German: A linguistic introduction

German: A linguistic introduction. By Sarah M. B. Fagan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xiv, 317. ISBN 9780521618038. $39.99.

Reviewed by Mark J. Elson, University of Virginia

According to the author, this book is intended for a broad readership, including students, scholars, and others with an interest in the subject. Sarah Fagan’s goal is ‘to provide an introduction to Standard German that is rich in detail, grounded in modern linguistic theory, and comprehensive in that it includes the history of the language, dialects, and sociolinguistic issues’ (1). The introduction (1–3) is followed by seven chapters: ‘Phonetics and phonology’ (4–53), ‘Morphology’ (54–114), ‘Syntax’ (115–48), ‘Semantics’ (149–80), ‘History of the language’ (181–213), ‘Regional variation’ (214–43), and ‘Sociolinguistic issues’ (244–80). These chapters are followed by a glossary (281–94), a bibliography (295–309), and an index (310–17). Each chapter concludes with exercises.

Although F wrote the volume from a generative perspective, the inclusion of this theory is uneven. In fairness to the author, it should be noted that the series of which her book is a part may have required the assumption of a theoretical framework beyond the well-established default framework provided by phoneme, morpheme, and syntagm. The presence of generative theory is—not surprisingly—most noticeable in the chapters on phonology and syntax. But it is present only in the shallowest sense of the term, that ‘a formal and explicit set of rules underlies the native speaker’s knowledge’ (2). The rules that are offered are of the type that might have been found in early generative descriptions. There is no significant attempt to incorporate more recent theory into either phonology or syntax other than, in the discussion of syntax, a reference to X-bar theory, inflection (INFL), and complementizer phrases (CP), which contributes little. Theory of any sort is much less obvious in the remaining chapters: most general and student readers will have come into contact with these concepts (e.g. synonymy, dialect, variation, tense, gender, and language contact) through language study and therefore will not view them as theory—or as the result of assumptions about language—but rather as everyday knowledge about language. I suspect that the discussions of phonology and syntax—where theory is most evident—will be difficult for students and general readership to penetrate, but, at the same time, not sufficiently elaborated or contemporary in the descriptive apparatus they adopt to be of value to linguists. Furthermore, I question the author’s claim that prior knowledge of German and linguistics is not essential (1). Although it is true that glosses and translations are provided, and it may also be true that, in principle, previous knowledge is not required, for a person without such knowledge, the descriptions of phonology, morphology, and syntax will probably require an instructor. It is doubtful that any book accommodating all of the audiences that the author addresses could be written, and therefore she might better have concentrated, if the series permitted it, on one of the three, perhaps the student in advanced German or in a class on the structure of German.

Aside from the question of theory and its place in a book of this sort (which I have mentioned only by way of providing an accurate description of the book’s organization), this volume is valuable because of its comprehensive treatment of the data. Of necessity each topic is discussed only briefly although to an extent sufficient for an introductory course on the structure of German or for scholarly use by those who want a competent introduction to the facts before they attempt a more in-depth investigation.

Each chapter is clear, adequately informative, and well-constructed. The chapters on history, regional variation, and sociolinguistics are especially welcome, containing information that is not readily available in survey form elsewhere. However, the chapter on semantics is devoted largely to grammatical meaning, with only the briefest attention to lexical semantics. Although the discussion of grammatical meaning is—perhaps understandably, in view of its complexity—weak in certain areas, most noticeably in regard to voice and aspect. Nevertheless, this book has much to offer as a survey and description of German, and its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. The author is to be commended for an admirably detailed handbook that will serve its readership well.