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Review of  The Phonology of German

Reviewer: Jeffrey K. Parrott
Book Title: The Phonology of German
Book Author: Richard Wiese
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Phonology
Subject Language(s): German
Issue Number: 12.2354

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Wiese, Richard (2000) The Phonology of German. Oxford University Press,
paperback ISBN 0-19-829950-8, x+358 pp., $35.00.

Reviewed by Jeffrey K. Parrott, Georgetown University

This book was announced at

This book presents a comprehensive overview of the phonology of German, with
many in depth analyses of phonological and morphological phenomena. The
book's primary focus is theoretical rather than descriptive, and so the
material is organized according to theoretical rather empirical issues. As a
result, the description and analysis of some phenomena range over several
chapters. For example, parts of the analysis of German schwa are presented
in Chapters 4 (Prosodic Morphology), 5 (Aspects of Lexical Phonology and
Morphology), and 7 (Phonological Rules and Alternations), besides additional
mentions in Chapters 1 (Introduction) and 6 (Underspecification). The book
is especially concerned with prosody, morphology, and the interaction
between the two. Half of the book's chapters are organized according to
these topics, and the author spends much time on morphological (and
phonological) processes that are crucially dependent on prosodic structure.
For example, the alternation between the derivational nominalizing suffixes
'-heit/-keit' is argued to depend on foot structure, so that -keit is
attached to "adjectives ending in a branching, polysyllabic foot" (p. 98)
and -heit is a default morpheme.

'The Phonology of German' will be most valuable to phonologists,
morphologists, and researchers in German linguistics. The many analyses
illustrating crucial interactions between morphology and prosody have a
clear relevance for theories of morphology and the morpho-syntactic
interface, so this book might also be of interest to researchers in those
areas. Moreover, I think that 'The Phonology of German' would make an
excellent supplemental text for an introductory or intermediate phonology
course. The book contains many clear examples of the relation between
empirical phenomena and theoretical claims, and provides a great model of
linguistic argumentation. While many phenomena are analyzed in detail, other
topics receive a more brief treatment, and several questions are left open.
This should generate ample material for student research, and many
references are provided.

This book will likely be quite inaccessible to those without at least (the
equivalent of) a semester of phonology. Although the author briefly
introduces and often argues for the theoretical frameworks he adopts, much
of the terminology and many underlying assumptions about phonology and
linguistics are not explicitly defined or explained. This is certainly not a
book I would recommend, as the cover suggests, to a non-specialist reader
for an "introduction to the sound system of German." The book will be useful
for people learning German as a foreign language only insomuch as they have
some background in phonology.

The following summarizes the content of each chapter.

Chapter 1. Introduction

This chapter lays the ground for the material to follow. The object of
inquiry is declared to be Modern Standard German, as defined by pronouncing
dictionaries (such as the Duden-Aussprachewoerterbuch (Duden 1990)). The
very basic assumptions and aims of generative phonology are introduced, and
the contents of the book are summarized.

Chapter 2. The Phoneme System of German

This chapter introduces the inventory of phonemes in German. There is some
brief discussion of the issues that arise in attempting to determine whether
certain segments or sequences of segments are in fact phonemes of German
(and how to treat them generally). These are the status of segments acquired
from foreign borrowings; affricates and diphthongs; the phonetic similarity
of allophones; the choice of phoneme in relation to allophones; and the
status of schwa. The chapter ends with a classification of all of the
proposed phonemes in terms of distinctive features.

Chapter 3. The Prosodic Structure of German

This chapter introduces levels of phonological structure above the segment.
These levels are both motivated using evidence for German, and used to
explain existing problems in German phonology. Moving upwards from the
segmental level, the first topic is feature-geometry. A particular featural
architecture is argued for, based on suggestions in the literature and
evidence from German. The next topic is syllables and syllable structure. It
is proposed that a syllable is a structural unit that dominates skeletal
positions, whose number and arrangement are language specific. The
association of segments with skeletal positions may vary, allowing an
account of ambisyllabicity, gemination and de-gemination, vowel length, and
affricates. There is some discussion of whether additional structure is
needed between the syllable and the skeletal tier. The author considers,
criticizes, but reluctantly adopts a hierarchical onset/nucleus/coda
syllable structure (moraic theory is relegated to a single mention in a
footnote). The section concludes with a discussion of extra-syllabicity and
the procedures for syllabification. The next section is an in depth
treatment the foot and its role in German phonology. A foot is defined as a
single syllable with strong stress, or a sequence of two syllables where the
first has stronger stress than the second. The author argues for the foot as
unit of prosodic structure by showing that it is crucial for the analysis of
several phenomena in German, including the distribution if glottal stop,
plural formation, and the formation of clippings. Moving up, the next
section argues for the existence of the phonological word as unit of
prosodic structure. Evidence comes from various phenomena, including
syllabification in compounds and affixed words, word stress, and gapping.
The latter is of considerable interest since it shows that deletion in
coordinated structures is sensitive to (prosodic) phonological information,
a finding of clear relevance for syntax and/or theories of a syntax
phonology interface. The chapter ends with some discussion of phonological
and intonational phrases.

Chapter 4. Prosodic Morphology

This chapter provides a detailed examination of the crucial role that
prosodic structure plays in German morphology. The first section deals with
three derivational and inflectional affixes ('-ei', 'be-' and 'ge-',
'-heit/-keit') whose behavior can be accounted for only by reference to
prosodic structure. For example, it is argued that the participial 'ge-'
prefix can be attached only to phonological words consisting of a single
foot. Again, this is of relevance for theories of morphology and the
morpho-syntax interface. An interesting result of this section is the
simplification of allomorphy in German. Prosodic conditions on affixation
allow the elimination of dubious allomorphic suffixes such as '-erei' and
'-igheit', which are (more naturally) treated as sequences of affixes with
independent attachment conditions. The next section offers a brief prosodic
analysis of conditions on compounding. The status of schwa in inflectional
morphology is discussed in the final section. It is argued that inflectional
affixes are subject to prosodic constraints which differ for nouns,
adjectives, and verbs. Schwa may be inserted by an independent schwa
epenthesis rule (treated later in the book) in order to satisfy these
prosodic constraints.

Chapter 5. Aspects of Lexical Phonology and Morphology

The topic of this chapter is the theory of Lexical Phonology. After a brief
introduction to the theory, German derivational affixes are assigned to two
classes based on evidence such as affix ordering and stress shifting. A
level ordered model of the German lexicon is proposed, and the Strict Cycle,
Elsewhere, and Structure Preservation Conditions are introduced. The Lexical
Phonology framework is applied to German plural formation, which is
notoriously complex. It is claimed that plural morphology is essentially
regular in German; however, the various plural suffixes are located at
different lexical levels. German linking morphemes ('fugenmorpheme') are
also analyzed. The chapter ends with a discussion of some problems with the
Lexical Phonology approach, including bracketing paradoxes in German.

Chapter 6. Underspecification: An Analysis of Markedness and Defaults

This chapter argues that segmental representations ought to be
underspecified, consisting only of minimally necessary, non-redundant
features. After phonological rules have applied, default and markedness
rules assign values to missing features to derive a complete featural
representation. The vowel and consonant systems of German are reanalyzed in
these terms, with various markedness rules proposed. This results in an
interesting treatment German 'r', which is argued to have only one class
feature, [+continuant]. Evidence for this analysis comes from 'r's
considerably variable realization, both across and within German dialects.

Chapter 7. Phonological Rules and Alternations

This chapter, the longest in the book, contains many analyses of
phonological rules and alternations in German, based upon the theoretical
framework(s) developed in the preceding chapters. The chapter begins by
introducing a non-linear rule formalism (with feature spreading, linking and
delinking, etc.). The rest of the chapter is organized into the following
sections: Rules of Vowel Alternation, Rules in the Consonant System,
Syllables and Related Matters, and Phonotactic Constraints and Principles,
and Phonology or Phonetics. Noteworthy analyses include that of German
Umlaut, where it is argued that a 'floating' [+front] feature, associated
with a particular root by lexical specification, spreads to the rightmost
vowel in the domain of a phonological word. Other classical problems in
German phonology are addressed, including final devoicing, dorsal fricative
assimilation, schwa, and 'r'-vocalization. The second to last section
introduces the sonority hierarchy and discusses the restrictions on
consonant clusters in German, with special attention paid to the
distribution of 's' and 'sh'. In the final section it is suggested that
discreetness can be a criteria with which to distinguish phonological from
phonetically based rules.

Chapter 8. Word Stress, Compound Stress, Phrase Stress

This penultimate chapter describes stress patterns in German. After a
numerical-value theory of stress is dismissed, stress is defined as a
prominence relation between the units of prosodic structure that were
defended in the preceding chapters. Being strictly relational in this way,
it follows that stress is binary: some unit of prosodic structure is either
relatively stronger or weaker than another unit of the same type. With this
definition in hand, the chapter goes on to describe the patterns of stress
in successively larger domains: simplex words, complex words, compounds, and
phrases. Stress patterns are derived by means of various stress assignment
rules, which interact with syllabification rules, syllable structure,
lexical strata, cyclic rule application, and other parts of the phonological
theory outlined in preceding chapters.

Chapter 9. Concluding Remarks

This 1 1/2 page chapter concludes the book by asserting the place of
phonology in cognitive science, and pointing to two problems that the author
takes to be paramount in phonology. The first of these is the question of
the boundaries and possible interactions between phonology and phonetics.
The second concerns a tension found in all generative linguistic theory: how
to decide which principles, rules, representations, etc. are universal (and
thus presumably a part of Universal Grammar), and which are language
specific or variable.

Postscript 2000

This postscript addresses Optimality Theory (OT). It was added to the 2000
paperback edition of 'The Phonology of German' because OT has become more
prominent and been more extensively developed and applied since the book's
original 1996 edition, and thus deserves at least some mention. The
postscript is short (only 5 pages) and organized into sections that
correspond roughly to the chapters of the book: Prosodic Structure,
Morphology and Morphophonology, Prosodic Word Formation, Rules Vs.
Constraints, and Stress Patterns. Each section provides a brief summary of
proposals made in the OT literature regarding these topics in general, and
of OT analyses of particular phenomena such as final devoicing.

'The Phonology of German' is an excellent book, which accomplishes
everything it sets out to do. The argumentation is strikingly clear and
straightforward, a broad range of topics are covered without sacrificing
detailed treatments, and many references are cited, facilitating further
research on any of the topics covered. I can advance only one criticism,
which involves the notion of 'standard' languages invoked by the author, and
his consequent decision to use 'pronouncing dictionaries' as a source of
data. Weise states that "...the standardized form of present-day German,
termed Modern Standard German, is chosen as the major object of the present
study. ...the main media concerned with establishing a standard are
pronouncing dictionaries of Germany." (p. 1) But it is not clear what is
meant by a 'standard' language or whether such an entity even exists, for
German or any other language. What is colloquially referred to as 'standard'
language seems in most cases to be some combination of a particular
enshrined dialect or dialect group (e.g., Northern German dialects, Seoul
Korean, the dialects of London and southern England, upper-Midwestern
English) and a prescriptive target that most or all native speakers do not
actually produce (see Lippi-Green (1997) for interesting discussion of
'standard' American English). To my knowledge, no convincing evidence has
been presented that shows any 'standard' language to correspond either to
the linguistic usage of some actual speech community, or to a linguistic
system likely to be internal to the mind of some individual. This is not to
deny that the study of 'standard' languages cannot yield useful insights
into the beliefs that a community holds about language, and the ways in
which these beliefs influence how language is used for social purposes.
However, 'standard' languages--whatever they may be--are not appropriate
objects for linguistic inquiry of the sort undertaken in this book.

A related issue concerns the book's use of pronouncing dictionaries as a
source of data, something that is problematic both in theory and in
practice. First, the use of pronouncing dictionaries points to the
inadequacy of the notion of 'standard' language, as discussed above. These
dictionaries prescribe "received," "public" or "formal" German
pronunciation, promoting "a pronunciation of German which is free of
dialectal and other variation." (pp. 1-2) This suggests that some or even
the majority of the German speaking population do not in fact pronounce
things as such; otherwise prescription would be unnecessary. But these
dictionaries are taken by the author to define Modern Standard German, which
begs the question of just what actual linguistic entity is referred to by
'standard.' If Modern Standard German corresponds to nothing but the
prescriptions of dictionary writers, then it is not an appropriate object of
inquiry, as noted.

Of course, a practical problem with dictionary data is that it is sometimes
plainly wrong or contradictory, naturally so if dictionaries are mostly
prescriptive rather than descriptive. In such instances, the author is
inconsistent, sometimes abandoning the pronouncing dictionaries and
sometimes not. For example, the author claims that the dictionaries'
prohibition of g-Spirantization in a certain environment constitutes
evidence for the lexical status of the g-Spirantization rule, even while
noting that "speakers even of the standard pronunciation certainly do not
follow this normative rule [lack of g-Spirantization in said environment] in
all cases." (p. 208) But later the author states that a dorsal fricative is
in fact not velarized in a certain environment, "contrary to...the
pronouncing dictionaries." (p. 210) Or, noting two variable pronunciations
of a word, a footnote mentions that "the pronouncing dictionaries actually
require" just one variant. (fn. 37, p. 221)

Clearly one cannot fault the author for failing to provide a comprehensive
phonological analysis of every modern dialect of German. However, we need
not resort to untenable notions of 'standard' language or to collecting data
from prescriptive dictionaries. Rather, I believe that a preferable approach
would be to simply select some dialect or dialect group and collect data
from it, acknowledging when data from other sources is necessary. Then other
matters unrelated to linguistic structure--such as the dialect's relative
social status, number of speakers, and consequent 'standardization'--can be
considered separately.

These are quibbles, of course, and do not detract from the overall quality
of 'The Phonology of German'. The issues raised above will not be noticed
by, and are perhaps not relevant for, most of the people who would read this
book. But there is some risk involved in basing linguistic description and
analysis upon notions like 'standard' language. There is always the
possibility of arriving at misleading or incorrect conclusions. But more
serious in my view is the possibility that the scientific prestige of
linguistics (such as there is) will be thereby lent to the mythology of

Duden. (1990). Duden Aussprachewoerterbuch: Woerterbuch der deutschen
Standardaussprache (3rd ed.). Mannheim: Dudenverlag.

Lippi-Green, R. (1997). English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and
Discrimination in the United States. New York: Routledge.

Jeffrey K. Parrott is a graduate student at Georgetown University. His
research focuses on the role played by morphology in language variation and
change. He is also interested in minimalist syntactic theory, the syntax-PF
interface, and sociolinguistics.