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Review of  Wortbildung der deutschen Gegenwartssprache [Word Formation in Contemporary German]

Reviewer: Karen Steffen Chung
Book Title: Wortbildung der deutschen Gegenwartssprache [Word Formation in Contemporary German]
Book Author: Wolfgang Fleischer Irmhild Barz
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Subject Language(s): German
Issue Number: 24.4755

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“Wortbildung” is a tightly organized catalogue, with plentiful examples, of the ways words are put together in German. It takes as its base Wolfgang Fleischer’s original 1969 work, which he later revised together with Irmhild Barz and Marianne Schröder in 1990 and 1992. It was then reworked by just Barz and Schröder in 2007 and again in 2012, the current edition (pp. v-vii). It is more or less a German equivalent of English works like Marchand's “The categories and types of present-day English word formation” (1969), Adams' “An Introduction to English Word-Formation” (1973), and Bauer's “English Word-Formation” (1983), but is considerably thicker and denser than the latter two. It focuses mainly on the written language, but includes colloquialisms as well. The authors state at the outset that they have consciously chosen not to propose any formalistic models of word formation (p. v).

The book is organized into five chapters, starting with an overview of the subject, ('Basic principles and concepts'), followed by one chapter each on nouns, adjectives, adverbs and verbs, plus forewords to the fourth and first editions, a bibliography, word form and subject indexes, and a list of forms covered in each chapter. Readers interested in the very detailed table of contents can view it here:

The first chapter, a quarter of the volume, offers an extremely thorough and detailed treatment of the book’s goals, structure and main topics, including synchrony and diachrony, different types of word formation, how to draw the line between morphology and syntax, phonological and orthographic issues, word creation, borrowing, lexicalization, affixation, combining forms (‘Konfixe’), blends (‘Kontamination’), productivity, linking elements, compounding and derivation.

Chapter 2, on nouns, is the most substantial of the chapters on individual parts of speech, not surprising considering that nouns account for about 50-60% of the German vocabulary, and play an especially important role in word formation. Compounds formed from two nouns enjoy almost ''unlimited productivity'' in German, with adjectives and verbs appearing as the first member of a compound noun much less frequently. Prefixation of nouns may express negation (‘Un-’: 'not, un-'), appraisal (‘Fehl-’: 'mis-', ‘Haupt-’: 'main', ‘Ur-’: 'original'), or augmentation (‘Un-’: 'un-' [as in English ‘ungodly’], ‘Erz-’: 'arch-'). Suffixation is used most often to mark diminutives (‘-chen’, ‘-lein’, ‘-le’, ‘-el’); doer, instrument, gender (‘-er’, ‘-erich’, ‘-ling’, ‘-in’); or a collective notion (‘-schaft’, ‘-heit/keit’, ‘-erei’, ‘-nis’; the prefix ‘Ge-’ is also used for this function pp. 120-126). Some interesting asymmetries are pointed out: although ‘Anfang’ and ‘Beginn’ ('start, beginning') are synonyms, and both may appear as the second element in compound nouns (‘Arbeitsbeginn’, ‘Arbeitsanfang’ 'beginning of work'), only ‘Anfang’ appears as a first element (‘Anfangsbuchstabe’ 'first letter of the alphabet'; p. 135). A coupling of two diminutives is not allowed in noun compounds, e.g. *’Häuschentürchen’ ('little door of a little house') is not an acceptable form (p. 136). The infamous penchant of German for very long compounds is said to belong mainly to written and technical language, though they may appear in everyday usage as well, for example ‘Sonnabendnachmittagsbehaglichkeit’ 'Saturday afternoon comfort' (p. 139). Some tongue-in-cheek names for certain types of people are listed in the section on metaphors, e.g. ‘Pechvogel’ (bad-luck + bird) 'schlemazel, unlucky person', ‘Schmutzfink’ (dirt + finch) 'slob', and ‘Ulknudel’ (humor + noodle/dumpling) 'joker' (p. 143). There is an interesting class of doublets which combine a foreign, usually English, loan with a native German synonym, e.g. ‘Anwendungsapplikation’ (application + ‘application’) 'app' (p. 146). Acronyms, initialisms, and clipping are examined in considerable detail, and suggest interesting comparisons with English and other languages.

Adjectives, treated in chapter 3, comprise only about 15% of the German vocabulary, and there may in fact be only a ''few hundred'' simplex forms; polymorphic adjectives are mostly ad hoc coinages (pp. 297-8). Neither blending nor reduplication is common in German adjectives. Some common adjectival word-final elements are in other contexts free morphemes, e.g. ‘-reich’ ('-rich'), ‘-arm’ ('low-[e.g. fat]'), and ‘-fähig’ ('-capable'), often making it difficult to draw a clear line between derivation and compounding. ‘-arm’ is interesting in that it can be either negative or positive semantically, depending on what it is attached to and the context: in ‘geräuscharme Maschinen’ ('low-noise machines'), it is certainly something desirable; in ‘ideenarme Diskussion’ ('idea-impoverished discussion') it is not (p. 305). Metaphorical nouns often function as intensifiers in colorful adjectival formations. ‘stock-’ 'stick, cane' is used in ‘stocksteif’ 'stick-stiff'; its meaning is further extended as a more abstract intensifier in words such as ‘stockbesoffen’('''stick drunk'', smashed') and ‘stockheiser’ ('''stick hoarse'', hoarse as a crow'); further examples include ‘pudelnass’ ('wet as a poodle'), the alliterative ‘nagelneu’ ('new as a nail'), and ‘kerngesund’ ('healthy as a kernel'). Vulgar, taboo, and other words with strong meanings may also be used as intensifiers, e. g. ‘tod-’ ('dead') is used in ‘todschick’ ('super chic, ''dead chic'''; pp. 310-1).

Also mentioned are contrasting examples of compounds as opposed to phrases, in which the only difference is an orthographic separation into two words for the phrase, and in the spoken language, use of compound as opposed to phrasal stress: ‘FRÜHreif’ 'early bloomer' (as adj.) vs. ‘FRÜH REIF’ 'matured early', and ‘SCHWERkrank’ 'invalid' (as adj.) vs. ‘SCHWER KRANK’ 'critically ill' (translations are only approximate and meant to point up the differences in German; p. 325). There is an interesting contrast between words with the same stem and largely synonymous prefixes: ‘selbstständig’ (self + standing = 'independent' vs. ‘eigenständig’ (self + standing = 'alone, without outside help'; p. 328). Conversion is found with certain nouns, often foreign loans, which are not declined when used adjectivally, e.g. ‘klasse’ 'super' and color names such as ‘indigo’ and ‘orange’ (p. 358).

Chapter 4 is the shortest -- a mere 12 pages -- treating adverbs, which are in German and many other languages among the least inflected parts of speech. Nevertheless, there are numerous patterns of adverb formation worth noting, including compound adverbs, formed with an adverb plus a preposition (‘daneben’ 'next to it' and ‘darauf’ 'on it, thereon', the so-called ''prepositional adverbs''), two prepositions (‘inzwischen’ 'meanwhile'), an adjective plus preposition (‘querdurch’ 'straight through') or a noun plus preposition (‘tagsüber’ 'during the day'); also many derivations formed with suffixes like ‘-dings’ (adverb marker suggesting 'thoroughness', e.g. ‘allerdings’ 'admittedly, certainly') and ‘-wärts’ ('in the direction of, -wards'), e.g. ‘hinterwärts’ 'backwards').

Chapter 5 is again more substantial, as one would expect from a chapter on German verbs, yet it is considerably shorter than the chapter on nouns. There are not many verbal suffixes in German; however, few verbs can escape occurring without either an inseparable prefix (a morphological formation), or a separable particle (a syntactic formation), though seldom do both occur in the same verb at the same time (p. 380). This book shines particularly in making abstract or difficult-to-explain issues clear and explicit, for example, the semantics of the prefix ‘be-’ (cognate with the English ‘be-’ as in ‘belabor’, ‘bemoan’; p. 384). Especially enlightening is the section on ‘ver-’, an extremely common verbal prefix which exhibits seemingly contradictory meanings. The authors impressively succeed in reconciling all the diverging semantics of ‘ver-’ in the core meaning of 'the completion of an event' (p. 389). Foreign-originating verbal prefixes such as
‘de-’, ‘dis-’, ‘kon-’, ‘re-’ are seldom used on a native German stem, while the pattern of indigenous prefixes attached to ''exogenous'' stems is common and even productive, e.g. ‘überreagieren’ 'to overreact', ‘umrangieren’ 'to reroute, remodel' (p. 395, 116). And it is common for a number of different foreign prefixes to be affixed to the same foreign stem, e.g. ‘de-’, ‘dis-’, ‘pro-’, ‘reponieren’ ('to deposit, dispose of, propose, set a bone'; p. 396). There is a class of inseparable verb compounds which can be viewed as either ''copulative'', or ''determinative'', i.e. with a subordinative modifier + main action structure, e.g. ‘grinskeuchen’ (grin + gasp) 'to grin and gasp, to gasp while grinning' (p. 374). There are a number of causatives formed through internal modification, e.g. ‘sinken’ ('to sink' [intransitive]) vs. ‘senken’ ('to sink [transitive], cause to sink'), ‘trinken’ 'to drink' vs. ‘tränken’ 'to water (animals), to immerse', but the pattern is no longer productive (p. 375). Some verbs, often ones ending in ‘-ieren’, have an abbreviated form, e.g. ‘funktionieren’ ('to function, work') -> ‘funzen’, ‘registrieren’ ('to register') -> ‘reggen’ (p. 375).

The book ends a bit abruptly here, with no concluding chapter; but that is perhaps not necessary in a descriptive work like this one -- it's very much in keeping with the no-nonsense, always-keeping-to-the-point nature of the whole book.

This is the fourth, ''fully reworked'' edition, and it shows in the great care exercised in the topics addressed, tight organization, broad assortment of illustrative examples, and in the clear, crisp style, which manages to maintain a scholarly tone while avoiding pedantry. I spotted a single misplaced word (p. 385); otherwise the book is virtually typo-free -- a laudable feat, even taking into account that this is a fourth edition. It has an attractive cover design featuring Lego pieces of various sizes snapped together in different ways, an apt analogy for typical German word structure.

This book does an exquisite job of presenting, analyzing and exemplifying the many things that make German morphology so satisfying -- its chunkiness, its playfulness, its tendency to maintain the integrity of many of the elements that go into the composition of its words, and its resulting transparency. The authors are highly sensitive to the issue of defining what qualifies as a compound, a collocation, and a syntactic phrase, and they explicitly point out grey areas in between. The straightforward treatment of combining forms (‘Konfixe’) is particularly refreshing; in English, combining forms are often felt to be an awkward category, neither flesh nor fowl, not quite fitting in as either affixes, word roots or free morphemes. In this work they are tidily placed where they belong on the continuum of morpheme types. Not only is this continuum approach an excellent model for other languages, but the high degree of rigor employed in arriving at classifications is something we can all learn from, and try to apply in our own work, and our evaluation of the work of others.

This volume may at first glance seem like a run-of-the-mill reference work to be dug out now and then to read up on specific word types, but I personally found it to be an outright inspiration, worth reading from cover to cover. With its thorough coverage for German, it can serve as a solid basis and model for similar analyses of other languages, even as unlikely a one as Chinese. This book gets a full five stars.

Adams, Valerie. “An Introduction to English Word-Formation”. London & New York: Longman, 1973.

Bauer, Laurie. “English Word-Formation”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Marchand, Hans. “The categories and types of present-day English word formation”. Munich: C.H. Beck, 1969.
Karen Steffen Chung is an associate professor of English and linguistics in the foreign language department of National Taiwan University in Taipei, and also teaches English over the radio and Internet. Her German learning began at home with her father, a second-generation German, and was further refined during a year of study at a Gymnasium in Hamburg. Her areas of specialization include phonetics, teaching of pronunciation, and Chinese morphology. She is the author of Mandarin Compound Verbs (Crane’s, 2006), which received an NTU award for excellent research in 2007, and she is currently working on a book on Taiwan English.