Achtung! Watch your back vowels

The German Language
November 28, 2003

The challenge in designing a successful language course is to integrate enough general linguistic ideas to be able to describe the features of the language insightfully, while also illustrating the classical linguistic problems of the language concerned. This book succeeds in these aims, and deserves to find a place on the reading lists for all courses in German linguistics.

After a compact introductory chapter, addressing questions such as "what is a language?" (with answers of a generative kind) and "what is the German language?", the textbook consists of eight content chapters, first covering the core linguistic areas of syntax, morphology, phonetics, phonology and lexis, and then three extension areas: stylistics, the historical background and contemporary variation. Each content chapter ends with an apposite indication of "further reading" and exercises.

Refreshingly, the core chapters' order does not follow the time-honoured smallest-units-first approach; but this leads to a few material-ordering dilemmas (for example, chapter three introduces a discussion of umlaut as "an alternation between front and back vowels" before chapters four and five explain what these terms mean). Some tutors may be tempted to teach the chapters in another order, which would be perfectly possible.

The core chapters do not pull any linguistic punches. They introduce largely generative theoretical devices, and, while it may be true that no previous study of linguistics is necessary, students will need a thorough grounding in traditional grammatical description. The extension chapters cover a range of material well. The historical chapter eight is a model of brevity, while tackling important topics. Some might have chosen different subjects for extension chapters; the lack of a chapter on second-language acquisition may be missed. But an introductory book cannot cover everything.

Perhaps the highest praise for this sort of book is that, at the end of a course taught with it, students would be equipped with a good understanding of key aspects of the structure of German, and prepared to progress to more detailed linguistic investigations.

Patrick Honeybone is lecturer in English language, University of Edinburgh.

The German Language: A Linguistic Introduction. First edition

Author - Jean Boase-Beier and Ken Lodge
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 254
Price - £50.00 and £16.99
ISBN - 0 631 23138 2 and 23139 0

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