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Review of  Das Verb 'machen' im gesprochenen Deutsch

Reviewer: Jens Fleischhauer
Book Title: Das Verb 'machen' im gesprochenen Deutsch
Book Author: Karoline Kreß
Publisher: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag GmbH + Co. KG
Linguistic Field(s): Pragmatics
Subject Language(s): German
Issue Number: 29.3938

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The German verb ‘machen’ (‘make, do’) is often characterized as being polysemous. Dictionaries list various uses of the verb, each of which is assumed to connect to a different meaning. Among the interpretations associated with ‘machen’ are ‘to create something’, ‘to perform something’, ‘to do business with someone’, and ‘to take action’. Dictionaries differ with respect to both the meanings attributed to the verb, as well as the exact number of meanings. Whereas dictionaries treat ‘machen’ as highly polysemous, Karoline Kreß goes in the opposite direction. She argues that the verb’s meaning is underspecified and a concrete reading only arises in a particular context of use.

After an introduction to the volume and an explication of general methodological issues, the book starts in Chapter 3 by providing some theoretical and methodological background. The chapter focuses on the question of how meaning is construed at different linguistic layers. Kreß considers cognitive and construction grammar approaches, as well as those that are interaction-based, and provides a critical discussion of all of them. In her analysis, she combines insights from all these proposals, without making a definite commitment to a particular one. In Chapter 4, Kreß introduces a layered model of meaning constitution. The three relevant layers are the lexeme, the sentence-internal layer and the sentence-external one. She essentially argues that the overall meaning of ‘machen’ is constructed at the three layers, to which the lexeme layer only contributes a very general meaning of agentivity. In Chapter 6, Kreß presents a detailed analysis of how meaning is composed at the different layers. Before turning to the empirical analysis, Section 5 discusses the question whether ‘machen’ fits into categories like pro-verb or light verb. Kreß’ answer to this question is basically negative, since none of those categories apply to all uses of ‘machen’.

The empirical analysis – covering 210 pages – constitutes the largest part of the book. The analysis is based on spoken language data, which are taken from the FOLK corpus ( Kreß provides a very detailed analysis of this data and discusses each of her examples in terms of how its meaning is constructed. Whereas the lexeme only contributes a very general meaning of agentivity, this notion of the quite general agentive event is narrowed down by the verb’s arguments. Thus, ‘Kuchen machen’ (‘make a cake’; lit. ‘cake make’) denotes a different type of activity than ‘einen Anruf machen’ (‘make a call’). However, the meaning is not uniquely determined by the arguments. A construction such as ‘Konzerte machen’ (‘make concerts’) can either mean ‘playing concerts (as a band)’ or ‘organizing concerts’, as Kreß demonstrates by use of her corpus examples. For the relevant instances, Kreß shows how the interpretation is determined by the respective context, particularly, how it is dependent on knowledge about the subject referent. In one example, the subject referent has been introduced as a musician, which resulted in the ‘playing concert’ interpretation. The ‘organizing concerts’ reading was evoked, in a different example, by having a context in which the subject referent of ‘Konzerte machen’ (‘make concerts’) had been characterized as performing activities which are related to the organization of a concert. By discussing such examples, Kreß shows how the different layers act together in specifying the meaning of the predication. In her very detailed empirical analysis, Kreß discusses various further means – which cannot be discussed in this review – by which the meaning of the predication is derived.

The volume ends with a comparison of the two verbs ‘machen’ and ‘tun’ (‘do’). The two verbs are, following Kreß, similarly underspecified with respect to their meaning. But, as she argues, ‘tun’ misses the general notion of agentivity, which is part of ‘machen’s’ underspecified meaning. Accordingly, the two differ in their use. Kreß does not provide a similarly detailed analysis for the use of ‘tun’ as she does for ‘machen’, but her brief examination is sufficient for demonstrating that ‘tun’ is less flexible and less productively used than ‘machen’, while its meaning is also more underspecified.

The volume is interesting for a German speaking readership, which has a particular interest in issues of lexical semantics and lexicology.


The current volume is an interesting and very detailed empirical analysis of the German verb ‘machen’. Kreß convincingly shows that the concrete predication is dependent on various aspects, covering the general construction (e.g. directional vs. resultative vs. transitive), the arguments, but also the sentence-external context. Her discussion of the language data is very concrete and for each example she presents a convincing account of how the predicational meaning arises through the interaction of the different mentioned components. Unfortunately, the discussion of the examples, as well as the more theoretical parts of the book, is very lengthy and often addresses aspects which are not directly central to the issue under discussion. Moreover, the discussion, especially of the language data, is often unnecessarily repetitive.

With respect to the content, I would like to point out two critical aspects. First, although Kreß discusses the issue of meaning constitutions with respect to a number of examples, this discussion remains vague. Kreß argues for how meaning is composed at the different layers, but her approach remains completely informal. She argues that ‘Konzerte machen’ (‘make concerts’) can have two interpretations, but she does not show how these interpretations are constrained by the noun ‘Konzerte’. Why does ‘Konzerte machen’ either mean ‘playing a concert (as a band)’ or ‘organizing a concert’, but not ‘advertising a concert’? It would be interesting to see, on the one hand, how the different meanings of ‘Konzerte machen’ can be derived from the meaning of ‘Konzerte’ in combination with the underspecified meaning of ‘machen’ and, on the other hand, how the constraints on the probable meaning can be determined from the meaning of the noun and the verb.

A second problematic aspect concerns Kreß’ discussion of the status of ‘machen’. The point I find least convincing is her argumentation against an analysis of ‘machen’ as a light verb. In the literature, there is no agreement on the exact definition of the notion of a light verb. Furthermore, there is no consensus on criteria for determining whether a certain predicate can be considered light. Kreß, who only cites a very small selection of work dealing with that topic, argues against analyzing ‘machen’ as a light verb based on two putative properties of light verbs. First, she proposes that a light verb always affects aspect or aktionsart of the resulting predication. As far as I know, there is no consensus that this is a necessary property of light verbs. But even if this is the case, Kreß has not demonstrated that ‘machen’ does not have such an effect. It is not unreasonable to assume that ‘machen’ affects – if not even determines – the aktionsart of the resulting predication, at least if it combines with non-eventive nouns like ‘Kuchen’ (‘cake’). Since ‘machen’ contributes, following Kreß, a notion of agentivity, it is sensible to consider that this results in at least a dynamic predication. Kreß’ own analysis of the meaning of ‘machen’ is too vague to deny that it can have, at least in some instances, an effect on the aktionsart of the resulting predication.

As a second relevant property of light verbs, Kreß proposes that there is a systematic meaning difference between a light verb construction and a corresponding simplex verb. She argues that the combination of ‘machen’ + noun rarely corresponds to a simplex verb in German. Thus, there is no simplex with a similar meaning as ‘Konzerte machen’ (‘make concerts’). Again, why should this be a necessary criterion for a light verb construction? Various languages show a very productive use of light verb constructions but no corresponding simplex verbs since they only have a small lexical class of the latter. Persian is such a language, containing only about 115 simplex verbs (Mohammad & Karimi 1992). The majority of verbal predications is realized by light verb constructions. Given Kreß’ argumentation, complex predicates in Persian cannot be light verb construction as the language lacks simplex predicates.

Kreß’ (brief) argumentation against the light verb status of ‘machen’ is – in my view – rather unconvincing and based on a too narrow sample of relevant literature. In fact, I think Kreß’ analysis of ‘machen’ and how its meaning is constructed at the different layers is highly compatible with an analysis of ‘machen’ as a light verb. Especially her discussion of examples like ‘Konzerte machen’ (‘make concerts’) or ‘Kuchen machen’ (‘make a cake’) seems to suggest that the combination of noun and verb forms a complex predicate. She proposes that ‘machen’ only contributes a general notion of agentivity to the predication, which is compatible with Butt & Geuder’s analysis of light verbs as having a modifier-like contribution to the complex predicate.

Despite the shortcomings, the current book is an interesting addition to the discussion of how the meaning of (complex) predicates is derived/composed . The major strength/impact lies in the very detailed discussion of a number of spoken language data. The empirical investigation of the use of ‘machen’ in spoken German is a very valuable contribution, which, in a next step, should be developed into an analysis, which is able to explain why certain interpretations arise and others do not.


Butt, Miriam & Wilhelm Geuder. 2001. On the (Semi)Lexical Status of Light Verbs. In Norbert Corver & Henk van Riemsdijk (eds.), Semilexical Categories: On the content of function words and the function of content words, 323–370. Berlin: Mouton.

Mohammad, J. & S. Karimi. 1992. Light verbs are taking over: Complex verbs in Persian. In J. A. Nevis & V. Samiian (eds.). Proceedings of the Western Conference on Linguistics. Vol. 5, 195-212. Fresno: California State University.
Jens Fleischhauer works at the Department of General Linguistics at Heinrich-Heine University Düsseldorf, Germany. His research interests include degree semantics and light verb constructions.