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Review of  Deutsche Grammatik [Lexicon of German Grammar]

Reviewer: Mathias Schulze
Book Title: Deutsche Grammatik [Lexicon of German Grammar]
Book Author: Elke Hentschel
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
General Linguistics
Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): German
Issue Number: 23.3504

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EDITOR: Hentschel, Elke
TITLE: Deutsche Grammatik
SERIES TITLE: De Gruyter Lexikon
YEAR: 2010

Mathias Schulze, Waterloo Centre for German Studies, University of Waterloo,
Ontario, Canada

A group of twelve authors -- Alja Lipavic Oštir, Beat Siebenhaar, Elke
Hentschel, Gabriela Perrig, Jeroen Van Pottelberge, Korakoch Attaviriyanupap,
Klaus Peter, Michael Schümann, Petra Maria Vogel, Rolf Thieroff, Stefan Bogner,
Sibylle Reichel -- under Elke Hentschel’s editorship compiled this encyclopedia
of German grammar. And an encyclopedia it is, in spite of the title “German
Grammar” suggesting otherwise. The entries, which vary in length, range
topically and alphabetically from “Ablativ” to “zweiwertiges Verb” (ablative;
2-valent verb). In each text, the German keyword terms -- whether they are loan
words or of terms Germanic origin -- are succeeded by a Latin or English
translation or both. The introductory and explanatory texts introduce a wide
array of grammatical concepts, terms, and phenomena. The editor states in her
foreword that the key entries were not selected solely from a German-Studies
perspective, but their choice was based more on a comparative, typological
framework (“Vorwort”). Thus, German-language phenomena such as the ‘expletives
es’ and the ‘Wem-Fall’ are listed as well as grammatical categories, e.g.
‘Kasus’ and ‘Subjekt’, linguistic disciplines, e.g. ‘Semantik’ and ‘Pragmatik’,
schools of linguistics with examples like ‘Textgrammatik’ and ‘X-bar-Theorie’,
and their key terminology, for example, ‘Thema’ and ‘Rhema’. Cross-references to
related or superordinate entries are given when necessary. Larger entries are
self-standing and a list of works cited is provided underneath each of them,
which can be used as a starting point for further reading. For each entry, the
author is clearly identified. I would estimate that about a thousand keywords
are explained on the 404 pages.

Instead of even attempting a summary of a small encyclopedia -- in itself
already a keyword-alphabetical selection of summaries – I would like to offer a
short glimpse at a pars par totum.

The entry “Morphem” (morpheme, p.188), offers a standard definition as “kleinste
bedeutungstragende Einheit einer Sprache” (ibid., smallest linguistic unit that
carries meaning) and moves on to illustrate grammatical / lexical and free /
bound morphemes as subcategories without further elaboration about linguistic
context and complexity. In little more than a page, these terms are introduced
in a quick sketch and by way of example. Focus on the problems that often arise
from simplified binary decisions in morphological (and other) categorizations is
avoided. (The uninitiated reader might be left with the impression that
morphemes fall neatly into one and only one class, that their features are
always evident, and that a descriptive categorization adequately captures their
systematic nature, and predicts or governs their communicative and cognitive
use.) The results of the morphological analysis of the examples are given; the
preceding analytical process, the axiomatic assumptions, and the systematic
contextualization of the linguistic information are left mostly to the reader’s
deduction. In the second half of this entry, three concepts -- morph, allomorph,
and zero morpheme -- are mentioned in passing and introduced with some caution
(“könnte man von einem Nullmorphem sprechen” (one could describe this as a zero
morpheme, p.189). Neither affixes in general nor their root-relative positional
sub-classes are mentioned here, although they have received independent short
entries in the book. Prefix and infix, for example, receive their mention in the
alphabetical list; root (Wurzel), however, does not. The “Morphem” entry is
completed by a reference to a Jakobson essay on the Nullzeichen.

Other entries are shorter. “Suffix” (p.350), for instance, runs three lines,
stating that suffixes are bound morphemes, “die nach einem Stamm [sic] angefügt
werden” (ibid., which are added after a stem) and which can function in
inflection and derivation.

A few entries -- often on part-of-speech categories such as “Substantiv” (noun,
pp. 341-350) -- are longer. “Substantiv” introduces prototypical functions for
the noun and attempts to discriminate it from other lexical categories
cross-linguistically. Noun gender is mentioned next by claiming
cognitive-semantic motivation of gender assignment in German first and
morphological determinism second. A historical motivation is not given.
Morphological case is listed as a nominal feature and a cross-reference to the
entry on case is provided. Number, with a quick mention of nouns that are
commonly used in either singular or plural, is described next. The nominal
plural allomorphs are listed in turn and exemplified in some detail. This is
followed by the distinction of strong and weak nouns in German, with the latter
having inflectional -(e)n morphs beyond the nominative singular. Elke Hentschel,
also the author of this entry, introduces definiteness here and not under
“Determinator” (p.69), as one might have expected. In this context, neither
discourse nor grammatical feature selection criteria are mentioned; the reader
is expected to know them intuitively, select subconsciously, or have learned
them already. The “Wortbildung” section (p. 347) touches on derivation,
compounds, diminutive and augmentative suffixes before Hentschel offers an
almost one-page classification of nouns based on coarse-grained semantic
criteria, distinguishing concrete and abstract nouns, proper nouns and generic
class labels such as tree and frog to then finish the entire entry by briefly
referring to collective nouns. This article is complemented by a list of works

Let me start with an admission. I expected something very different from a book
with the title ‘Deutsche Grammatik’ (German Grammar) -- a comprehensive
description and discussion of German grammar. I only discovered the series title
on the cover, De Gruyter Lexikon, after realizing that I was embarking on a
review of a small, specialized encyclopedia. Needless to say I find the book’s
title misleading. Something like “Lexikon der deutschen Grammatik” or, as the
editor actually calls it in the foreword -- “Lexikon Deutsche Grammatik” --
would have been much more appropriate. Here, I think, the publisher did both the
potential readership and the team of authors a disservice.

However, treating this book for what it is and not for what it is not, I found
the selection of entries -- although somewhat eclectic -- suitably
comprehensive. The text under each keyword is accessible for interested
undergraduate students and sufficiently informative for trained linguists who
would like to refresh their vague memory of terminology used less often or of
linguistic phenomena and approaches which one had studied last at university
some years ago. The translation equivalents of terms as well as pertinent
etymological information are very much appreciated. For some terminology that
was borrowed from other languages and grammar traditions a translation into
German would have added value, especially for terms such as ‘antecedent’ that
has a widely used German-language term -- Beziehungswort.

Of course, there have been and are still discussions, sometimes disputes, about
the more or less central concepts of grammar among linguists from different
traditions. In this book most are discussed in an almost theory-neutral,
traditionally descriptive manner, which makes this book suitable as a concise
reference tool for entry-level students in (German) descriptive, structural
linguistics, who might need an ostensibly static, clear-cut introduction of key
concepts and their traditional terminology. However, in some cases more
awareness could have been raised about genuinely problematic areas such as the
gradient nature of part-of-speech categories. For example, the distinction of
adjectives used predicatively and verb-modifying adverbs is only conventional.
The one-sentence solution offered here (p.13) -- that adjectives will always be
adjectives independent of their morpho-syntactic features and adverbial
syntactic function -- raises more questions for the reader than it answers.

Traditionally, German is described as having an inventory of six tenses (p.360)
and the authors state that German has no category of aspect (p.40). Of course,
three of the tenses (Präsens, Präteritum, Futur I) facilitate the speaker
foregrounding the event and the other three (Perfekt, Plusquamperfekt, Futur II)
clearly suppose the existence of a result of the verb event at some point in
time. This distinction can be easily explained relying on the category of aspect.

For a small number of entries, I would have preferred having a little more
information. Anglophone students of German, for example, inevitably marvel at
the German ‘Konjunktiv’ (subjunctive, pp.159ff.) especially as a rhetorical
device for political journalists. In indirect speech, speakers can attach their
beliefs about the truth of the other’s statement conveyed very elegantly and
succinctly by selecting the appropriate ‘Modus’ of the verb: Indikativ (I really
believe this to be true; they said it and it happened this way), Konjunktiv II
(I believe this to be not true; they said it, but it did not happen this way),
and Konjunktiv I (I am not telling you what I believe; they said it, but you
make up your mind whether it’s true or not). It is obvious why in journalistic
texts the Konjunktiv-I-marking in reported speech is, although somewhat archaic,
still widely used. In the thorough and comprehensive discussion of the
subjunctive and its usage in German in this book, this little information
snippet could have been usefully added.

Other quibbles are even more minor. In the discussion of German’s mixed nominal
declension (p.97), for example, the small group of nouns that have both an -en
and an -s inflection – as with ‘name’ and ‘heart’: der Name, des Namens, die
Namen; das Herz, des Herzens, die Herzen -- should have been introduced. My
foreign-language students often also appreciate the insight that all German weak
nouns are masculine.

Overall, this encyclopedia of German grammar has been copy-edited thoroughly.
The layout makes it very easy to navigate this reference tool. And most
importantly, the writing is clear and the German examples given are pertinent
and illustrative. It makes this book a suitable reference work for beginning
German students of morphological and syntactic description.

Mathias Schulze is an Associate Professor of German and director of the Waterloo Centre for German Studies and co-editor of the CALICO Journal on computer-assisted language learning.

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