To a land that lauds the complex

The German Language and the Real World
April 12, 1996

Much of modern linguistics has its roots in 19th-century Germany. The study of linguistic change commenced with the work of the Brothers Grimm; Wilhelm von Humboldt was the first seriously to consider questions of linguistic typology; and the systematic study of linguistic variation had its inception in the work of Georg Wenker and other early German dialectologists.

Although in his scene-setting first chapter, Patrick Stevenson emphasises the break with the past (the Wende) which he and many modern German linguists perceive as having taken place in Germany in the late 1960s with the discovery of British and American work, there remains a sense of a long and continuous tradition of linguistic research in Germany in a number of the essays presented here.

This tradition has not always been fully appreciated in the English-speaking world which is now dominant in linguistics. In part this is because, as Randolph Quirk wrote in The THES a few years ago, German has become an "exotic language", read by few in the international academic community. Indeed, a tacit motivation behind this book could be the wish by German linguists to make their work accessible to a wider, English-speaking public.

But deep-seated prejudices and lack of mutual understanding also play a part. German academic writing is often associated with pompous, incomprehensible verbosity and a predilection for vacuous, jargon-ridden theorising. This becomes evident when Norbert Dittmar here contrasts anglophone sociolinguistics, "which more or less limits the study of variation to the empirical description of low-level grammatical variants" with German sociolinguistics, which "attaches great importance to a theoretical foundation from which specific linguistic characteristics can be derived according to the parameters of the variety space".

It is explicitly thematised in Martina Rost-Roth's paper on "Language in intercultural communication" when she discusses work by Michael Clyne on the difference between English and German academic writing, pointing out that: "A particularly significant contrast in communicative terms is the fact that incomprehensibility is not necessarily considered a failing in German academic texts; on the contrary, it may be valued as a marker of a 'serious' scientific style."

In no way, though, are the papers in this book characterised by such merits or blemishes, even if the most general, by Dittmar on "Theories of sociolinguistic variation in the German context", does sail quite close to the wind. Stevenson has collected 13 new papers by an impressive set of leading German scholars which give a fair sample of the range of work currently being undertaken in Germany and Austria on the German language. The concentration is on pragmatic and sociocultural aspects of sociolinguistics, so that, for instance, there is only one chapter on details of socially and regionally determined variation (Silvia Moosmuller on "Evaluation of language use in public discourse: language attitudes in Austria"), although this has been extensively investigated in Germany over the past decades, in continuation of the German tradition of dialectology.

Most of the authors try to strike a balance between reviewing the work being done on a particular aspect of the discipline in Germany and presenting some of their own most recent results and findings. Occasionally this is limited by the inherent difficulty of presenting work in one language through the medium of another. The flavour and communicative effect of the shifting between Viennese dialect and standard German in Ruth Wodak's fascinating presentation of her work on doctor-patient communication in Vienna ("Critical linguistics and the study of institutional communication") is not easy to appreciate in English translation; the original is banished to an appendix.

The topics covered, besides those already mentioned, include the status of the language itself, with Ulrich Ammon summarising his recent work on "To what extent is German an international language?" and Florian Coulmas tackling the central issue of the relationship of language, nation and ethnicity in a chapter on "Germanness: language and nation". The linguistic effect of recent political developments are covered by Helmut Schonfeld and Peter Schlobinski - scholars from what was until recently East and West Berlin respectively writing on the effect of unification on the language of the once-divided city "After the wall: social change and linguistic variation in Berlin", and by Siegfried Jager on "Political discourse: the language of right and left in Germany", with, as he explains, a concentration on the right because it currently dominates political discourse in Germany.

Helmut Gluck and Wolfgang Werner Sauer contribute two lively chapters on German spelling and proposals for reform and on current morphological and syntactic change ("Norms and reforms: fixing the forms of the language" and "Directions of change in contemporary German"). Marlis Hellinger gives a clear and succinct overview of the debate, now nearly 20 years old, on sexism in German ("Language and gender") concentrating on four major contentious issues, including grammatical gender. Peter Schlobinski gives a balanced and unprejudiced account of the much maligned (and travestied) language of German adolescents ("Jugendsprachen: speech styles of youth subcultures"), and Werner Holly ("Language and television") surveys language use on television and its impact on the language as a whole.

Martin Durrell is professor of German, University of Manchester.

The German Language and the Real World: Sociolinguistic, Cultural and Pragmatic Perspectives on Contemporary German

Editor - Patrick Stevenson
ISBN - 0 19 824054 6
Publisher - Clarendon Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 406

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