Studies on German-language islands

Studies on German-language islands. Ed. by Michael Putnam. (Studies in language companion series 123.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2011. Pp. xii, 477. ISBN 9789027205902. $158 (Hb).

Reviewed by I.M. Laversuch Nick, University of Cologne

This book is the latest in John Benjamin’s Studies in language companion series and contributes to the body of literature on German-language islands or Sprachinseln. What makes this particular collection stand out, however, is its novel approach. Rather than adopting a traditional ethnolinguistic investigation, this work explores several different colonial German varieties from a generative perspective. Accordingly, the book is divided into four basic sections:  phonetics and phonology, morphology and lexis, pragmatics, and syntax. Of these sections, the lion’s share is devoted to syntax. In fact, of the 475 pages found in this work, no less than 250 pages focus on syntactic phenomena. An examination of the chapters to be found in this section reveals different yet complementary thematic sub-sections. While the first of these three compares and contrasts verb clusters among Pennsylvania Dutch and Mennonite Low German, the remaining two sub-sections focus on a single variety: Cimbrian German. Therein lies another asset of this book: in addition to prominent American varieties like Texas German, other varieties that have taken seed in South America and Southern Europe are also featured.

Aside from this geolinguistic panorama, the book also scores highly in the multiplicity of questions it presents and the thought-provoking answers it suggests. For example, in the chapter, ‘Spoken syntax in Cimbrian of the linguistic islands in Northern Italy’ (233–79), Werner Abraham asserts that ‘autonomous linguistic change of an exclusively oral preserved dialect code’ has primarily yielded the typological features observed in this variety and not, as is so often claimed, in prolonged language contact with Italian (260). A similarly intriguing chapter is Michael T. Putnam’s ‘Anaphors in contact: The distribution of intensifiers and reflexives in Amana German’ (111–28).  Putnam resists the temptation to place his investigatory focus on morpho-syntax and examines instead the morpho-semantic properties of this contact language. His conclusion is that Amana German ‘seems to have adopted a reflexive system that is more similar to modern Dutch and English than what is found in modern German’ (112).  Thus, Putnam effectively demonstrates the ways in which diachronic change is a simultaneous process of attrition and innovation.

Although the focus of all of the research in this collection is firmly centered in a generative analysis of colonial German varieties, sociolinguists interested in other languages will also discover many familiar topics (e.g. multilingualism, dialectology, and ethnolinguistic identity). Additionally, detailed historical descriptions are given about the immigration patterns of each dialect group. Taken all together, this book is to be highly and widely recommended, and the authors and the editor are to be most highly commended. From the first two chapters on phonetics and phonology to final two on pragmatics and conversation analysis, all sixteen chapters of this book make a substantive contribution to German language research in particular and language variation studies in general.