co- workers? Why did two readers not pick up on these infelicities? Or, if they did, why were their recommendations not acted upon? I am both mystified and saddened. A superb chance has been missed here to provide students with the techniques they need to engage in independent linguistic analysis. That, after all, was the philosophy behind Exploring the French Language . More worrying still is the deep crisis in our subject indicated by the fact that both this and the previous introduction to German linguistics (Beedham 1995, reviewed by Chapman 1996) resulted in such disastrous books.


Beedham, Christopher, 1995. German Linguistics. An Introduction. Munich: iudicium.

Chambers, W.W. and J. Wilkie, 1970. A Short History of the German Language. London: Methuen.

Chapman, 1996. Review of Beedham (1995). In: Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics 1 (

Keller, R. E., 1978. The German Language. London: Faber.

--, 1986. Die deutsche Sprache. Ein Handbuch. Hamburg: Buske. (German edition of Keller 1978.)

Kohler, Klaus, 1977. Einführung in die Phonetik des Deutschen. Berlin: Erich Schmidt. (Grundlagen der Germanistik, 20)

König, Werner, 1994. dtv-Atlas zur deutschen Sprache. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag. (10th edn; 1st edn 1978.)

Lodge, R.A., Nigel Armstrong, Yvette M. Ellis, and Jane F. Shelton, 1997. Exploring the French Language. London, New York, Sydney, Auckland: Arnold.

Pooley, T., 1998. Review of Lodge et al. (1997). In: Journal of French Language Studies 8/1.129-130.

Schlosser, Horst Dieter, 1990. dtv-Atlas zur deutschen Literatur. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag. (4th edn; 1st edn 1983.)

von Polenz, Peter, 1978. Geschichte der deutschen Sprache. Berlin: de Gruyter. (9th edn, Sammlung Göschen 2206)

--, 1991. Deutsche Sprachgeschichte vom Spätmittelalter bis zur Gegenwart. I. Einführung. Grundbegriffe. Deutsch in der frühbürgerlichen Zeit. Berlin: de Gruyter. (Sammlung Göschen 2237)

--, 1991. Deutsche Sprachgeschichte vom Spätmittelalter bis zur Gegenwart. II. 17. und 18. Jahrhundert. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Wängler, Hans-Heinrich, 1967. Grundriß einer Phonetik des Deutschen. Marburg: Elwert.

Wells, Christopher, 1985. German: A Linguistic History to 1945. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Wolf, Gerhart, 1994. Deutsche Sprachgeschichte. Tübingen and Basel: Francke. (UTB 1581, 3rd edn.)

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