LINGUIST List 14.1478

Thu May 22 2003

Review: Language Description: Koenig, et al. (2002)

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  1. Suin Shin, The Germanic Languages

Message 1: The Germanic Languages

Date: Wed, 21 May 2003 21:03:20 +0000
From: Suin Shin <>
Subject: The Germanic Languages

Koenig, Ekkehard and Johan van der Auwera, ed. (2002). The Germanic
Languages. Routledge

Announced at

Suin Shin, UC Berkeley


This overview of the Germanic Language family includes descriptions of
earlier stages of Germanic languages (Gothic, Old Norse, Old Saxon,
Old English) as well as modern stages (German, English, Dutch,
Scandinavian languages, Yiddish, Creoles, ...). The presentation of
each language is uniform (introduction, phonology, morphology, syntax
and lexicon) and provides for the reader a nicely structured synopsis
and the possibility to compare languages conveniently. This 630-page
book, a collection of papers written by experts on each language,
offers a valuable resource of information on all Germanic
languages. Due to the compactness of the material and the anticipated
general readership, this book should not be treated as a substitute
for grammars of each language, but rather as a comprehensive reference
book and comparative work. In my overview, I will have to group some
chapters/ languages together, due to the high number of languages


Chapter 1 'The Germanic Languages' is a summary of all the Germanic
languages described below. It starts with a statistical placement of
Germanic languages. Apparently, there are only twelve modern Germanic
languages and maybe 40 to 50 creoles.Thus, the Germanic languages form
only a small subset of the 4,000 to 6,000 languages presently spoken
in the world. But in terms of number of speakers, there are roughly
450 million native speakers, which puts the Germanic language group on
rank 12 of all world languages. Further, we are provided with
historical information on the origin, the division into East, North
and West Germanic languages and migration processes. The origin seems
to be found in the southern Baltic region, which was settled by
speakers of Indo-European around 1000 BC. After this introduction,
short historical descriptions of each Germanic language follow.

Chapter 2 'Gothic and the Reconstruction of Proto-Germanic'
investigates Gothic, the language of two Germanic peoples: the
Visigoths and Ostrogoths. Historical linguists use Gothic to
reconstruct Proto-Germanic due to its comparatively early
appearance. It precedes other Germanic texts by three or four
centuries and thus provides us with the earliest documents of
Germanic, e.g.Wulfila's Bible translation from the 4th century. A
characteristic of Gothic is the heavy use of ablaut, the
morphophonemic alternation of the root vowel inherited from the
Indo-European. Also, in contrast to other Germanic languages, Gothic
has retained reduplication in the strong verb class VII.

In Chapter 3 'Old and Middle Scandinavian', we are presented with the
North Germanic languages spoken in Scandinavia from around the 7th to
15th century. Old West Scandinavian or Old Norse is the best attested
variety of Old Scandinavian. Documents of Old Norse are e.g. sagas or
poems. Old Scandinavian is recorded in two different scripts, a runic
script and the Roman alphabet, which was introduced shortly after the
conversion to Christianity in 1000 AD.

In Chapter 4 'Old and Middle Continental West Germanic', four language
areas are comprised: Dutch, High German, Low German and Frisian. The
focus is on older stages of Dutch and German; that is, Middle Dutch
and Old Saxon and Old High German, respectively. Old High German was
spoken in central and southern Germany (south of the Benrath Line),
whereas Low German was spoken in the northern parts of Germany.

Chapter 5 'Old and Middle English' gives an overview of English
recorded in England between 600 and 1500 AD. Old English refers to a
group of dialects imported by immigrants from the continent, beginning
in the 4th century. Old English falls into two main dialect groups,
West Saxon and Anglian.

Chapters 6 -10 consider the languages Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian,
Swedish and Danish. Faroese is derived from the language of Norse
settlers, and thus resembles Old Norse and Icelandic in
orthography. These two languages also had a major influence on the
morphology, syntax and lexicon of Faroese.
Norwegian is the only modern Germanic language which has two
officially recognized literary varieties due to its political and
cultural history: Bokmal ('book language') and Nynorsk ('New
Swedish is spoken by more than 8 million native speakers. The variant
spoken around Stockholm is considered to have the strongest social
status and it is spreading to other areas, at least in formal
Danish is spoken by ca. 5 million speakers. The first texts, mostly
legal documents, in Danish are from the early 13th century, but Danish
has been used as a language of literature since the 15th
century. Whereas East Danish has a three-gender system for nouns,
Middle Danish uses as two-gender system (common and neuter), and West
Danish has no gender contrast at all.

Chapter 11 is devoted to 'German'. German is the official language or
one of the official languages in Austria, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg,
Switzerland and Germany. The three main dialects are Low German,
Central German and Upper German. The classification is according to
the degree the dialects followed the High German Consonant Shift,
which led to the separation of High German from the other Germanic

Chapters 12-16 deal with the descriptions of Yiddish, Pennsylvania
German, Dutch, Afrikaans, and Frisian. Of all the Germanic languages,
Yiddish looks the least Germanic, since it uses a Hebrew alphabet and
is read from right to left. Its grammar and lexicon is largely
influenced from Hebrew and Aramaic, but also Slavic languages. We can
distinguish two Yiddish dialect groups: Western Yiddish and Eastern
Yiddish. Yiddish is a subject and object Pro-drop language. Both
phenomena can even occur in the same sentence.
Pennsylvania German is the language spoken by descendants of German
immigrants to Pennsylvania (18th century). The early immigrants
belonged to religious sects (Mennonites, Amish and others), but later
the Lutherans and Reformed outnumbered the sect members. Pennsylvania
German is derived essentially from Middle High German and Early New
High German dialects. Unlike German, the nominal morphology contains a
two-case system (common and dative), but resulted in a single case
system through linguistic interference with English.
Dutch is the official language of the Netherlands, Belgium, Surinam
and the former Dutch Antilles. Dutch developed in an area where three
dialects coexisted: Frisian, Saxon and Low Frankonian.
Afrikaans is currently one of the two official languages in the
Republic of South Africa. It is characterized by the lack of gender
distinction, lack of conjugation of verbs, almost total lack of the
original past tense, double negation, and the strong tendency to
describe past events using the present tense.
Frisian can be devided into three main dialects: North, East and West
Frisian.North Frisian is spoken by approximately 10,000 people on the
North Frisian islands and along the shores of the North Sea in
Schleswig-Holstein. East Frisian is spoken only in a small area,
mainly in Saterland, by 1,000 speakers. West Frisian has 400, 000
speakers and is spoken in the Dutch province of Friesland.

Chapter 17, on 'English', discusses the pluricentric character of
English (standard varieties) and devotes a large part of the
description to syntactical issues.

Chapter 18, on 'Germanic Creoles', provides a short introduction to
creolization and pidginization and a list and maps of the languages in
question. Creoles are distinguished in English-based, Atlantic,
Pacific, Dutch-based and German-based creoles according to historical,
geographic and linguistic factors.


This book provides the linguist and non-linguist with a highly
accessible resource to the issues surrounding descriptions and
comparisons of Germanic languages. The terminology used in the book is
straightforward and easily understood by the non-linguist. It could
be used as a textbook in an undergraduate or graduate class.

The organization of chapters and languages in this book is debatable:
instead of the separate treatment of stages of a languages, Old,
Middle and Modern English, for instance, could be discussed together
in one chapter. Also, the grouping together of Dutch, High German, Low
German and Frisian as 'Old and Middle Continental West Germanic'
(ch. 4), seems inconvenient in terms of shared features, but makes
sense in geographical terms.

Some details of information should be updated, e.g. on page 4, 188 and
not 187 leaves of the Codex Argenteus are preserved (cf. Garbe,
1972). Leaf no. 188 was found in the dome of Speyer in 1970 (thus
called the Speyer Leaf). It contains theretofore unattested words,
e.g. farwa 'appearance, guise, gestalt'.

The uniform structure for each chapter and language makes it easy for
the reader to look up information quickly or recognize similarities
and differences easily. The references are excellent for illustrating
the languages. Nevertheless, for more detailed information, the reader
should go back to grammars of the particular language.

In conclusion, this book will be highly useful as a text for an
introductory class of Germanic languages. The information provided is
well written, very informative, and highly accessible to the reader.


Garbe, Burkhard. 1972. ''Das Speyerer Codex-Argenteus Blatt''. In:
Indogermanische Forschungen. Berlin; New York: Walter de Gruyter


Suin Shin is a doctoral candidate in Germanic Linguistics at UC
Berkeley. Her research interests include the Germanic Languages,
Korean, Grammaticalization, and Politeness Theory.
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