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The German Language Today:

April 14, 1995

It is frustrating to be faced with students keen to pursue language-related issues, only to find that there is simply too little information of an appropriate level available to them. As a teacher of German linguistics, I would agree with Charles Russ's claim in the preface to The German Language Today that "The shift of emphasis in many courses dealing with the German language from the historical and philological to the modern has not been matched with the provision of teaching material.'' With this new book and its sister publications The French Language Today (Battye and Hintze, 1992) and The Italian Language Today (Lepschy, 1988), Routledge have made a valuable contribution to the teaching of linguistics in modern language degrees.

The German Language Today is so comprehensive that it is almost two books in one. The text falls into two broad sections; Chapter 1-5 and Chapters 6-10. Chapter 1 begins with a definition of the German language, i.e. where it is spoken, the norms which exist for its codification, and a brief account of the historical processes leading to standardisation. This is followed, in Chapter 2, by a description of the types of variation which characterise German today (regional, social, stylistic). By the end of these two chapters, the reader already has a feel for what to expect: a great deal of up-to-date information on the German language accompanied by useful texts to illustrate the theoretical points made, along with comprehensive bibliographies.

Chapters 3, 4 and 5 proceed with a detailed description of the status of German in Austria, Switzerland and the former East Germany, respectively. All chapters cover such issues as pronunciation, grammar and lexis, and chapter five provides a lucid outline of the complex debate on whether or not the German spoken in East and West Germany constitutes two distinct varieties. These chapters will be of immense use to students on courses in German language and society and, since the status of German in each of the three contexts is so diverse, the reader is also introduced to some of the many socio-political issues which determine language usage in more general terms. Again, the layout is clear, and the use of both illustrative texts and maps is especially welcome.

Having sought to define the status of German, Russ turns, in Chapters 6-10, to a detailed description of the German language from a more traditional (i.e. structuralist) perspective. There are sections on phonetics and phonology (6), spelling and its reform (7), grammar (8), word formation (9) and vocabulary (10). The scope of these chapters is considerable, and students are provided with solid instruction in a range of topics such as the articulatory processes in the production of German; the structure of German noun and verb phrases; inflectional and derivational morphology, and lexical borrowing (especially from English). A particular strength of these chapters, indeed of the book in general, is Russ's clear commitment to a view of teaching German linguistics which stresses the complex - and fascinating - relationship between variation and change. Throughout the text, therefore, readers are sensitised to the way in which every aspect of the language always has been, indeed always will be, in a state of flux - whether it be "the German spoken in Switzerland", "the German noun phrase" or "German orthography".

My only slight concern with The German Language Today relates to the readership for which it is intended and the ordering of the chapters. This brings us back to the thematic division of the book. Russ begins in Chapters 1-5 by defining the object of study (what is German?) in the broadest possible terms. He sees this, quite logically, as the necessary pre-requisite to the more detailed linguistic analyses presented in the second section. However, much of the linguistic jargon, especially in chapters three-five on Austria, Switzerland and East Germany, is only really clarified in the second section (the International Phonetic Alphabet is used extensively in the descriptions of these varieties, for example). In a sense, Russ anticipates this methodological dilemma by specifically directing beginners to the second half of the book. Indeed, he claims in the preface that newcomers to this topic (though with a sound knowledge of German) will be able to tackle Chapters 6-10 as "the linguistic terminology is kept as simple as possible (and) terms are defined as they are introduced". The instruction that some readers should begin with the second half of the book, so as to acquire the requisite terminology for an understanding of the first half, is certainly a little unorthodox. It is a problem which could have been alleviated by the inclusion of a good glossary and extensive cross-referencing, both of which would have aided students, beginners or otherwise.

Notwithstanding these genuinely minor shortcomings, The German Language Today is an excellent and welcome addition to the field. It is ideal for students taking one of the many courses in German linguistics offered in higher education institutions today and - in view of ever-shrinking grants - one hopes it will be seen as very reasonably priced. In addition, however, the wealth of bibliographical detail which accompanies each chapter renders the book an invaluable resource not only for undergraduates, but for anyone wishing to pursue postgraduate research into German linguistics.

Sally Johnson is a lecturer in German language and linguistics, Lancaster University.

The German Language Today:: A Linguistic Introduction

Author - Charles V. J. Russ
ISBN - 0 415 10439 4
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £12.99
Pages - 8pp

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