LINGUIST List 11.885

Sun Apr 16 2000

Qs: "Aber" in German, Lexicography

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  • Birgit Kellner, Q: "aber" in German: adversative vs. emphatic
  • 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 (4):

    (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

    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 <>