First published in Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics. © 2000 Jonathan West.
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Considering the extraordinarily broad set of aims, and I was intrigued to see how the contributors had tackled the obvious problems of scope and depth. The information, that "[h]eadwords were generally chosen to match the terms which the reader is most likely to look up" (p. v) leaves us little the wiser (imagine an alphabetical dictionary in which the converse principle applied!). In the event, it seems that the compilers have achieved a respectable balance for an introductory text.
I compared it first with a discursive account of the areas the dictionary purports to cover (Tatsachen über Deutschland (Societäts-Verlag, 1992; although this publication is updated regularly, I felt it would be fair to use an older edition). Using this yardstick, the organs of government and the political parties emerged as being generally well covered. Some politicians are given thumbnail biographies (including Oskar Lafontaine, Rudolf Scharping, Björn Engholm, Joschka Fischer), but others are omitted (e.g. Angela Merkel, Otto Graf Lambsdorff, Heiner Geißler). The danger of material becoming outdated is particularly acute with active politicians, as Oskar Lafontaine and Angela Merkel may yet conclusively demonstrate. But there are some odd gaps as well. Why list Gestapo and Stasi, both now defunct, but not Bundesnachrichtendienst or Bundeskriminalamt, both still active? Similarly, why include Bundesgrenzschutz, but not GSG9 or Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, or even Polizei? Why list Treuhandanstalt, but not Gauck-Behörde? In other areas too, coverage is patchy. Law, for example, remains largely undeveloped in Germany Today: even if terms such as Amtsgericht, Landgericht, Oberlandesgericht and Bundesgerichtshof were felt to be too specialized, perhaps a block diagram showing the relationships of the various legal institutions could have been included. Similarly with regard to finance, Finanzausgleich and Steuerlüge are there, but I found it hard to reconstruct details of the tax system, as there are no entries for Finanzamt, Lohnsteuer, Mehrwertsteuer, Bundeshaushalt, and others, presumably because the German system is superficially similar to our own. As a complete contrast, industry is well covered, with all the largest industrial companies having an entry. Newspapers and magazines also have an informative section, but the magazine "Focus" is surely significant enough to have been mentioned. There are also some surprising inclusions: Pfadfinder - are German scouts different to ours? - , and Trümmerfrauen, for instance, which gives a strange period feel to the book. educational entries were the only ones which caused me serious puzzlement - for example, I found myself wondering whether I would really be most likely to look up Vorschulische Erziehung or Weiterführende Schulen.
I also compared the entries in the dictionary with roughly contemporaneous newspaper texts, reasoning that the media have a privileged place in German society (described in article 5 of the constitution), that we habitually use newspapers to teach our own first-year students to prepare them for time abroad, and that newspaper material now forms an important element of many A-level syllabuses ("selection of entries was made with A-level syllabi [sic!] in mind"). I chose the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" of 22 April 1997, and confined myself to the headlines and articles on the front page relevant to Germany. Straight away I came across Staatsregierung, which does not merit a paragraph; neither does the entry under Landesregierung (p. 121f.) mention the special status of Bavaria (Freistaat is also missing); Kultusminister was another heading I hunted for in vain, as was Steuerreform, which must be among the most-mentioned terms in German politics, but does not generally appear in regular dictionaries; Deutsche Post AG did not find its way into Germany Today, but Deutsche Telekom AG did (p. 54), a pity in view of the fact that the postal service celebrated its 500th birthday in 1990; der Dax was also absent. There were many other problem cases, especially in the inside pages, but, on the other hand, many of the national politicians mentioned in this extract of the SZ (Helmut Kohl, Oskar Lafontaine, Klaus Kinkel) were covered with a short biography, and the major national institutions mentioned (e.g. Bundesregierung, SPD, "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung") were described. In retrospect, this methodology was probably unreasonable, and may only serve to demonstrate that a short dictionary of this sort will not help you over every hurdle you encounter in a national newspaper. How could it?
My discussion so far shows that I found it very easy indeed to point up concepts which could have been included. But it is, frankly, equally difficult to suggest alternative selection criteria which would not have expanded the volume beyond the publisher's purse and the purchasers' pockets. I collected a list of items mentioned more than fifteen times in a small corpus of current affairs German (ca. 0.5 m word-forms; ca. 35,000 lexemes), and soon demonstrated for myself the difficulties of this procedure as well. Under A-, for example, we would have to have included Alternative, Altersteilzeit, Altersvorsorge, Andrea Fischer, Antje Radcke, and Arbeitgeberpräsident, but missed out Altersbezüge, AOK, Apec, and others. On the other hand, starting with the entries in Germany Today and comparing them with the corpus, very few of them were not attested, and those that were not amply justified their inclusion on other grounds. Akademische Freiheit, for example, is a concept with which every British student of German should be familiar (if only so that we can regain it ourselves!); Außerparlametarische Opposition is another (but the compilers should note that capital <ß> does not exist!!).
My conclusion is the book must be judged useful as a first orientation, indeed something like this is the only possible first orientation, and there is much here for beginners and experienced readers alike to learn. However, as it stands, it is something of a dead end. I would have found it so much more useful if it had mentioned further sources of information in the form of standard reference works on German history, politics and society, such as Ruprecht and Neebe (1992), or regularly updated compendia such as Tatsachen über Deutschland or some key URLs (e.g. http://www.bundesregierung.de/). There are plenty more out there.