Frisian, Faroese, Yiddish and Pennsylvania German

The Germanic Languages

September 15, 1995

This book gives a survey of all Germanic languages spoken today, and there are also chapters on earlier stages of these languages. It appears to be the first attempt of its kind. Although there have been full-scale presentations of Germanic languages before, such as the gigantic Grundri' der germanischen Philologie (1901-09) by Hermann Paul, they have had an essentially different goal, being meant for specialists.

The Germanic Languages, by contrast, is intended not only for specialists but also for the general reader. No doubt this twofold purpose has not made the book's compilation easy: an expert looking for a detailed account is not satisfied with a general outline, while the general reader, even a very educated one, simply cannot digest masses of detailed information.

The book appears as the fourth volume in a series of similar works by the same publisher, the first of which was The Romance Languages (1988). In appearance it seems to have been largely modelled on the first book. Like that book, it is a team project, with no fewer than 23 authors, each of whom is an expert on his "own" language. The list really does include all possible languages, from English and German to Frisian, Faroese, Yiddish, Pennsylvania German, and even Germanic creoles.

The Germanic languages descend from a common source, the parent language called Proto-Germanic. This language is in turn a descendant of a still older proto-language, Proto-Indo-European. So the reason why we speak of Germanic languages as a special language group is largely historical, yet the nature of this book is not historical (diachronic) but synchronic.

Now it is, of course, right that the structure of a language, modern or ancient, should be described on a strictly synchronic level. Still, the diachronic connections, the branching out of different languages from a common stock, are no less interesting, especially for the general reader. It should not have been impossible to link the different Germanic languages by explicitly showing their descent from a common origin.

Proto-Germanic is not as accessible as Latin, but we have a relatively good knowledge of its phonology and the main features of its morphology. A brief description of the structure of this reconstructed proto-language could have been given in a separate chapter with particular reference to Proto-Nordic or Ancient Scandinavian, an early conservative language that was still close to Proto-Germanic proper and is fragmentarily known from brief runic inscriptions; while at the same time showing roughly how Proto-Germanic has developed into the different daughter languages.

This was done in the parallel work on the Romance languages, both in the separate chapter on Latin and, for the most part, in the chapters on its daughter languages.

In the new book the information about Proto-Germanic has been scattered as scraps in several chapters, and the place of Latin has been given to Gothic, an ancient East Germanic language attested in a fragmentary manuscript of a New Testament translation of the 4th century ad ascribed to Bishop Wulfila.

In this (second) chapter some occasional information is given, but it serves mainly to link Gothic to Proto-Germanic; as far as I can see, there are only some 15 lines devoted to the relationship of Proto-Germanic to other Germanic languages. The chapter on Old and Middle Scandinavian includes some information on Proto-Germanic, but the chapter on Old and Middle Continental West Germanic has almost none.

The first introductory chapter is also erroneous in dating the coming of Indo-European settlers to the southern Baltic regions - the supposed homeland of the subsequent speakers of Proto-Germanic - to around 1000 bc. This is much too late: the Nordic Bronze Age began around 1500 bc, and it was no doubt already an Indo-European culture. The coming of Indo-European people is generally identified with the emergence of the Battle-axe Culture in southern Scandinavia in about 2500 bc - at the latest.

The emphasis of the book on synchronic analysis of the languages gives it value for contrastive studies. The analyses are interesting, and provide the reader with plenty of material to make his own comparisons; and there is a good index.

At the phonological level the book will perhaps be less attractive. It is more interesting on morphology - the opposite poles here being Icelandic with its rich declensions and conjugations and Afrikaans with its minimal morphology-and particularly on syntax, which gets the most attention in the majority of contributions. Particularly noteworthy are the modern analyses of some less-known languages, eg Old Norse, Icelandic, and Faroese. The presentation of lexis is often minimal, on the other hand.

As an indication of secondary parallel development (apparently due to geographic proximity) it may be noted that (West) Frisian has, like Dutch and German, a rich supply of so-called modal particles, for instance "now", "then", "otherwise", "also", "but", "once", while English, to which Frisian is historically more closely related than Dutch and German, is claimed to have none.

And it is curious to discover that Finnish, a non-Indo-European language, has the same particles (except "once") with the same functions (ie they have the same original semantic values).

Who will profit from this book? It cannot be recommended as a textbook to be read from cover to cover. It is more a book of reference, for students of linguistics and also for mature linguists. And what about the supposed general reader? He or she will finds lots of intriguing facts that vary from language to language - stimulating but by no means light reading.

Jorma Koivulehto is professor of Germanic philology, University of Helsinki, Finland.

The Germanic Languages

Editor - Ekkehard Konig and Johan Van Der Auwera
ISBN - 0 415 05768 X
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £75.00
Pages - 631

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