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Reviewed by:
  • The Germanic languages
  • Ekkehard König
The Germanic languages. By Wayne Harbert. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. 510. ISBN 139780521808255. $121 (Hb).

Contrary to what the title suggests, this book is very different from other publications with the same (cf. König & van der Auwera 1994) or similar titles (cf. Nielsen 1989, Howell et al. 2010). It is neither a historical study of the origins and development of Germanic languages nor a collection of self-contained grammatical sketches of all the Germanic languages. Instead, it is a synchronic (in fact, panchronic), comparative study of the major phonological, morphological, and syntactic characteristics of the Germanic languages as well as of their major historical stages. The discussion is organized according to linguistic constructions and subsystems, rather than by languages, and includes both the modern and the older members of the family (e.g. Gothic, Old English, Old High German, etc.) as well as nonstandard dialects. This construction-by-construction approach is meant to offer the reader a new perspective and a host of new insights into the nonrandom nature of variation across the family. The theoretical background of the discussion [End Page 933] is a nontechnical version of preminimalist theories of generative grammar and, more often than not, a sophisticated version of traditional grammar enriched by insights from generative approaches.

The book contains six chapters of text, a list of references, and an index. After a brief introduction to the historical development, the genetically determined properties of Germanic languages, and their place in a comprehensive typology, we find a short chapter on the Germanic lexicon, a forty-page chapter on the sound systems of Germanic languages, and three extensive chapters on the nominal system (Ch. 4), the verbal system (Ch. 5), and the syntax of the clause (Ch. 6), each comprising at least a hundred pages. These major chapters are introduced by historical preludes, describing Indo-European heritage and Germanic innovations, and comprise from five up to nine sections, dealing with different aspects of the relevant domain. To give just one example, the chapter on verbal systems has sections on auxiliaries, tense and aspect, voice, nonfinite forms, valency, constituent order within the VP, and phrasal verbs. The sections provide general information on the grammatical categories and phenomena in question as well as information on the variation found in the relevant domain across Germanic languages. These delineations of the space and limits of variation along certain parameters found in the Germanic family are illustrated by a rich selection of data drawn from the languages that manifest the relevant properties especially well.

With its mere twenty pages, the chapter on the Germanic lexicon is not one of the strongest. Given that the lexicon is partly a collection of idiosyncratic properties, it is certainly difficult to make general statements about (a) subsystems characteristic of a whole family and (b) general patterns of variation across the family. The first task requires comparisons with other families. Wayne Harbert is right to discuss phrasal verbs (verbs with separable affixes) in addition to loanwords, derivational processes, and modal particles, but misses the chance to illustrate their specific nature by a comparison with the Romance family, where we do not find such verbal subsystems with a resulting massive ambiguity. The French predicate siffler la Marseillaise ‘whistle “La Marseillaise” ’, for example, has two interpretations in sentences like 1, corresponding to die Marseillaise pfeifen ‘whistle “La Marseillaise” ’ (effected object) and to die Marseillaise auspfeifen ‘boo “La Marseillaise” ’ (affected object) in German.

  1. 1. Les gens de la banlieue ont sifflé la Marseillaise.

Talmy’s (1985) work on motion verbs in Germanic and Romance (lexicalization of manner vs. lexicalization of path) would have been another useful source of information for this chapter. As far as variation of lexical patterns within Germanic is concerned, a summary of Plank’s (1984) work on semantic agreement would have been interesting and useful. The other four chapters, by contrast, are excellent and fully cover the territory one can expect to be covered in a book of this type. I discuss a few sections of these chapters in some detail to give the reader a clear picture of their content and in order to add a...


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