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Review of  The Germanic Strong Verbs

Reviewer: Thomas Schares
Book Title: The Germanic Strong Verbs
Book Author: Robert Mailhammer
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Language Family(ies): Germanic
Issue Number: 19.114

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AUTHOR: Mailhammer, Robert
TITLE: The Germanic Strong Verbs
SUBTITLE: Foundations and Development of a New System
SERIES: Trends in Linguistics, Studies and Monographs, 183
PUBLISHER: Mouton de Gruyter
YEAR: 2007

Thomas Schares, Academy of Sciences Goettingen, Goethe-Woerterbuch
[Goethe-Dictionary], Hamburg/Germany

SUMMARY From the beginnings of modern linguistics in the 19th century,
peculiarities of the Germanic languages have drawn the attention of scholars in
diachronic linguistics. Even today, there is a puzzling innovation found in the
Germanic languages and not in any other Indo-European (IE) language family: the
system of strong verbs with its functionalization of ablaut in order to mark the
grammatical category of tempus. Consequently, a vast amount of literature on
this topic has been published since the findings and insights of Jacob Grimm and
his contemporaries. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in
questions of historical linguistics and refinements of methodology due to
developments in general linguistics which have also yielded a number of
important new works on the Germanic verbal system. The present monograph
reflects a trend in Germanic and IE studies.

A comment on the fairly global and ambiguous title of the volume (possibly to
meet the series requirements and publishing house policy) is necessary. The
study does not, as the reader may assume from the title, attempt to
re-systematize the well-founded and established categorization of the Germanic
strong verbs into seven classes. Rather, the subtitle points to the fact that
the development and functionalization of the class system of strong verbs in the
Germanic languages has to be considered an innovation evolving in Germanic,
clearly differentiating it from IE, and that the study attempts to shed light on
the origins and formation of this development.

The present study is a ''revised version'' (preface, n.p.) of Mailhammer's Ph.D.
thesis (Munich 2004), and it comprises two main parts: first an extensive
investigation of the morphology of Germanic strong verbs and its relations to
the reconstructed verbal system of the predecessor IE; second, a quantitative
evaluation of the origin (etymology) of the Germanic strong verbs (IE vs.
non-IE) based on the utilization of dictionaries.

The first chapter (Introduction and preliminaries, 1-14) serves as a brief
introduction. The status of ablaut and the strong verbs in Germanic studies is
outlined with Mailhammer positioning himself in the ongoing controversy about
whether the development of the Germanic ablaut system is due to internal or
external reasons. (The traditional scholarly view on the development of the
strong verbs favors the idea of an internal development, i.e. from IE to
Germanic without outer influence.) The notion of language contact as a motor for
the restructuring of the Germanic verbal system (as well as for some other
Germanic 'peculiarities') is notable and has its own tradition in accordance
with the substrate-theory. Recently, researchers exploring the European
linguistic area under the label of Euro-linguistics, as well as Romance
creolists and paleo-linguists, have given valuable directions for new insights
into the development of IE and Germanic and postulated new/renewed theories
concerning the formation of Germanic. Mailhammer supports the theory brought
forward by Theo Vennemann (e.g. 1998), that the functionalization of ablaut in
Germanic languages is a result of linguistic contact with Semitic languages.
This assumption is based on the typological similarity of grammatically
functionalized ablaut in verbal stems.

The second chapter (Systematized and functionalized ablaut: The morphology of
the Germanic strong verbs, pp. 15-140) contains a thorough account of the
morphological and grammatical processes involved in the formation of the
Germanic strong verb system including the inherited devices of ablaut and
reduplication. Whereas reduplication undisputedly had been functionalized
grammatically in the IE verbal system, for the ablaut it can be stated that
while the device has also been inherited by the parent language, its grammatical
function within the verbal system has not. These facts are discussed in detail
in the first section of chapter 2, along with problems arising from attempts to
reconstruct the formation of ablaut in IE, especially the explanation of
quantitative ablaut. The origin of qualitative ablaut in IE is undisputed. In
addition, the issues of thematic and athematic stem-formation as well as the
loss of the aorist and a supposed regression of reduplication in Germanic and
the impacts on the system of strong verbs are discussed. These more general
observations serve to highlight the typological correspondence of Germanic
verbal ablaut to similar structures in Semitic and are followed by a
morphological description and discussion of the system of strong verbs by its
classes (in section 3 of chapter 2, pp. 53-111). The author denotes classes I to
V as a ''primary system'', class VI as a ''secondary system'' and class VII as a
''safety-net-system'' based on the visible structural differences that group the
single classes: the first group has a fairly homogeneuous distribution of the
ablaut - only the lengthened grades in the plural preterites of classes IV and V
as well as the full grade in the past participle need further explanation and
are still in the focus of scholarly attention (cf. pp. 67-85). Class VI, as is
well known, looks completely different having o/a-full-grade instead of e-grade
in the present and lengthened grade in preterite forms and shows a distribution
of two ablaut-grades, one for present and the other for preterite forms, which
serves as a Germanic model consecutively. The ongoing controversy concerning
this is reflected in the discussion (pp. 86-104). The group must necessarily be
split since IE /a/ and /o/ in Germanic both become /a/; consequently two
sub-groups must have merged, which, at any rate, is core knowledge in historical
linguistics on Germanic, and a reconstruction from IE should not be too
far-fetched, albeit some more research is to be expected on this. Class VII, the
(formerly) reduplicating verbs (clearly traceable only in Gothic) in comparison
to the former groups seems like a melting pot; a group of verbs employing
reduplication is constructed for Germanic, a device which has disappeared in all
surviving Germanic branches and can be considered as the old IE morphological
model which has been given up in favor of the ablaut system. In section 4 of the
second chapter (pp. 112-140) the study traces processes of regularization and of
fusion involving aorist-loss, thematization of former athematic stems and root
normalization, especially of former zero-grade-presents, which led to a fairly
homogeneous and regular system of Germanic strong verbs (on these issues in
Gothic and Old English see also Di Giovine, Flamini, and Pozza 2007). To sum up,
many issues concerning the origins and the shaping of the system of Germanic
strong verbs are still disputed among scholars, which is adequately outlined in
the present chapter.

Following this full analysis of the morphological situation of the Germanic
strong verbs, chapter 3 (Inheritance vs. acquisition: The etymological situation
of the Germanic strong verbs, pp. 141-187) is dedicated to an appealing
quantitative analysis of the descent of the Germanic strong verbs (IE vs.
non-IE). This is carried out in the vicinity of suggestions of external
influences on the formation of Germanic peculiarities. It is a widespread notion
that about a third of the Germanic vocabulary cannot be traced back to IE (e.g.
Haarmann 2006, p. 184: 28 per cent of the elementary lexicon), yet how this
figure has been obtained is rather obscure – a situation notoriously similar to
that in other linguistic areas where quantitative approaches are involved. The
author therefore must be credited for attempting to back up such notions with
more exact numbers. The method he employs is an interpretation of dictionary
data: The basis for the analysis is a dictionary of the Germanic strong verbs by
E. Seebold (1970). Since this dictionary is almost 40 years old, the data
obtained from it is compared with two more recent lexicographic works, first, a
dictionary of IE verbs by H. Rix (2001) and second Kluge (2002), a seminal
etymological dictionary on the German language. The strong verbs are now
categorized into four groups by interpreting information from these: The first
group with secure IE etymology, the second with IE etymologies carrying minor
weaknesses, a third group with serious formal weaknesses and a fourth with no
(IE) etymology. By this, a large quantity of Germanic strong verbs without IE
etymology can be extracted from the data: the author states that 223 out of 492
analyzed verbs are without IE etymology. The quantitative approach is expanded
by analyzing each verbal class separately and finally by a comparative analysis
of a Greek and a Sanskrit dictionary. The testimony of linguistic material in
reconstructed language(-stage)s like Germanic (in the case of which a phase of
uniformity is debated to this day and doubts supported by historical research,
cf. e.g. Todd 2000, 15-19) is highly questionable due to many shortcomings,
random records, and fallacies in postulated etymological chains; also the
assumption of records and certain words simply lost - missing links - is always
to be taken into account. Apart from that, the notion of an alien part in the
Germanic lexicon and especially in the strong verbs has clearly been reasserted
in this study. Consequently, the notion of external influence is taken up again
in the concluding chapter of the book.

The fourth and last chapter of the study (Conclusion and further thoughts, pp.
188-210) summarizes the study’s contents, and the striking typological
similarity of Germanic on the one hand and Semitic languages on the other hand
is brought into focus once more. The drastic typological dissimilarities between
IE on the one hand and the Germanic languages on the other hand of course call
for explanations; but, by and large, as contrastive linguistics has pointed out,
(drastic) typological change is not that uncommon, i.e. the loss of the aorist
is true for a number of IE languages apart from Germanic. The chapter ends with
the presentation of three model etymological analyses of the Germanic verbs
_laha-_, _plega-_, _drepa-_. For the latter two, semitic etymologies are suggested.

The book is rounded off with three appendices (pp. 211-233), namely appendix A:
Zero Grade Presents; appendix B: Categorization according to chapter 3; appendix
C: Some more quantitative evaluations according to chapter 3 using ''alternative
criteria''); a list of references (234-253); a word index (pp. 254-260); and a
subject index (pp. 261-262).

On the whole, the book is an important contribution to the ongoing exploration
and explanation of the truly peculiar Germanic verbal system. The author
presents some substantial observations on intricate and controversial details
like the proposal of a regular development of verbal perfects with a root
internal laryngeal in IE and the denotation of /u:/-verbs as zero-grade presents
in class II. The final statement of the study is that morphological
peculiarities (chapter 2) and the etymological situation (chapter 3) of the
system of Germanic strong verbs can be interpreted in a way to argue against the
thesis of internal development and to support Vennemann's hypothesis of contact
to Semitic.

The idea of a Semitic-Germanic contact situation is fascinating (Mailhammer, in
order to support this theory refers to more of his own work and titles by
Vennemann on this topic), but on the whole it is hard to produce evidence. The
notion of a typological similarity has to be interpreted carefully since it does
not necessarily indicate a contact between typologically related languages. The
well-known example of the typological similarity of English and Chinese may
prove this: both are (mainly) isolating languages. This could be called a
typological convergence, but it does not involve any linguistic contact of both
languages of any kind, a fact which can be substantiated by historical evidence.
Maybe also the Germanic verbal system in total should not remain completely out
of view when trying to evaluate the strong verbs. It should not be overlooked
that the class of verbs that finally became productive in Germanic are the weak
verbs, rendering the strong verbs more or less a morphological artifact.

The quantitative approach employed in this book clearly marks a further step in
historical linguistics, which still has to strive to overcome some inheritances
of the 19th century. Quantitative approaches like this one can also possibly
profit from the availability of electronic resources (lexicostatistics on strong
verbs cf. Kühne 1999). The present study, for example, could have been enhanced
and rendered even more exact by semi-automatically generated headword-lists
obtained from a number of dictionaries (i.e. the ones Mailhammer explicitly
turned down for practical reasons), missing items or clustering in certain areas
in the donating or the target-language(-stage) and even in the daughter
languages of the Germanic branches could have been made transparent, and by
this, the figures given could have been much more elaborate. I am convinced that
the high number of unexplained Germanic strong verbs stated by this approach is
at least partly owed to the method employed here. Especially problematic is the
comparison with material which represent literary varieties, e.g., from
Classical Greek and Sanskrit - two languages with a completely different
socio-pragmatic situation.

Finally, a few words on the appearance of book and contents: The publishing
house produces this series splendidly and fits the volumes with a quality cloth
hardcover. Print, paper and binding are of good quality. The editorial
preparation of the contents, in contrast, is poor: I found more than 50 errata
and typing errors; some passages ending the main text on a page are repeated on
top of the following page (e.g. 24-25, 58-59), elementary typographical rules,
e.g. that a new chapter always begins on a right page (e.g. pp. 188, 234, 254),
are disregarded, two figures have a double legend (pp. 181 and 183), not all of
the abbreviations are explained in the list of abbreviations (e.g. OIce.),
references to non-existing chapters are given (pp. 158, 159, 160). Furthermore,
OED is commonly used as an acronym for the Oxford English Dictionary, not for
the Oxford Etymological Dictionary, as the author does. In the footnotes the
author gives translations of cited German passages and repeatedly uses them to
give lengthy discussions of controversial or marginal details (e.g. pp. 72-73,
124-125, 203), which often make it difficult to follow the argument. All of this
could have been remedied by a tighter editing policy and it seems highly
desirable that academic publishing houses expend more resources on thorough
editing processes involving a higher degree of attention in especially
typesetting, typography and proofreading again without leaving this solely to
the authors.

Di Giovine, Paolo; Sara Flamini; Marianna Pozza. 2007. Internal structure of
verbal stems in the Germanic languages. In: Paolo Ramat; Elisa Roma (eds),
_Europe and the Mediterranean as Linguistic Areas: Convergencies from a
historical and typological perspective_. Amsterdam: Benjamins (Studies in
Language Companion Series; 88), 49-62.

Haarmann, Harald. 2006. _Weltgeschichte der Sprachen. Von der Frühzeit des
Menschen bis zur Gegenwart_. Munich: Beck.

Kluge, Friedrich. 2002. _Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache_. 24th
ed. by Elmar Seebold. Berlin/NY: de Gruyter.

Kühne, Andreas. 1999. _Zur historischen Lexikostatistik der starken Verben des
Deutschen_. Heidelberg: Winter. (Studien zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache; 2.)

Rix, Helmut. 2001. _Lexikon der indogermanischen Verben_. 2nd ed. Wiesbaden:

Seebold, Elmar. 1970. _Vergleichendes und etymologisches Wörterbuch der
germanischen starken Verben_. The Hague: Mouton.

Todd, Malcolm. 2000. _Die Germanen_. Stuttgart: Theiss. [Revised and updated
translation of English version 1995].

Vennemann, Theo. 1998. Andromeda and the Apples of the Hesperides. In: Karlene
Jones-Bley, Angela Della Volpe, Miriam R. Dexter, Martin E. Huld (eds),
_Proceedings of the Ninth Annual UCLA Indo-European Conference_, Los Angeles,
May 23, 24, 1997. (Journal of Indo-European Monograph Series; 27) Washington
D.C.: Inst. for the Study of Man.

Dr. Thomas Schares is a lexicographer/researcher at the Goethe-Dictionary, Hamburg.

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