LINGUIST List 11.885

Sun Apr 16 2000

Qs: "Aber" in German, Lexicography

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  1. Birgit Kellner, Q: "aber" in German: adversative vs. emphatic
  2. creider, the craft of lexicography -- sense distinctions

Message 1: Q: "aber" in German: adversative vs. emphatic

Date: Sat, 15 Apr 2000 23:56:50 +0200
From: Birgit Kellner <>
Subject: Q: "aber" in German: adversative vs. emphatic

Dear linguists,

I have questions regarding the character of the conjunction/adverb
"aber" in German and have a particular, rather vague thesis in this
respect on which I would like to invite comments from a better informed
linguistic viewpoint than mine.

To my understanding, "aber" can serve as a conjunction, as below in
sentences (1) and (2), or as an adverb, as below in sentences (3) and

(1) Hans schrieb, Jochen aber spielte Schach.
(2) Er wird kommen, kann aber nicht lange bleiben.

(3) Aber das ist sch´┐Żn!
(4) Du aber, Daniel, darfst bleiben!

Furthermore, "aber" can fulfill and additional emphatic function. Hence,
the two sentences

(1') Hans schrieb, Jochen spielte aber Schach.
(1'') Hans schrieb, aber Jochen spielte Schach.

 would be used in different situations than (1), i.e. the pragmatics
would perhaps be different, but "aber" remains a conjunction expressive
of an adversative relation between the two clauses.

 The first part of my thesis is: Provided that "aber" functions
primarily to express an adversative relation even in cases where it
possesses an additional emphatic function, this adversative relation is
one between the content of the two connected clauses; it is not for
instance one of a contrast between the clause that contains "aber" and
an expectation of the hearer that is semantically unrelated to the
content of the first clause. Thus,

(5) Es regnete gestern. Der Brotpreis blieb aber gleich.

would be understood to indicate that the price of bread is generally
expected to change when it rains, which, as the speaker emphasizes, was
curiously enough not the case when it rained yesterday. In the case of

(6) Der Bierpreis stieg in der letzten Woche um 20 Prozent. Es regnete
gestern. Der Brotpreis blieb aber gleich.

the second sentence would be understood as an interruption, a change of
subject - less awkward when introduced with "´┐Żbrigens" -, perhaps
causing some irritation on the part of the hearer. With the third
sentence, the hearer would recall the first and understand an
adversative relation between them: The speaker emphasizes that the price
of bread did surprisingly enough not rise even when it should have
risen, given that the price of beer rose significantly.

 Thirdly, I would like to extend my thesis to "aber" when it is used
as a (non-conjunctive) adverb, arguing that it does not have a purely
emphatic function without indicating at least some kind of contrast, or,
in other words, that its emphatic function is specifically one of
emphasizing contrast. Theoretically, it could be possible that this
contrast is one between the "aber"-sentence and an expectation on the
part of the hearer which was not articulated in the course of preceding
discourse, though I cannot really come up with an actual example for
such a situation. (4) for instance is likely to be uttered in a
situation where the permission to stay or leave for other people than
Daniel was already discussed, but not without any such prelude. (3)
would be either uttered in a situation where the speaker had already
denied some other object to be beautiful; or else, "aber" would have to
be classified as an interjection indicating surprise, in which case the
relation of contrast arguably is one between the "aber"-sentence and the
speaker's own expectation.

 In this context, my question is rather simple: Would one indeed
classify "aber" in (5) and (6) as a conjunction, and not as an adverb?
On what linguistic grounds is an instance of "aber" classified as either
conjunction or adverb in the first place? On semantic grounds, to the
effect that "aber" is judged to be an adverb if no preceding sentence or
clause is present with which the "aber"-sentence could be related in
terms of contrast?

 [This whole issue came up when my colleagues and me recently
discussed whether a particular usage of Sanskrit "ca" could be
translated with "aber" in German, and I would like to argue on the
grounds of the above thesis that this is inadequate.]


 Birgit Kellner
 Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies
 Vienna University
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Message 2: the craft of lexicography -- sense distinctions

Date: Sun, 16 Apr 2000 06:36:37 -0400 (EDT)
From: creider <>
Subject: the craft of lexicography -- sense distinctions

I would be grateful for references to any discussion of the art of
making sense distinctions in the writing of dictionaries. I believe
that James Murray, the 19th century editor of the OED, wrote that this
was one of the most time-consuming and difficult parts of the process
of creating an entry for a word. There is some discussion of the topic
in John Chadwick's _Lexicographica Graeca_, but, surprisingly, none
in Sidney Landau's _Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography_.

Many thanks,

Chet Creider
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