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Review of  Historische Sprachwissenschaft des Deutschen

Reviewer: Robert Mailhammer
Book Title: Historische Sprachwissenschaft des Deutschen
Book Author: Damaris Nübling Janet Duke Renata Szczepaniak
Publisher: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag GmbH + Co. KG
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): German
Issue Number: 22.2913

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AUTHORS: Nübling, Damaris; Dammel, Antje; Duke, Janet; Szczepaniak, Renata
TITLE: Historische Sprachwissenschaft des Deutschen, 3rd ed.
SUBTITLE: Eine Einführung in die Prinzipien des Sprachwandels
SERIES TITLE: Narr Studienbücher
PUBLISHER: Narr Verlag
YEAR: 2010

Robert Mailhammer, Department of English, Arizona State University

This textbook does not claim to be another introduction to the history of German
covering all its developments in detail. Rather, it intends to account for and
explain linguistic changes that German has undergone since its first attestation
in the 8th century, focusing on principles of language change. Although a
specific target audience is not identified, the fact that the completion of some
introduction to linguistics is recommend combined with the aim that the book
should enable the reader to read fairly simple research literature (''einfachere
Forschungsliteratur'', p. 7) suggest that this book is intended for
undergraduates with some basic knowledge of linguistics and an interest in
historical linguistics.

The book is divided into two main parts; the first examines change on the
various descriptive levels (e.g. phonology, morphology), while the second
investigates more complex cases of change. There also is an introductory
chapter, two indexes and a reference section.

Chapter one introduces the underlying linguistic concepts of this book and gives
a general overview of the history of German. Language is seen as having a
layered, onion-like structure: the inner layers, phonology, morphology and
syntax are seen as being less susceptible to external (non-linguistic) influence
than the more peripheral layers, e.g. pragmatics and the lexicon. Language
change is always perceived in terms of discrete linguistic levels, such as
phonological as opposed to morphological change, though levels can be
interrelated in complex cases of language change.

Chapter two addresses phonological change. After giving a brief background on
phonetics and historical phonology, this chapter concentrates on presenting
phonological developments in the history of German as a result of a fundamental
typological shift from a ''syllable language'' to a ''word language'' (Szczepaniak

Chapter three presents some fundamental principles of morphological change and
illustrates these with historical cases of changes in inflection and word
formation in German.

The topic of chapter four is syntactic change, focusing on the development of
the ''brace'' construction in German, in which elements that belong together
syntactically and/or functionally are positioned away from each other (p. 92).
In addition, the chapter addresses changes in word order and Jespersen's cycle
of change in negation.

Chapter five (semantic change) is divided into three parts. The first addresses
common types of change, such as generalisation and pejoration, while the second
part examines mechanisms of semantic innovation, which basically covers
replacement operations, such as metaphors and metonymies, as well as
conventionalised implicatures and ellipses. The chapter finishes with a brief
discussion of Rudi Keller's (1994) invisible hand approach and a case study on
the development of kinship terms in German.

Chapter six covers lexical change and focuses mainly on different types of
borrowing seen as relevant to the history of German. It is asserted that German
is comparatively open to borrowing and it therefore is labelled a ''mixed
language'' (p. 135). This character is also said to be reflected in German word
formation, where a foreign and a native system co-exist (p. 143). The chapter
concludes with a brief overview of lexicalisation processes.

The key point made in chapter seven, which is on pragmatic change, is that
implicatures are pivotal in language change in general and in pragmatic change
in particular.

The changes in the spelling system in the history of German are addressed in
chapter eight. It first gives some general characteristics of alphabetic
spelling systems, and then examines the nature and history of spelling
principles in German.

Chapter nine opens the second part of the book; it presents ablaut and umlaut in
the history of German as cases of phonologisation and morphologisation. Ablaut
is investigated largely in connection with the history of the strong verbs,
whose disintegration is attributed to sound change and analogical levelling (p.
208), as well as to the rise in productivity of the weak verbs (p. 212). The
second part of this chapter deals with the development of umlaut from its
origins as a coarticulatory effect to its morphologisation and use in other
linguistic subsystems.

Chapter ten is on grammaticalisation. After giving a brief overview of the
basics of grammaticalisation, this chapter presents cases from the history of
German: the origin of the weak verbs, the development of the periphrastic future
tense and how typical conjunctions have formed. The last section in this chapter
briefly discusses some problems of grammaticalisation, in particular the idea of

The two last chapters of the book address issues of typological change. Chapter
eleven uses the perspective of analytic vs. synthetic expression of grammatical
information, differentiating isolating, combining, agglutinative and inflecting
mechanisms (Ronneberger-Sibold 1980), to examine how morphology develops into
looser, more syntactic structures. The remainder of this chapter deals with the
reverse path, i.e. from syntax to morphology, viewing fusion as the central
mechanism in this process.

The final chapter attempts a look into the future of German, asserting the mixed
typological character of German, in particular with respect to word order and
morphological expression of grammatical categories. In addition, German is seen
as a language that increasingly emphasises marking the borders of linguistic
units in a salient way.

The overall idea and architecture of the book is to look at the history of a
language from the viewpoint of historical linguistics and to show how the
principles of language change govern pivotal changes in German to elucidate its
history and to explain language change. This is certainly an innovative and
sound approach, for which the authors deserve much praise. One problem of most
textbooks on the history of German is exactly that the connection to fundamental
mechanisms and principles of language change doesn't become apparent, and hence
a historical account of a language seems more like a narrative than an
application of linguistics. Also, connecting individual changes to the bigger
picture of more global changes is an excellent idea, because it can show how the
individual subsystems of language are interrelated in language change. This is
valid in particular for grammaticalisation, which involves semantic,
phonological and morphosyntactic change. There is also a lot of information on
areas that have received little attention in more traditional textbooks, such as
graphemic and pragmatic change, which is certainly welcome. The book contains
exercises for each chapter, and recommendations for further readings, both of
which are almost mandatory for a modern textbook. One could think of further
additions, such as a companion website or a time line, but a key to the exercise
problems should definitely be included in a future edition.

However, this textbook also has some problems that have impact especially on its
use in class. First, the concept of the book is not consistently followed in
each chapter. For example, while chapters three, five, six and seven adhere to
the overall idea, chapters two, four and eight are pretty much historical
accounts of changes in German. This is not only confusing to the reader, it also
makes it difficult to follow and apply the concept of the book, as
cross-references are made either to general principles, such as analogy (ch. 3),
or changes in the history of German, such as the change from a syllable language
to a word language (ch. 2).

Second, there are several instances where concepts or terms are presented that
are either not a part of mainstream linguistics or that are used in a different
way than in general. While there is nothing wrong with this in principle, a
textbook should at least point out that a theory or term is particular to this
book. Otherwise it risks confusing the reader, especially undergraduate
students, limiting its usefulness. So, for instance, while the phonological
typology of syllable vs. word languages may open up some interesting
perspectives, it is not part of mainstream linguistic typology. Originally
suggested by Donegan & Stampe (1983), it is taken up in Auer (2001). The concept
proposes that languages can be classified according to whether the basic
rhythmical unit is the syllable or the word, and that this correlates with other
phonological properties and phonological changes. However, as Auer (2001: 1398)
concedes, this hypothesis is in need of more detailed investigation,
particularly on a cross-linguistic level (''Die genauere Untersuchung der
typologischen Hypothese Silben- vs. Wortsprachen steht noch aus; sie erfordert
neben der eingehenden Untersuchung von Einzelsprachen in ihrer gesamten
Erscheinungsbreite (nicht nur der kodifizierten Standardsprache) ... .''). It is
by no means a fully developed theory that is part and parcel of linguistic
typology; crucially, there are no absolute characteristics that permit a
classification of a language as clearly one or the other. Consequently, a
textbook should make it explicit that this is an alternative perspective on the
historical phonology of German.

There are other instances in which terms are used vaguely, inconsistently or not
the way they are commonly used. The term ''mixed language'' is found throughout
the book with different denotations. In the section on word formation it refers
to a native and a foreign system of word formation, in the chapters on syntax
and typology it characterises the inconsistent word order of Modern German and
in the chapter on lexical change it is employed with respect to the German
lexicon. More broadly, however, ''mixed language'' is a cover term for languages
with two or more parents, e.g. creole and pidgin languages, which is not what
the authors mean here. Similarly, in the chapter on lexical change, the term
''transference'' (''Transferenz'') simply means 'foreign influence', in particular
as a result of borrowing. By contrast, in contact linguistics this term is used
in a much more narrow sense; it is primarily associated with structural
influence in second language acquisition. Finally, the term ''irregular'' is used
repeatedly with unclear meaning, e.g. the ''-en'' plural is called irregular for
masculine and neuter nouns in German for no obvious reason; it is clearly stable
and highly frequent for animate masculine nouns, a fact that the authors admit
(p. 61).

Third, there are some problems of analysis, which are also due to omissions of
significant recent literature, which is noteworthy given that this is the third
edition. For instance, the frequency-based model of morphological change used in
this book can't account for why some strong verbs have resisted regularisation
in the history of German. On p. 55 it is asserted that it is either the high
token frequency of certain strong verbs or the high type frequency of larger
groups of strong verbs that has protected them from regularisation. This would
predict that strong verbs with a comparatively low token frequency such as
''schreiten'' 'stride', must have a high type frequency. But it is apparent that
the ablaut group of strong verbs ''schreiten'' belongs to -- although it is the
largest -- has a considerably lower type frequency than the huge group of weak
verbs. In fact, on p. 44 it is explicitly maintained that the highly
type-frequent weak verbs are particularly good analogical models. So why doesn't
''schreiten'' simply follow the model of the highest type frequency? From the
model the book presents it doesn't follow why the fact that ''schreiten'' belongs
to a big ablaut class should be relevant in its ability to resist
regularisation, as its size is insignificant against the massive group of weak
verbs. However, this issue has been dealt with in the literature. Albright (2002
et passim) demonstrates the significance of local generalisations, called
''islands of reliability'', which usually over-rule default application of rules.
Mailhammer (2007b) applies this concept to the strong verbs of German showing
not only how the system of strong verbs has changed from Proto-Germanic to
Modern German but crucially how class membership makes use of these minimal
generalisations and how this is relevant for their continued survival: the
well-supported groups of strong verbs form tight-knit groups of verbs due to
their similar phonological root structure, which are particularly
well-entrenched in the cognitive system. The fact that they all inflect
according to the same pattern allows the speakers to abstract a rule that is
more reliable than the default rule, i.e. the regular inflection. This is why
the loss of members is so significant: as soon as the rule loses its
reliability, e.g. that all verbs with a particular root structure inflect
according to the same pattern, speakers are more likely to apply the default
rule. A particularly reliable rule is likely to stay somewhat productive too
(see e.g. Clahsen et al. 1997 for productive patterns of strong verbs in Modern
German), not because of the high type frequency, but because it is better than a
relatively unspecified default (Albright 2002).

The origin of ablaut and its development in the strong verbs, briefly discussed
in chapter nine (p. 206-212), are said to be based on Sonderegger (1979: 93-96).
But the relevant pages in Sonderegger (1979) don’t discuss ablaut at all; they
describe categorial changes in the verb system from Proto-Indo-European to
Proto-Germanic, though this is somewhat dated and has been superseded by more
recent work (e.g. Ringe 2006, Mailhammer 2006, 2007a). Crucially, it has been
demonstrated that Germanic uses ablaut in a morphologically different way than
its parent language (Mailhammer 2007a): in Proto-Indo-European ablaut doesn't
usually mark grammatical categories distinctively; this is precisely a Germanic
There are further examples, such as the assertion that originally only the
strong verbs showed umlaut in the subjunctive of the preterit (p. 220). This is
certainly not true for a significant part of the ''-jan''-verbs, as shown by forms
like ''zeliti'' 1sg.pret.subj. of ''zellen'' 'tell' (e.g. Braune 2004: 262). The
final case mentioned here is the development of the weak verbs, which omits
crucial recent work (e.g. Hill 2004, 2010, Ringe 2006, Kiparsky 2009). In
particular, Hill (2010: 418) demonstrates that the weak preterit doesn't contain
old reduplicated preterit forms of 'do' (p. 231).

To sum up, ''Historische Sprachwissenschaft des Deutschen'' is based on an
innovative concept and a valuable addition to the pool of books dealing with the
history of German. Although it doesn't always succeed in convincingly accounting
for the historical developments, it presents some interesting and alternative
perspectives. But I have reservations about using it as the only textbook of a
course on historical linguistics or the history of German. As a supplementary
book, however, I can see it being very useful, because it uses non-mainstream
concepts such as natural morphology, and because it addresses topics not
normally covered in textbooks on historical linguistics, such as graphemic change.

Albright, Adam 2002. Islands of reliability for regular morphology: Evidence
from Italian. Language 78. 684-709.

Auer, Peter 2001. Silben- und akzentzählende Sprachen. In: Haspelmath, Martin et
al. (eds.), Language typology and language universals. vol. II. Berlin/New York:
de Gruyter. 1391-1399.

Braune, Wilhelm 2004. Althochdeutsche Grammatik. 15th ed. by Ingo Reiffenstein.
Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Clahsen, Harald, Sonja Eisenbeiss, & Ingrid Sonnenstuhl-Henning 1997.
Morphological structure and the processing of inflected words. Theoretical
Linguistics. 23: 3. 225--255.

Donegan, Patricia J. & Stampe, David 1983.Rhythm and the holistic organization
of language
structure. Papers from the Parasession on the Interplay of Phonology, Morphology
and Syntax, Chicago Linguistics Society. 337-353.

Hill, Eugen 2010. A case study in grammaticalized inflectional morphology:
Origin and development of the Germanic weak preterite. Diachronica 27:3. 411-458.

Kiparsky, Paul 2009. The Old High German weak preterite. In: Steinkrüger,
Patrick O. (ed.), On Inflection. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 107-124.

Keller, Rudi 1994. On language change: the invisible hand in language. London:

Mailhammer, Robert 2006. On the origin of the Germanic strong verb system.
Sprachwissenschaft 31. 1-52.

Mailhammer, Robert 2007a. The Germanic Strong Verbs. Foundations and Development
of a New System. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Mailhammer, Robert 2007b. Islands of Resilience: The history of the German
strong verbs from a systemic point of view. Morphology 17. 77-108.

Ringe, Donald 2006. From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

Ronneberger-Sibold, Elke. 1980. Sprachverwendung -- Sprachsystem. Ökonomie und
Wandel. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Sonderegger, Stefan. 1979. Grundzüge deutscher Sprachgeschichte. Bd 1:
Diachronie des Sprachsystems. Berlin/New York: de Gruyter.

Szczepaniak, Renata 2007. Der phonologisch-typologische Wandel des Deutschen von
einer Silben- zu einer Wortsprache. Berlin/New York: de Gruyter.

Robert Mailhammer is Assistant Professor of Linguistics in the Department of English at Arizona State University. His main research interests are historical linguistics, language documentation and the languages of Europe, the Pacific and North America in general. (

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