Jessica Nowak. 2015. Zur Legitimation einer 8. Ablautreihe. Eine kontrastive Analyse zu ihrer Entstehung im Deutschen, Niederländischen und Luxemburgischen (Germanistische Linguistik – Monographien 30). Hildesheim, Zürich, New York: Georg Olms. x, 415 S.
The past several years have seen something of a revival of interest in the verbal inflection of the Germanic languages. While the ‘great past tense debate’ of the 1990s was focused for the most part on the English language and synchronic psycholinguistic approaches, recent publications have shed more light on the history of strong and weak verbs in German, Dutch, Frisian, and the Scandinavian languages (see among others Dammel 2011). Building upon her earlier articles (e. g. Nowak 2010) this new book by Jessica Nowak is a welcome addition to this growing body of literature.
The central topic of the book is the titular “eighth ablaut class” (henceforth S8), a term that refers to a few interrelated but slightly different phenomena in the three languages under scrutiny. In Dutch and German, it is used to describe the generalized ablaut pattern x–o–o, which is mainly represented by the patterns e–o–o and i–o–o (e. g. Dutch zenden–zond–gezonden). The origins of this pattern lie in the Early Modern period, where the contrast between the singular and plural past tense vowels was neutralised. The change of the third ablaut class pattern from the earlier e/i–a–o–o to e/i–o–o is a significant one, as the shift from an overarching ABC(C) type to ABB may be seen as kind of partial regularisation that still maintains the hallmarks of strong inflection—note that weak verbs are also of the ABB type. As Nowak convincingly argues, for some verbs in Early Modern Dutch and Early Modern High German the x–o–o pattern forms an alternative to wholesale ‘weakening’, i. e. a shift to weak inflection. This illustrates how in these languages, irregular and regular are not discrete polar opposites; rather, there is a cline ranging from complete suppletion on the one end to only suffixation on the other.
In Luxembourgish, the term “eighth ablaut class” instead refers to the use of the past tense vowel ou, which is used regardless of either the present tense vowel or the past participle vowel (i. e. the pattern x–ou–x). Among the small number of strong verbs still remaining in the language (eleven in total), ou has acquired universal status as the marker of the past tense. The form ou originates in S2, but has spread throughout the strong verb system from there.
As Nowak shows over course of the book, the German, Dutch, and Luxembourgish situations share common causes: a) the levelling of the vowel alternation between the preterite singular and preterite plural; b) a decreased connection between the present/infinitive vowel and the other ablaut vowels; c) a relatively low type frequency of the verbs that shifted towards S8. In this way, an earlier decrease of stability has led to the emergence of a new kind of stability: a pattern that is different from the original strong inflection patterns, yet also not weak inflection, as it lacks suffixes and has vowel alternation. As Nowak argues, these new patterns do in fact occupy an ‘in between’ position compared to ‘traditional’ strong verbs and weak verbs.
Of particular interest is the fact that the rise of S8 is marked by the emergence of product-oriented schemas. In Bybee’s network model (see e. g. Bybee 1985 and later work), which is also argued for by Nowak, these are productive schemas that are relatively open in terms of their input, but which specify a particular kind of output form for the grammatical function in question. The x–o–o pattern is a perfect fit, as the /o/ as a vowel is overwhelmingly associated with past tense meaning, compared to other vowels. These schemas are actually combined in Nowak’s analysis with the input-oriented schemas represented by the original i–o–o and e–o–o patterns to form what is described as the eighth ablaut class.
That the S8 pattern is still somewhat productive in the present day is indicated by the occurrence of jocular forms such as German pfoff ‘whistled’ and schrob ‘wrote’, Dutch gesnopen ‘understood’, as well as its usage in the inflection of nonce verbs in Dutch (see Knooihuizen & Strik 2014).
In chapter III.3, Nowak returns to the past tense debate and the choice between single and dual mechanism models to account for regular and irregular inflection. She argues in favour of Bybee’s network model (over Connectionist and Words-and-Rules approaches) as the one that can best account for the empirical data put forward earlier in the book. The changes involved in the rise of S8 show subtle moves between regular and irregular inflection, and these are hard to account for in dual mechanism models that rely on a sharp distinction between stored irregular forms and generated regular forms. In addition, it is the network model that is best able to account for both input- and output-oriented schemas.
The principal value of Nowak’s book lies in its great attention to detail when it comes to describing and explaining the (micro-)variations and changes in the verb systems of German, Dutch, and Luxembourgish. The first part of the book is a trove of information that eminently shows how messy a linguistic subsystem can be once we zoom in on it. It also serves as a reminder that general statements about the decline of strong inflection in the Germanic languages should be supplemented by studies such as this that dive into developments at a deeper level.
Critical remarks on the book are minor and confined to just two areas. The first concerns the structure of the book. While it is interesting to jump straight into the empirical side of things, as Nowak does in chapters II.1 and II.2, some information about her theoretical points of departure, particularly when it comes to the matter of analogy and schemas, would have been welcome at that point. Thankfully, this information is present in abundance after all, albeit relegated to the second half. This led to some initial frustrations and doubts about the analysis of the data, which were assuaged upon reaching the final parts of the book, where Nowak draws together the main threads while discussing analogy and the role of schemas in inflectional change.
Secondly, for both the concept of analogy and that of schema, a methodological issue remains in that they are used as descriptions and explanations of particular changes in the inflection system of Dutch, German, and Luxembourgish, while leaving unexamined the possible influence of alternative schemas and analogies that might have led to different outcomes than the actual historical ones. The schemas that Nowak presents are good illustrations of connections that indeed exist between verbs, but they are never compared to the multitude of other possible schemas in the system. The same applies to using analogy to explain a limited set of linguistic changes without applying the principle to a linguistic subsystem as a whole, weighing all possible analogies against each other in a modelling approach (see e. g. Hare & Elman 1995; Albright & Hayes 2003).
Finally, Nowak seems to assume a natural kind of analogy between the long /oː/ of the Dutch and German second strong class and the short /o/ of the third strong class, or in other words, that x–o:–o: and x–o–o are fundamentally identical. However, only some S8 verbs use the former while most use the latter. It is tempting to reduce this to an issue of complementary distribution—a long vowel before a single consonant and a short vowel before a cluster—and while this explanation goes a long way, it does not account for a jocular form like gesnopen from snappen, where one would expect a short vowel instead: *gesnoppen. An alternative explanation is that in the Early Modern Period (and potentially also in present day German), the patterns are equivalent, and that it is only present day Dutch /oː/ that is moving in its own direction, where it can be applied regardless of the consonant structure of the stem.
While they naturally fall outside the scope of this already sizeable book, it is interesting to mention the presence of a few related phenomena in Frisian and English. In West Frisian, the x–o–o pattern has a natural presence in S3 verbs, again as a result of levelling of the past tense vowel towards the plural, just like in Dutch and German. This class has also been able to attract a sizeable number of weak verbs with present tense vowel /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ (e.g. klimme–klom–klommen ‘climb’ and flechstje–flocht–flochten). In addition, the pattern has enjoyed a small degree of productivity among strong verbs that originate in other classes, namely waskje–wosk–wosken ‘wash’ and fange–fong–fongen ‘catch’. That latter cases can be analysed as instances of S8.
In English, finally, the change of an ABC to an ABB pattern is also prominent in particular areas of the strong verb system, not coincidentally in verbs originally of the third ablaut class (and analogically similar weak verbs that have ‘strengthened’). Next to the original pattern sing–sang–sung, we have strike–struck–struck and stick–stuck–stuck. In addition, even in verbs that prescriptively still have a past tense with /æ/, the /ʌ/ forms are sometimes used. These forms, too, may be seen as English overtures to S8.
Although the North Germanic languages seem to be exempt from the developments described here, it appears that the rise of product-oriented schemas in strong verb inflection is something that plays a significant role in all West Germanic languages, from system-defining in Luxembourgish to fairly marginal in English, with German, Dutch, and Frisian lying somewhere in between. As such, we are dealing with a cross-linguistic phenomenon in morphological change, and Nowak’s book is the best and most complete study of it to date.
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