Monday, 16 May 2016

On Phonological Erosion, Syncretism and Analogy in German's Linguistic History

The trajectory of German linguistic development, especially in regard to verb conjugations, can be broadly described as shifting from a morphologically and phonologically variable set of heterogeneous, dialectal forms to the more streamlined, consistent and standardized forms we recognise in NHG today. From the 20-21 different personal endings in OHG to a mere 5-6 in MHG, the processes of phonological erosion, syncretism and analogy have ensured that verb formation is a for the most part regular aspect of the German language.
As with other Indo-European languages (English included), German’s history has seen the discarding of inflexions and syntactically redundant elements, which first weaken and then disappear altogether[1]. This process was regarded with some dismay by earlier grammarians and linguistic scholars; inflexional variety was seen as organic/pure and therefore admirable, whereas the process of linguistic erosion was denounced as ‘decay’[2]. One of the most prominent instances of weakening in the context of verb conjugations is that of OHG –en, -ôn and –ên verbs, which merge to form one singular –en in MHG and NHG. In its place we have a different set of verbal categories, namely ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ after the work of Jacob Grimm[3]. Grimm’s verb classifications depend on whether the preterite and past participle are formed by changing the root vowel (a process known as apophony or Ablaut) from that of the present (in which case the verb is strong, e.g. ziehen/zog), or merely by adding a dental suffix such as –te or –ete (in which case the verb is weak, e.g. hören/hörte). Over time, however, phonological erosion has weakened the strong verb system dramatically, contributing to German significantly losing these distinct morphophonemic alternations (such as slahen/geslagen, now schlagen/schlugen); of 339 MHG strong verbs, only 169 verbs still exist, and even fewer depending on dialect. Of the remainder, 119 have entirely died out, 54 have become weak (whilst the reverse phenomenon has only seen 3 weak verbs become strong), and no new strong verbs have joined their cluster. The weak conjugation now contains 95% of all basic verbs in German. Arguably the only reason the strong verb system remains in modern German as it stands is that a high proportion of German’s most important and frequent verbs lie within that count of 169; thus their unique formulation is maintained, for now at least, and looks less likely to change dramatically in the future thanks to a now-ubiquitous canon of standard German grammars.

Apocope and syncope (the removal of unstressed vowels, often –e, from the end of a word and from the middle of a word respectively) are two additional forms of phonological erosion, in which a sound becomes functionally unhelpful and eventually extinct. Syncope is particularly prominent in the case of root vowels in the verbal paradigm; MHG verest becomes verst and, eventually, fährst, the original –e– in the middle of the word having been syncopated. This aspect of phonological erosion is therefore combined with the phenomenon of i-Umlaut to give us the verb as we know it today; the <e> of verst mutates into <ä> because in the OHG original the next vowel was an <i> (the OHG being farist). The MHG sees the processes of apocope and syncope in particular flux, such that we can find 3rd person present indicative singular forms such as liebet, liebt, liept and liebte coexisting (now simply liebt).
Syncretism, when distinct morphological forms of a word become identical, can often arise out of phonological erosion; if two forms of – for instance – the verb helfen (such as helfēm and helfēn) come to be pronounced the same way, the distinctiveness of each is lost and over time they merge in to one form (in this instance helfen). Syncretism is thus responsible for dramatically cutting down on the large number of different verb forms that existed in OHG (leitis, leitēs, leittōs and leittīs all became leitest in MHG, for example). To give another example, the Proto-Indo-European ending –ent ending (also found in Latin) for 3rd person present indicative plural was also still widespread in MHG (especially in Alemannic), but after the 16th century this starts to change and in NHG such an ending has entirely died out; through syncretism it has merged into the –en form also used for the infinitive and the first person plural[4]. Morphological and phonological syncretism is also responsible for obliterating the difference between different ‘doublets[5]’ of strong and weak verbs: though the difference between trinken (strong; ‘to drink’) and trenken (weak; ‘to water e.g. horses’) remains, other examples such as brinnen (strong; ‘to be burning, to be on fire’) and brennen (weak; ‘to burn something down’) or swîgen (strong; ‘to be silent’) and sweigen (weak; ‘to silence’) have been lost, usually with the result that replacement verbs with functionally loaded prefixes (ab-, ver-, etc) plugging the gap.
As syncretism increases, numerous other linguistic changes occur to compensate, such as greater reliance on personal pronouns for grammatical information, the formation of periphrastic verbs, and the use of modal verbs to replace the subjunctive, all of which are visibly more prominent by the time of MHG texts such as Helmbrecht; these are all indicative of German’s shift from synthetic grammar – after the fashion of Latin, Greek, and other languages from which it is descended – to analytical grammar, under the principles of which it still broadly operates. Syncretism thus encourages the development of analytical and periphrastic verb forms like the perfect tense form (which was becoming more common by late MHG especially circa 1300; cf. Helmbrecht 1040 ‘ich muoz slâfen, ich hân vil geriten’), with the further linguistic effect of the loss of preterite tense form in speech as the newer perfect tense form became preferred. The future tense form – otherwise conveyed in MHG using auxiliaries – also developed in this way.
Analogy is the linguistic process in which word forms that are seen as irregular are reduced or altered so that they reflect the shape of more common forms that “obey” the rules. Obsolete and irregular forms are thus discarded for the sake of convention. One reason analogy becomes more widespread after the 15th century is the advent of printing, and thus the rise in grammatical codification that followed suit; as more and more books were published, there became a greater need for “book norms” and “book spellings”[6]. Before this point, there were next to no grammar books at all, and certainly no standard grammars; hence the morphological uncertainty from 1350-1650 is of little surprise. Hermann Paul wrote in 1880[7] that analogy has the effect of repairing and restructuring paradigms that had been affected by phonological change, and is therefore a fundamental factor in linguistic history; we ‘generate’ new paradigms in attempts to avoid contradiction and to undo the effects of phonological variation and its damage on central verbal paradigms, thus fulfilling Sturtevant’s Paradox (1947) that “phonetic laws are regular but produce irregularities; analogic creation is irregular but produces regularity”[8]. Analogy thus functions as a balancing act to “create a new equilibrium”[9]
One of the principle differences between MHG and NHG verbs which illustrates analogy is that, in the former, the vowel in the preterite plural differs from the vowel in the preterite singular (e.g. nam/nâmen); these have undergone analogical levelling, sometimes in the favour of the preterite singular vowel, sometimes in the favour of the preterite plural verb, but in either case with the goal of rendering the verbal paradigm more regular. MHG verbs also display wide variation with regards to consonantism and root vowels between singular and plural in both present and preterite tense forms; respectively these are caused by consonant mutation (Grammatischer Wechsel) and by Ablaut. Most of these underwent analogical levelling since MHG (compare MHG zôch/zugen with NHG zog/zogen), generally from the 15th century onwards[10]. MHG dihen/gedigen, to give another example, has become NHG gedeihen/gediehen, though even there the old past participle survives as the NHG adjective gediegen[11].
Phonological erosion and syncretism are chiefly pre-grammarian phenomena, that is to say they occur over a period of time intrinsically in the language itself rather than being consciously adopted as ‘standard’; analogy, on the other hand, though connected to the other two, is post-grammarian, in that it involves explicit decision on the part of linguisticians and philologists to prefer one linguistic form over another, for ease of communication and the adopting of a standard German for printing and academic purposes. But as Wells asserts[12], they do not occur independently of one another and are in fact likely to be inseparable and often simultaneous processes; however much phonological erosion was denounced in the 19th century as causing the decay of morphology and undermining verbal paradigms, we do not have to assign priorities to them or decide which is the most significant. We can understand them, rather, as entirely complementary and parallel linguistic phenomena which combine in producing the NHG standard.

  1. Besch, Werner et al. (eds), Sprachgeschichte: Ein Handbuch zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und ihrer Erforschung, de Gruyter, 1998-2004.
  2. Besch, Werner & Wolf, Norbert Richard, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache: Längscchnitte – Zeitstufen – Linguistische Studien, Erich Schmidt, 2009.
  3. der Gärtner, Wernher, Helmbrecht, Reclam, 2011.
  4. McMahon, April, Understanding Language Change, Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  5. Nübling, Damaris, Historische Sprachwissenschaft des Deutschen, Narr, 2013.
  6. Salmons, Joseph, A History of German, Oxford University Press, 2012.
  7. Schmidt, Wilhelm, Geschichte der deutschen Sprache, S. Hirzel, 2000.
  8. Walshe, M.O’C., A Middle High German Reader, Oxford University Press, 1974.
  9. Wells, C.J., German: A Linguistic History to 1945, Oxford University Press, 1987.

[1]Wells, C.J., German: A Linguistic History to 1945, Oxford University Press, 1987, p145.
[3]Grosse, Siegfried, “Morphologie des Mittelhochdeutschen” in Besch et al. (eds), Sprachgeschichte: Ein Handbuch zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und ihrer Erforschung, Volume 2, Berlin: de Gruyter, 1998-2004, p.1332.
[4]Wegera, Klaus-Peter and Hans-Joachim Solms, ‘Morphologie des Frühneuhochdeutschen’ in Sprachgeschichte: Ein Handbuch zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und ihrer Erforschung, Volume 2, Besch et al. (eds), Berlin: de Gruyter, p.1546.
[5]Wells, C.J., German: A Linguistic History to 1945, Oxford University Press, 1987, p.161.
[6]Ibid, p.166.
[7]Paul, Hermann, Principien der Sprachgeschichte, 8th edition, Niemeyer, 1968 [original edition 1880], cited in Wells p155.
[8]Sturtevant, Edgar H., An Introduction to Linguistic Science, Yale University Press, 1947.
[9]Wells, C.J., German: A Linguistic History to 1945, Oxford University Press, 1987, p155.
[10]Grosse, Siegfried, “Morphologie des Mittelhochdeutschen” in Besch et al. (eds), Sprachgeschichte: Ein Handbuch zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und ihrer Erforschung, Volume 2, Berlin: de Gruyter, 1998-2004, p.1334.
[11]Wells, C.J., German: A Linguistic History to 1945, Oxford University Press, 1987, p.165.
[12]Ibid, p.155.

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