Contemporary German abounds in doubtful cases where linking elements alternate with zero elements, such as Seminar(+s?+)arbeit ‘term paper’, Respekt(+s?+)person ‘person who commands respect”. This variation indicates a profound language change in the course of which the linking +s+ has spread continuously since Early New High German and is replacing the zero element more and more often. Today, +s+ is the most productive, progressive and most frequently occurring linking element. In this paper, we provide an explanation for the doubtful cases. Most often, the linking +s+ depends directly on the phonological quality of the first part of the compound: the worse its phonological structure, the more likely the occurrence of the linking +s+. It occurs most regularly after first parts of compounds containing a suffix or an unstressed prefix (Verkáuf+s+gespräch ‘sales conversation’), while words with an ideal phonological structure (monosyllabic or trochaic words) rarely attract the linking +s+. The variation concentrates on compounds whose first parts feature a stressed prefix (Éinkauf(+s?+)führer ‘shopping guide’). There is, however, a further factor which leads to fluctuation in the occurrence of the linking +s+. In cases where the second part of synthetic compounds such as Auftrag(+s?+)geber ‘client’ contain a high degree of verbality, the linking +s+ blurs the syntactic relation between the immediate constituents, strengthening the morphological character of the compound.
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