Linguistics for laypeople: inflection vs derivation

In the study of Morphology, which is concerned with the structure of words, there has traditionally been a distinction drawn between two types of affixes, inflectional and derivational. An affix is basically what your traditional Latin or German grammars would have called an ‘ending’, though the term is more general, as it can refer to bits of words that come at the beginning (a prefix), or in the middle (an infix) or at the end (suffix) etc.

Inflection is often defined as a type of affix that distinguishes grammatical forms of the same lexeme. When we talk of lexemes in linguistics we’re usually referring to the fact that there are some word forms that differ only in their inflectional properties. So go and went are different word forms, but they belong to the same lexeme, whereas go and walk belong to different lexemes. With that in mind, let’s turn to an example of inflection. The English plural suffix -s in book-s is an inflectional suffix because it distinguishes the plural form books from the singular form book. Books and book are thus different grammatical forms of the same lexeme.

Derivation refers to an affix that indicates a change of grammatical category. Take for example the word person-al. The suffix -al does not distinguish between grammatical forms of the same lexeme: person and personal are different lexemes, and personal belongs to a different word class (i.e. it is an adjective) from person (which is obviously a noun).

That’s all well and good, but unfortunately things don’t stop there. On closer inspection it becomes clear that there are significant problems with the above definitions. First, they come with theoretical assumptions, that is, an a priori distinction between lexemes and word forms. There are theoretical implications here, as lexemes are considered to be those linguistic tokens which are stored individually in each person’s lexicon or ‘mental dictionary’, whereas anything to do with grammar is traditionally considered not to be stored there. More problematic, however, is that many affixes cannot neatly be identified as either inflection or derivation. Some seem more inflection-like than others but have derivation-like qualities too, and vice versa. This is problematic for people who believe in a dichotomous dual mechanism model, i.e. who think that grammatical information and lexical information are stored in separate components of the overall grammar.

Haspelmath (2002) discusses several more distinctions between inflection and derivation, building on the narrow definitions given above. He groups the distinctions into two categories, ‘all-or-nothing’ and ‘more-or-less’ criteria. That is, in his view, the ‘all-or-nothing’ criteria unambiguously distinguish inflection from derivation, whereas the ‘more-or-less’ do so to a lesser extent. I won’t go through every criterion as that would be tedious, but you’ll soon get a sense that there are problems with pretty much all of them.

His first ‘all-or-nothing’ criterion is basically the one we used to define our terms at the beginning: derivation indicates a change of category, whereas inflection does not. However, consider the German past participle gesungen, (‘sung’). On first glance this seems to be an example of bog-standard inflection, The circumfix ge- -en indicates that gesungen is a different grammatical form of the lexeme singen (‘to sing’) from, say, singst (‘you (sg) sing’). They are all the same category, however, as they are all verbs. However, gesungen can change category when it functions as an attributive adjective, as in (1):

1. Ein gesungen-es Lied

A sing.PP-NOM song

‘A song that is sung’

In this case, then, an example of what appears to be inflection can also change category.

Haspelmath’s (2002) third criterion is that of obligatoriness. The saying goes that inflection is ‘obligatory’, but derivation is not. For example, in (2), the right kind of inflection must be present for the sentence to be grammatical:

(2) They have *sing/*sings/*sang/sung.

By contrast, derivation is never obligatory in this sense, and is determined by syntactic context. However, some examples of inflection are not obligatory in the sense described above either. For example, the concept of number is ultimately the speaker’s choice: she can decide whether she wishes to utter the form book or books based on the discourse context. Because of this, Booij (1996) distinguishes between two types of inflection, inherent and contextual. Inherent inflection is the kind of inflection which is determined by the information a speaker wishes to convey, like the concept of number. Contextual inflection is determined by the syntactic context, as in (2). Keep this distinction in mind, we’ll come back to it!

In addition, there are problems with all of Haspelmath’s (2002) further ‘more-or-less’ criteria. I’ll take three of them here, but I’ll cover them quickly.

i. Inflection is found further from the base than derivation

Example: in personalities we have the base person, then the derivational suffixes -al and -ity before we get the inflectional suffix -s. You don’t get, e.g. *person-s-al-ity

Problem: Affect-ed-ness has the opposite ordering (i.e. inflectional suffix -ed is closer to the base than the derivational suffix -ness).

ii. Inflectional forms share the same concept as the base, derivational forms do not.

Example: person-s has same concept as person, but person-al does not.

Problem: It’s very vague! What is a ‘concept’? What about examples like German Kerl-chen (‘little tyke’)? -chen is usually considered to be an inflectional suffix, but Kerl doesn’t mean ‘tyke’, it means ‘bloke’. There is surely a change in concept here?

iii. Inflection is semantically more regular (i.e. less idiomatic) than derivation.

Example: inflectional suffixes like -s and -ed indicate obvious semantic content like ‘plural’ and ‘past tense’, but it’s not always clear what derivational suffixes like -al actually represent semantically. Derivation, such as in the Russian dnev-nik (‘diary’, lit. ‘day-book’) is more idiomatic in meaning (i.e. you can’t work out its meaning from the sum of its parts).

Problem: What about inflectional forms like sand-s, which is idiomatic in meaning? (i.e. sands does not equate with the plural of sand in the same way that books does with book.)

So, why does this matter? I alluded to the problem above. Basically, many linguists (e.g. Perlmutter (1988)) are keen to hold to a dichotomous approach to grammatical and lexical components in terms of how linguistic information is stored in the brain. They want inflection and derivation to be distinct in a speaker’s linguistic competence in accordance with the dual mechanism model, with derivation occurring in the lexicon and inflection occurring subsequent to syntactic operations. But the natural language data seem to indicate that the distinction between inflection and derivation is somewhat fuzzier.

So how do people get around it? There are several ways, but I’ll outline two of them here. The first is known as the Continuum approach, advanced by scholars such as Bybee (1985). As the name suggests, this approach entails that there is a continuum between inflection and derivation. Take a look at the following table, adapted from Haspelmath (2002:79) (sorry it’s so small):

morphology table

In the descending rows, the different types of inflectional/derivational affixes can be placed in an order according to how prototypically inflectional or derivational they are. For example, the -s plural suffix is prototypically more inflectional than the German diminutive suffix -chen.

But this approach can’t account for the order preference of base-derivation-inflection, which is one of the properties we discussed above. In addition, it carries with it great theoretical implications, namely that the grammar and the lexicon form a continuum. This is not the place to get into this debate, but I think there are good reasons for keeping the two distinct.

Booij (1996; 2007) comes up with a tri-partite approach to get around this problem, and it goes back to the distinction made above between inherent and contextual inflection. His approach is neat, because it attempts to account for the fuzziness of the inflection/derivation boundary while maintaining a distinction between the grammar and the lexicon. By dividing inflection/derivation phenomena into three rather than two (so derivation plus the two different types of inflection), we can account for some of the problematic phenomena we discussed above. For example, ‘inherent’ inflection can account for lack of obligatoriness in inflection when this occurs, as well as accounting for the occasional base-inflection-derivation order, when that occurs. ‘Contextual’ inflection takes care of obligatory inflection and the usual ordering of base-derivation-inflection.

There’s more to be said on this: can Booij’s tripartite approach really explain why, for example, the ordering base-derivation-inflection is so much more common than the other ordering? What about the problems with inflection that can change category such as in ein gesungenes Lied? Nevertheless, we’ve seen that a sharp distinction between inflection and derivation cannot be drawn, which has consequences for a dichotomy approach to the grammar. This dichotomy can be maintained if we follow Booij’s distinction of contextual versus inherent inflection.


Booij, G. 1996. Inherent versus contextual inflection and the split morphology hypothesis,
Yearbook of Morphology 1995, 1-16.

Booij, G. 2007. The Grammar of Words. An Introduction to Morphology. Oxford: OUP.

Bybee, J. 1985. Morphology. The Relation between Form and Meaning. Benjamins:

Haspelmath, M. 2002. Understanding Morphology. London: Arnold.

Perlmutter, D. M. 1988. The split morphology hypothesis: evidence from Yiddish, in M.
Hammond & M. Noonen (eds), Theoretical Morphology. San Diego, CA: Academic Press,

Holy Week and J.S. Bach

Did you know that J.S. Bach is this week’s composer of the week on Radio 3? Every year I think to myself that Holy Week is the best time to engage with the works of Bach. This is primarily because it is usually during this week, the week where Christians follow Jesus from his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (Palm Sunday) to the cross (Good Friday) and subsequent resurrection (Easter Sunday), that Bach’s two great ‘Passions’, those of St Matthew and St John, are performed across the country. While I have to admit (and most of you know anyway) I am a totally committed fan of pretty much anything Bach composed, the passions are singular, as far as I am concerned, in their emotional depth. For those who know nothing about passions or the Bible or Bach, these great works were intended to be performed on Good Friday in church, and take the form of a gospel text (St Matthew’s in one instance and St John’s in the other), which charts the last few days of Jesus’ life in recitative form, interpolated with arias and chorales in which deeper themes within the biblical text are explored.

Now I happen to think that the works of J.S. Bach will enrich anyone’s life, regardless of whether you are a Christian, a musician, a Germanist, or none of the above. Hence this is my attempt to gently encourage you all to engage with a little bit of Bach this week, regardless of your background. I think Bach has something to offer everyone.

For Christians who are not musical, these passions offer an alternative style of devotion (that’s what they were intended for!) They take us through the last moments of Jesus’ life and give us space to reflect on and respond to his great sacrifice for the sins of mankind. The scores are unparalleled in the musical world in their treatment of this topic. You might come away feeling like you’ve run a marathon, but sitting down with the words and a CD and listening along certainly adds a new dimension to my devotions every year, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Since the passions deal with questions of cosmic significance, they are relevant and accessible to non-believers as well as Christians, especially to people who like music! As a wannabe musician, I sometimes find myself guilty of not really paying attention to what I’m singing about. However, my understanding and appreciation of Bach’s passions increased exponentially (as did an outpouring of my faith, as it happens: ask me about it sometime) as a result of engaging with the text and Christian claims of these great works. I urge you whatever your faith not just to sing or play, but to engage!

As for Germanists who might or might not be familiar with classical music and/or Christendom, Bach counts among the best of Germany’s exemplary cultural output, so he’s definitely worth getting to know!

The best way to get into a passion is to sit down with a libretto, a translation and a recording. Happily, you can do all this online! (Isn’t technology wonderful!) For example, you can watch a live recording of the whole Matthew Passion, directed by the brilliant Philipp Herreweghe, here. You can follow the German here, and read a translation here.

Since most people will find the idea of listening to 2 hours 45 minutes of Bach daunting, I thought I’d help you find a ‘way in’, one from the Matthew Passion and one from the John.

St Matthew Passion: This aria is called So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen (‘My Jesus has now been captured’), and features just after Jesus has been identified by Judas in the garden of Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday. A duet allows us space to reflect on the unjust arrest of Jesus, before a fabulously exhilarating section helps us to recognise the cosmic significance of the moment (and call for judgment on Judas, which you may or may not like, but is a great vehicle for some truly terrific German: Zertrümmre, verderbe, verschlinge, zerschelle – try getting your mouth round that lot in a hurry). It’s quite brilliant – do have a listen, and enjoy how Bach uses the ‘chorus’ to interject with lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht! (‘Leave him, stop, bind him not!’) The words are below with a translation (from the same source as above).

So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen.
Lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!
Mond und Licht
Ist vor Schmerzen untergangen,
Weil mein Jesus ist gefangen.
Lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!
Sie führen ihn, er ist gebunden.

Sind Blitze, sind Donner in Wolken verschwunden?
Eröffne den feurigen Abgrund, o Hölle,
Zertrümmre, verderbe, verschlinge, zerschelle
Mit plötzlicher Wut
Den falschen Verräter, das mördrische Blut!

Thus hath my Jesus now been taken.
Free him, hold off, bind him not!
Moon and light
Are in sorrow set and hidden,
For my Jesus hath been taken.
Free him, hold off, bind him not!
They lead him off, he is in fetters.

Hath lightning, hath thunder in clouds fully vanished?
Lay open thy fire’s raging chasm, O hell, then,
Now ruin, demolish, devour, now shatter
With suddenmost wrath
The lying betrayer, that murderous blood!

St John Passion: Here I have gone for the final chorale of the piece. Recall that Jesus’ resurrection is not depicted in the passion accounts (in the Lutheran church this would have been celebrated with much gusto on Easter Day with an Easter cantata) It is a prayer which looks forward with great faith and hope to the resurrection at the last day, and I never fail to be inspired by the boldness of the words Herr Jesu Christ, erhöre mich! Ich will dich preisen ewiglich! (something like ‘Lord Jesus Christ, listen to me! I’m going to praise you for ever and ever!’)

Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein
Am letzten End die Seele mein
In Abrahams Schoß tragen,
Den Leib in seim Schlafkämmerlein
Gar sanft ohn einge Qual und Pein
Ruhn bis am jüngsten Tage!
Alsdenn vom Tod erwecke mich,
Dass meine Augen sehen dich
In aller Freud, o Gottes Sohn,
Mein Heiland und Genadenthron!
Herr Jesu Christ, erhöre mich,
Ich will dich preisen ewiglich!

Ah Lord, let thine own angels dear
At my last hour my spirit bear
To Abraham’s own bosom,
My body in its simple bed
In peace without distress and dread
Rest till the day of judgment!
And then from death awaken me,
That with mine eyes I may see thee
In fullest joy, O God’s own Son,
My Savior and my gracious throne!
Lord Jesus Christ, give ear to me,
I would thee praise eternally!

Words; Translation

Dr Goebbels und die Weiβe Rose

Groβmutter, die Bedingungen haben dich erschossen und deine Kinder vergast. Es waren gar nicht die Deutschen, es waren die historischen Bedingungen und die totalitäre Ideologie.L. Fleischmann, Dies ist nicht mein Land, Hamburg 1980, s. 248.

Grandma, it was the conditions at the time that shot you dead and gassed your children. It wasn’t the Germans at all, rather the historical conditions and the totalitarian ideology.’

I came across the above quotation yesterday in my reading on the language of National Socialism (another of the topics I’ll be teaching from October). It captures the sentiment that many post-war Germans did not wish to recognise their nation’s guilt regarding the atrocities committed in their name during the Nazi period, focusing instead on their own suffering as victims of war. Indeed, we know that many Germans of the period remained committed to the National Socialist cause to their deaths, denying that ordinary Germans had any role to play in the turn of events.

Joseph Goebbels was certainly one such German. The members of the White Rose resistance group, on the other hand, were very much not. Most British people have heard of Goebbels. Few Brits would, I’d wager, recognise the names Hans and Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf and Kurt Huber, (and they’re just the famous ones!)

Hans Scholl, Christoph Probst and Sophie Scholl

So why am I blogging about these Germans from the past? What did they have in common, and how were they different? Why should we care? I want to draw light on the ways in which, on one particular day, they used words very differently, and dwell a little on what those words signified (and still signify today).

Like many, I’ve grown up knowing Goebbels as a household name. We learned about him in school, and even saw films of him wildly gesticulating and screaming out the usual Nazi diatribe. Even as a German student, however, I never once came across the Scholl siblings, to say nothing of the others, even though in Germany the members of the White Rose have in the years since the Second World War almost reached cult status. Although I stumbled across their story a while ago now (having read this brilliant book), it was only when recently reading Goebbels’ diary during a dull moment in the Bodleian a couple of months ago that I was struck by a connection between the Propagandaminister and the Weiβe Rose, and that was the different ways they were using words on one particular day in 1943. I was reading what Goebbels had to say about one of the most important speeches of his career, known as the Sportpalastrede, given on 18th February 1943 in the Sportpalast in Berlin. Yesterday, I happened to come across this speech again in my study of the language of National Socialism. It’s one of his most famous, known primarily by the line Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg? (‘Do you want total war?’) to which all present screamed their approval. You can read the German here, an English translation hereand listen to it here.

Goebbels’ speech in the Berlin Sportpalast, 18.02.1943

It was primarily the disastrous defeat at Stalingrad shortly before that prompted the Propagandaminister to deliver this speech. For the first time, there was an acknowledgement that Germany was in danger. Yet by the end, having appealed to the (very German) notion of war heroism, doled out suitable apocolyptic language and cast blame on anyone as long as they didn’t belong to the Herrenrasse, Herr Doktor Goebbels had his crowd (selected of course by the Nazis) eating out of his hand, sure in their support of total war and holding fast to the concept of the Endsieg.

Down south in Bavaria, on the same day, two students walked into the Lichthof (atrium) of the Ludwig-Maximilian-Universität in Munich while lectures were going on. They quietly distributed anti-war leaflets which had been written and copied thousands of times, leaving them around the hall in obvious places. Hans Scholl, together with the others listed above, had been writing and distributing leaflets across the South of Germany for months. This was the sixth (English), written by Professor of Musicology and Philosophy Kurt Huber, and addressed to students, appealing to their intellect, their sense of morality, and their courage to stand up to the oppressive regime in power. Sophie had joined the others at university the semester before, and was keen to be involved in the action. Their usual pastime was copying the leaflets and sending them to students in different cities. On this occasion, they had a few leaflets left over. She suggested distributing them at the university. In the transcript of her interrogation, she tells how, “in meinem Übermut oder meiner Dummheit“* (‘out of high jinks or stupidity’), she gave one stack of paper on the gallery a shove and the pages wafted down to ground floor level in the atrium. A porter saw her and her brother Hans, and handed them over to the Gestapo. They were interrogated in the days that followed, put on ‘trial’, together with Christoph Probst, in front of the Volksgerichtshof in Munich on 22nd February, and executed on the same day. The other three members were arrested subsequently and also executed.

Hans and Sophie Scholl (along with many others involved in the White Rose movement) were Christians. Their faith motivated them to act. They knew that the world would not let Germany get away with blaming ‘historical conditions’ after the war. They grew up under Nazism and had initially been supportive of the regime. Over time, however, they started to see that Nazism had twisted key truths that they believed in. They met together, read books about philosophy and theology together, sang together and prayed together. Gradually, they came up with a way to respond: on paper. As Sophie said during the trial, ‘wir kämpfen mit dem Wort’ (‘we’re fighting with words’).

In his diary, Goebbels wrote the following about Christianity and Nazism in 1928:

Was ist uns heute das Christentum? Nationalsozialismus ist Religion. Es fehlt nur noch das religiöse Genie, das alte überlebte Formeln sprengt und neue bildet. Der Ritus fehlt uns. Nationalsozialismus muβ auch einmal Staatsreligion der Deutschen werden. Meine Partei ist meine Kirche, und ich glaube, dem Herrn am besten zu dienen, wenn ich seinen Willen erfülle und mein unterdrücktes Volk von den Sklavenketten befreie. Das ist mein Evangelium. (Goebbels, 1999, Bd. 1, S. 327)

‘What use is Christianity to us today? National Socialism is religion. All we’re missing is that religious genius that blows apart old surviving formulas and creates new ones. We’re missing the ritual. National Socialism will one day become the state religion of the German people. My party is my church, and I believe that I’m serving God best when I fulfil his wishes and free my oppressed people from the chains of slavery. That is my gospel.’

The Scholls’ Gospel was a very different one. Hans and Sophie’s parents rushed into the court room in the middle of their trial, and their father screamed ‘Es gibt eine andere Gerechtigkeit!’ (‘There is another kind of justice!) They were removed. They were, however, allowed to see Hans and Sophie for a few minutes each before they were executed. The following dialogue has been recorded in several places, but I’m taking it from a letter from Hans and Sophie’s mother to Sophie’s boyfriend, Fritz Hartnagel. Her mother, Magdalena Scholl, looked to Sophie moments before she was led to the guillotine and said ‘Aber gelt – Jesus!’ (‘But remember – Jesus!’) Sophie’s response was ‘Ja, aber du auch.’ (‘Yes, but you must remember him too.’)

A lot can be learnt from the courage and faith of this group of students (all of whom were younger than me) to act in the hardest of situations.  Willi Graf, who was one of the second round of members of the group to be tried and executed, had the following to say about the Christian life (which I have very loosely translated). It’s taken from a display in the university in Munich, where there is a small exhibition to their memory. There’s lots to chew over for Christians.

In Wirklichkeit ist Christentum ein viel schwereres und ungewisseres Leben, das voller Anstrengungen ist und immer wieder neue Überwindung kostet, um es zu vollziehen.’

‘In reality, Christianity is much more a difficult and unsettled life that is full of struggles and always requires you to keep battling to actually live that life.’ 


The sixth leaflet continued to be distributed long after the deaths of the key members of the White Rose and made its way to England, where it was copied and dropped by aeroplane over Germany in the closing stages of the war.

You can watch a trailer (with English subtitles) for the film ‘Sophie Scholl – die letzten Tage’ here. It has some shots of the Lichthof where the leaflets were distributed.

Here are some pictures of the Lichthof and the resting place of Hans and Sophie and Christoph Probst in the Friedhof am Perlacher Forst in Munich



Attitudes to linguistic borrowing


So I’ve been quiet on the blog-front in recent months: mostly finishing my MPhil thesis and revising for exams. Now I find myself in that slightly eerie Zwischenphase between Masters and PhD. Happily, I’ve had plenty of things going on to fill my time. One of the things I’ve been working on is preparing to teach a new undergraduate paper from October: History of the German Language. The reading list sent out to students is longer than both my arms put together and I’ve had my work cut out getting through it, let alone getting further than it. One of the topics is Medieval and later loan vocabulary, which essentially focuses on lexical (but also phonological and morphological) borrowing into German at different periods and from different languages.

The Germanists amongst you will be aware that German has borrowed extensively from several languages over the years, but probably none more so than French in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To give you a bit of (very basic historical) background, the Thirty Years War was not  a great time for the German economy, and there was much trade with France as a result. In addition, French and German dynastic relations had become ever more intertwined, and many thousands of Huguenots were seeking refuge in Germany from persecution in France. Culturally, then, Germans had begun ever more to look to France. French loans are consequently found in abundance in technical language, newspapers/journals, as well as letters from the period, influencing such semantic fields as military vocabulary (Attacke, marschieren), fashion (Brokat), food (Schokolade), the home (Balkon), pastimes (Promenade), trade (Billet), diplomacy (Administration) and kinship terms (TanteOnkel). Many of these loans were dropped in subsequent centuries, but some remain. Scholars estimate that Standard German as spoken today is made up of about 5% of words of French origin.

Rather like today, commentators in the seventeenth century had strong opinions about the use of language and in particular the use of French loans. What I found interesting is that these opinions were often inconsistent. Brunt (1983) explains that public opinion in Germany showed various conflicting attitudes towards the French in the mid-seventeenth century:

On the one hand they [the French] were the epitome of all that was cultivated and elegant; on the other they were an inferior race, lacking all the German virtues, whose language and fashions were exerting a deleterious effect upon German society. (p22)

Towards the end of the Thirty Years’ War […] there arose among certain writers a conviction that the whole of German society was in a state of decline due to neglect of native virtues and the imitation of foreign manners.  (p62)

What I always find amusing about studying the history of languages (or of anything) is that the same ideas keep coming round again. The fact is, linguistic purism has been alive and well for centuries. The above German example strongly reminds me of British attitudes to so-called ‘Americanisms’, but it’s also true of the response of many speakers of other languages to English loans. On the one hand (and speaking very broadly), we embrace much of the culture and attitudes crossing the pond from the US, but at the same time there’s a feeling that ‘Americanisms’ ‘infiltrating’ the (English/German/whatever) language are having a deleterious effect on our society. One need only think back to this article from the BBC last year, in which a commentator lists the ‘Americanisms’ which he found to be the most ‘ugly’ and ‘pointless’.* We see conflicting attitudes even in this little piece. The author broadly upholds some things about America which he deems to be positive (even including some ‘Americanisms’ here), but he also writes of the ‘sloppy loss of our own distinctive phraseology through sheer idleness, lack of self-awareness and our attitude of cultural cringe.’ The idea is that abandoning our own ‘distinctive’ dialect(s?) comes about as a result of idleness and is a negative thing.

Examining attitudes towards linguistic borrowing from the past, however, serves to show that connecting lexical borrowing with the deterioration of society is nothing new.

The seventeenth century German equivalent of Engels’ article above was the pamphlet. I’ll leave you with a quotation from one called Der Vnartig Teutscher Sprach=verderber (‘The wicked German language corrupter’) from 1644:

Seithero die Complementen […] auffkommen / so ist die Teutsche Trew/ Glaub vnd Redlichkeit auβ Teutschland gezogen.

(‘Ever since these [linguistic] complements (i.e. French loans) have been around, the German sense of loyalty, faith and integrity has been hauled out of Germany.’)

*Rather embarrassingly (and as is often the case with perceptions about language), the author of the article is unaware that his linguistic perceptions do not match up to reality. In the event, 80% of his ‘Americanisms’ are not, in fact, American (at least in the first instance). See this link from the folks at Language Log for more info.


Brunt, Richard (1983): The Influence of the French Language on the German Vocabulary (1649-1735). Berlin: de Gruyter.

Lo, he comes

LO, he comes with clouds descending,

once for favoured sinners slain;

thousand thousand saints attending

swell the triumph of his train:


God appears on earth to reign.

‘Advent’ (Latin, adventus) means ‘coming’. For centuries, Christians have observed a season of preparation for Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus. It is a solemn season, but by no means sad. It is characterised by a sense of joyful expectation as we anticipate the second coming of Christ, as well as remembering his first coming. (From the inside of our church service booklet)

Our sermon this Advent Sunday was, unsurprisingly, all about watching and waiting for Jesus’ coming, both as a baby born in a cattle stall and as the Judge, coming on clouds descending. It is the latter that has particularly caught my attention this year. The preacher laboured those terms. Watching. Waiting. In the run up to Christmas, I’ve found I so easily get distracted by all the tat that I’ve often missed the point of Advent. I can’t shake off some of Jesus’ words from our Gospel reading this morning. ‘Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come … What I say to you, I say to everyone: “Watch!”‘ (Mark 13:33 and 37)

I find that lighting a candle aids meditation. It’s hardly a new idea, but I haven’t grown up in a tradition that heralds the merits of silence and contemplation, watching and waiting. This year, however, I’ve gone candle-tastic, and used it as an excuse to have some mother-daughter bonding time as she has taught me how to make Advent decorations. It’s also because I found myself with the slightly daunting task of making our church’s wreath, where one candle is lit each Sunday to symbolize the passage of the four weeks in Advent. I thought I’d share some of the fruits of my candle-inspired labours. (The church warden informed me how disastrous last year’s wreath was, and that I couldn’t possibly do any worse …)

I found inspiration in German and Dutch magazines – they’re everywhere over there. They told me everything I needed to buy: oasis, oasis trays, oasis fix, stub wire, candles, silver and gold spray. My mother then sent me out foraging in our local woods for tree ivy, holly, fir, and pine cones, that kind of thing. She brought a selection of other things that she’s collected over the years that can be sprayed like dried poppy heads, dried fruit, and so on. There’s no need to spend lots of money on expensive decorations in garden centres if you can spray your own, I have discovered! In the end we made a good number of decorations, which can be seen below.

I was informed that churches tend to like traditional foliage with not much glitz. This reflects the ‘solemn’ nature of Advent. Consequently, I avoided too much sparkle. I sprayed the tree ivy berries with the smallest amount of silver spray to give a hint of shimmer. Otherwise everything else is totally natural and collected from the local area – including the churchyard! (My mother also made a wreath for her church, and put me to shame! Hers is the second of the two.)

The stand was simple and metal and provided by the church. We then taped down four small dishes with oasis in (which were left over from our wedding and happened to fit) and added foliage. As a rule of thumb, cut off leaves about an inch from the bottom of the cutting, and put long stuff at the bottom, short stuff at the top.

My sister-in-law decided to make a wreath as a table decoration involving large candles. You can stand them in oasis using stub wire heated by a hob flame, so that the wire more easily fits into the bottom of the candle without making it crumble. Large candles obviously mean that there’s not a lot of space for foliage. My sister-in-law wisely chose to make her decoration quite simply, and it is beautiful:

My decoration was different in that I used stump oasis and had long thin candles, which resulted in the slightly ‘exploded’ look, as much more foliage is needed to fill the oasis. The cinnamon sticks can be purchased cheaply from florists. Otherwise everything else in the decoration has been foraged and in some cases sprayed. I found that the candles are very difficult to keep straight! I might try wider candles next year.

I also wanted to make something for the door to our house, but didn’t have a lot of time to spend on it. Mum gave me an old bare wreath made up of wired twigs. I wove ivy round it and added a few red baubles:

Last, I wanted to use the leftover foliage to make a stand for an Advent candle I’d bought in a Christian bookshop. For each of the days of December running up to Christmas day, there is a name or a characteristic of Jesus to meditate on. It reminded me a bit of the chorus of a song we sing on Quantock called ‘You are Holy’, where we recall many of the names we have for God. They are numbered as follows:








The Vine


The Way


The Truth


The Life






The Rock


The Word


Son of God




Lamb of God


High Priest


Anointed One


Living Water


Morning Star


King of Kings


Lord of Lords


Lion of Judah


Good Shepherd


Prince of Peace





I hope and pray that lighting this candle each day of Advent will help me to become more aware of the many wonders of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yea, Amen, let all adore thee,

high on thine eternal throne;

Saviour, take the power and glory,

claim the kingdom for thine own:


Thou shalt reign, and thou alone.

Ich backe Streuselkuchen …

In a bid to combine my love for all things German with my love for all things edible, I decided a couple of weeks ago to have a go at making Streuselkuchen. When I lived in Germany, my friend Christina used to bring a load of Streuselkuchen with us whenever we went hiking. We used to drink it down with “Westminster Tee”, a bizarre brand of “English” tea which I’ve only ever had in Germany. In any case, I was very keen to replicate this, and our church’s monthly parish lunch seemed like a good enough opportunity. If you google Streuselkuchen you’ll find a million and one different recipes. To give you a bit of a heads up (for those who don’t know German and consequently can’t read its German Wikipedia page), Streuselkuchen consists of crumble on top, fruit in the middle, and a tasty pastry base. This is what it (normally) looks like:

The saying goes that Streuselkuchen (or just Streusel, as the Germans I know call it) originated in Silesia. Silesia used to be a part of Germany until 1945, and now only a tiny corner of the former province makes up part of the state of Saxony, around the town of Görlitz, on the Polish border. For those of you who never did History GCSE (ahem, husband), this is where Silesia used to be when it was German:

The recipe I used comes from our German friend Silke from Wuppertal, but who lives up the road from us, and the result was delicious. I’ve made two different batches using different fruits, and apple is my favourite so far, though it’s always nice to have more than one fruit. Here’s the recipe:


a) Dough:

500g Flour

100g Sugar

50g Butter/Margarine

1 pinch of salt

1 Egg

125 ml Milk

Yeast (can use dry yeast)

b) Streusel:

250g Butter/Margarine

200g Sugar

1 pinch of salt

400g Flour


Dough: Put dry yeast, 1 teaspoon of sugar and 2 tablespoons of warm milk in a cup and cover to rise. Put flour in bowl, make hollow in middle. Pour other ingredients around edge (butter in small pieces). When risen pour yeast in hollow, cover with flour and mix and knead all to dough. Flatten dough and put on baking tray.

Streusel: Put all ingredients in bowl at same time and make crumbs with fingers (or 2 forks).

You can put Streusel directly on dough or put fruit in between.

Bake ~ 20-30 min at 170° (fan oven).

On German ‘ge-‘

Anyone who has had even the smallest amount of German tuition will know that, to form a past participle in German, you whack a ge- on the front (and shove a -t on the end – well, most of the time). Ever wondered where that came from? I hadn’t until I stumbled across someone writing about it when I was reading about German verbs in Lockwood’s (1968) scintillating book Historical German Syntax.

In terms of its etymology, Lockwood (1968) makes the claim that ge-, which was gi- in Old High German (henceforth OHG) and (probably) ga- in Proto-Germanic, is likely to be a cognate with the Latin cum/con-/co-, ‘with’. He reckons its primary sense was the meaning of ‘together’.

Indo-European verbs had a means of expressing how an action took place in addition to when it took place. The Linguists among you will know that the former refers to aspect, the latter to tense (see this article for info about aspect). Apparently, according to Lockwood (1968), in OHG the commonest function of ge- was to make imperfect verbs perfective.* For example, the OHG verb swîgan meant to ‘be silent’, and giswîgan meant to ‘fall silent’. There also existed some ‘simplexes’, e.g. bringan, ‘to bring’, which were already understood to be perfective, so didn’t need to take the gi- perfective prefix (think about it: if you ‘bring’ something somewhere, the action is always completed. You can’t bring me a book and the book not reach me). There were also some verbs which compounded with gi- which had no corresponding simplexes, e.g. gilouben, which is modern day glauben, ‘to believe, think’.

There are a couple of verbs which have a corresponding form with ge- on the front in modern German, e.g. denken (‘to think’) vs gedenken (‘to remember’, in the sense of commemoration). Now, however, there is a lexical difference, rather than an aspectual one. Lockwood (1968) could only come up with gefrieren (‘to freeze (up)’) as a modern infinitive with a ge- on the front which is aspectually perfective.

However, to go back to OHG, the ‘perfective preverb’ gi- was generalized to a large extent before past participles, because the use of a perfect tense often implied a completed action. Consequently, gisagêt often functioned as the past participle of both sagên and gisagên. Our perfective simplexes noted above retained the original, gi-less past participles:

ih haben iʒ funtan

‘ich habe es gefunden’

‘I (have) found it.’

This made me happy as I have often wondered why some past participles didn’t seem to have a ge– prefix in older German texts. An example that immediately springs to mind is one of the chorale/recits, no. 7,  in J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio: Er ist auf Erden kommen arm (something like ‘He has to earth now come so poor’). One would expect a tidy ge- on the front of kommen in modern German. Yet there isn’t one.

In Middle High German and New High German, the aspectual distinction largely died out. Hence sitzen to sit’ and sagen ‘to say’ have survived, but gesitzen and gesagen haven’t. In other instances, the simplex has died out, and the ge- form has prevailed:

OHG   winnan – ‘to struggle’, giwinnan – ‘to obtain by strength’; Mod. German gewinnen – ‘to win’

The ones that have survived (as in denken/gedenken above) all have a lexical difference in the modern language, as noted above. Ge- had spread to the past participles of all of the simplexes by Early New High German (ENHG), but only if the verb bore initial stress. Lots of verbs in the modern language that end in -ieren do not bear initial stress, and also take no ge- prefix on their past participles (think markiert, blamiert, arrangiert, etc).

At some point, ge- must have been reanalyzed as a tense marker of the perfect, which is hardly surprising as it was used so much in perfect constructions. Those perfective simplexes like kommen prevailed until the eighteenth century, when little ge- also took hold of them as well. There are now only traces of the old forms in words like willkommen, rechtschaffen.


*Lockwood (1968:102) notes that the presence/absence of gi- was partly determined by considerations which had nothing to do with aspect.

A poem for Holy Week

I’m always stunned by the poetry of Catharina Regina von Greiffenberg. For those of you who haven’t come across her, she was an Austrian poet of the Baroque period who had mystic leanings. Her poem Uber den gekreuzigten Jesus (‘On the crucified Jesus’) needs no introduction.  For those of you who read no German, I have provided a (loose and not very accomplished) translation to give you the gist, which should ideally be read only as a gloss to the German.*

Enjoy the way she uses iconicity – particularly Jesus’ arms stretched open wide on the cross.

Uber den gekreutzigten JESUS

Seht der König König hängen /
und uns all mit Blut besprengen.
Seine Wunden seyn die Brunnen /
draus all unser Heil gerunnen.
Seht / Er strecket seine Händ aus / uns alle zu umfangen;
hat / an sein liebheisses Hertz uns zu drucken / Lustverlangen.
Ja er neigt sein liebstes Haubt / uns begierig mit zu küssen.
Seine Sinnen und Gebärden / sind auf unser Heil gefliessen.
Seiner Seiten offen-stehen /
macht sein gnädigs Herz uns sehen:
wann wir schauen mit den Sinnen /
sehen wir uns selbst darinnen.
So viel Striemen / so viel Wunden /
als an seinen Leib gefunden /
so viel Sieg- und Segens-Quellen
wolt Er unsrer Seel bestellen.
zwischen Himmel und der Erden
wolt Er aufgeopffert werden:
daß Er GOtt und uns vergliche.
uns zu stärken / Er verbliche:
Ja sein Sterben / hat das Leben
mir und aller Welt gegeben.
Jesu Christ! dein Tod und Schmerzen
leb’ und schweb mir stets im Herzen!



On the crucified Jesus

See, the King hanging as King,
see how he sprinkles us all with blood.
His wounds, they are the fountains
out of which our rescue pours forth.
See how he stretches wide his hands to enfold us all;
See his yearning to press us to his heart that burns with love.
Yea, he bows his most beloved head eagerly to bestow kisses upon us,
all his senses and gestures together stream out to rescue us.
His merciful heart causes us
to see his sides, wide open.
As we gaze upon them with all our senses
we see ourselves in them.
So many furrows, so many wounds
Are to be found on his body
such wellsprings of victory and blessing
that he intends for our souls.
Between Heaven and Earth
he chooses to be sacrificed
to match us with God.
To strengthen us, he fades himself.
Indeed, his death has given life
to me and to the whole world.
Jesu Christ! Let your pain and death
live and move me in my heart!

*There are some parts of her syntax which have – frustratingly – left me baffled. The Germanists among you are invited to comment on the inaccuracies of my translation.