12.2035, Review: Durell, Using German Synonyms (2nd rev.)

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LINGUIST List:  Vol-12-2035. Mon Aug 13 2001. ISSN: 1068-4875.

Subject: 12.2035, Review: Durell, Using German Synonyms (2nd rev.)

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Date:  Mon, 13 Aug 2001 11:11:19 -0400
From:  AssocProf William H. Fletcher <fletcher at usna.edu>
Subject:  Review of Durrell, Using German Synonyms

-------------------------------- Message 1 -------------------------------

Date:  Mon, 13 Aug 2001 11:11:19 -0400
From:  AssocProf William H. Fletcher <fletcher at usna.edu>
Subject:  Review of Durrell, Using German Synonyms

Durrell, Martin (2000) Using German Synonyms. Cambridge
University Press, hardbound ISBN 0-5421-46552-4, $64.95;
paperback ISBN  0-521-46954-6, $22.95; xxv+319pp.

William H. Fletcher, United States Naval Academy

Durrell "aims to provide detailed information on a large
number of sets of semantically related German words for more
advanced learners whose first language is English, in order
to help them extend and improve their command of the
vocabulary of German." (xi)  Drawing upon his teaching
experience he has selected the more frequent lexical fields
"where [the] most semantic distinctions are present which
are unfamiliar to the English learner." (xxi)  In some cases
a lexical field was included simply because of the "large
number of register or regional variants it contained" (xxi).

The core of Durrell's unusually informative and readable
introductory essay outlines fundamental concepts such as
semantic / lexical fields, types of synonymy and antonymy,
polysemy, collocation, valence, register, and regionalism,
illustrating each new term with clear examples.  Finally he
describes the organization and conventions of the entries
which form the bulk of the book, referring back to the
terminology he has just surveyed.

Each entry consists of a German lexical field, ordered
alphabetically by German headword, typically a word from the
field with the most general meaning or widest range of use.
An English equivalent to this headword appears to its right.
Within an entry, German lexical items appear alphabetically,
followed by English glosses chosen to highlight the
differences among the German words.  The range of use of
each German item is illustrated in several short example
sentences, which are not glossed.  Occasional notes spell
out specific conditions on the use of a given word.

Basic grammatical and stylistic information appears for each
German word. Adjectives used only predicatively or
attributively are marked, as are those which function either
only or never as adverbs.  For nouns, gender and plural
shorthand are indicated, e.g. _Schluss, der ("e)_, as are
restrictions on number (no / only plural).

Verb valence is designated by familiar conventions, with the
abbreviations _etw_ for _etwas_ 'something' and
_jd/jdn/jdm/jds_ for the different case forms of _jemand_
'somebody', and with brackets around optional complements,
e.g. _(auf jdn/etw) warten_ 'to wait (for sb/sth)'.  Since
the meaning and implications of familiar conventions are not
necessarily obvious even to those who have seen them often,
Durrell describes examples of the most common valence
patterns in detail, e.g. "Verb which can be used with no
object, e.g. _Ich habe dort gewartet,_ or with a
prepositional object introduced by _auf_ followed by the
accusative case, e.g. _Ich habe dort auf dich gewartet._"
(xxiv)  No conjugation information (e.g. principal parts,
perfect auxiliary) is furnished.

Stylistic variants are designated with abbreviations for
register and for region, detailed in the introduction
(xix-xxi).  Forms unmarked for register are usually not
labeled, but sometimes are designated _R2_ to clarify their
relationship to other lexical items.  The abbreviation _R1_
identifies words that are only appropriate in casual
colloquial speech, while we are altered to "gross
vulgarisms" with _R1*_. Words from the formal register are
marked with _R3_, with the subcategories _R3a_ for words
more appropriate in literary language and _R3b_ for forms
more frequent in non-literary formal prose.  Regional usage
is indicated either with points of the compass (_N, NW, NE,
S, SW, SE_) reflecting the general regions within the German
language area where they are current, or else with the
country abbreviations _AU_ and _CH_ , for usage typical of
Austria and German-speaking Switzerland.

The body of this book contains entries for about 350 lexical
fields, in the approximate ratio 3/2/1 of verbs / nouns /
adjectives-adverbs (of which about half a dozen used
exclusively as adverbs).  It is followed by a valuable
bibliography, and by two indexes to the German headwords
organized by the English glosses and the German
"near-synonyms" in each entry respectively, each with about
3000 entries.

_Using German Synonyms_ is an exceptionally well-executed
work by a mature scholar; every page attests to Durrell's
thorough mastery of both German and English and his
appreciation for the semantic and stylistic subtleties which
each word reflects. While building on existing scholarly and
reference works, he sets a new standard for lucid
conciseness and up-to-date freshness. This book's strengths
are legion.  Durrell explores each lexical field
exhaustively, and provides grammatical and stylistic
information in a compact but detailed form.  His example
sentences sound natural and and illustrate the major uses of
each word. Through his English glosses he eloquently
distinguishes the nuances and register of the German
alternatives, usually offering both British and North
American glosses when appropriate.

Durrell performs a valuable service by including nuggets of
established but not yet dated slang, with the appropriate
register labels and notes, like _geil_ 'brilliant, wicked'
(entry _ausgezeichnet_ 'excellent'),  _schnallen_ 'to get
it' (entry _verstehen_ 'to understand'), or _echt_ 'really,
very' (entry _wirklich_ 'real(ly)'); for these my dictionary
shows only the traditional meanings 'randy, horny', 'to
strap', and 'genuine' respectively.  Not only does he
document the rejuvenation of the German lexis with words
learners will encounter, he also helps them assess where to
use them, and when to avoid them.

Durrell's work is polished and accurate, but there remain
aspects open to improvement.  After considering
some errors and omissions, I will discuss alternative
approaches that might have resulted in a work with broader
appeal.  The scarce typographical errors hardly deserve
mention; I found ones such as _nach jdN rufen, schreien_,
i.e. accusative, instead of correct _jdM_, i.e. dative, and
the previous reviewer on this list noted some
inconsistencies in implementation of the reformed spelling.
In some cases, greater parallelism or complementarity
between related entries would have been more enlightening.
For example, under _Maedchen_ 'girl' we learn that
_Fraeulein_ 'miss' is "now widely avoided as a form of
address" (137), but Durrell does not reveal what one should
use instead.  In his example of a usage now avoided as
sexist, a customer calls out _Fraeulein_ to get a waitress'
attention; nowadays _Bedienung_ 'service' would be
appropriate. To complement this, the entry _Frau_ 'woman'
should have informed us that _Frau_ is now the title of
address for all women regardless of marital status, and is
used more consistently than English _Ms._.  Finally, while
the entry _warm/kalt_ 'hot/cold' admirably delineates these
and related concepts and contrasts them with their English
counterparts, it offers no hint of the standard and regional
expressions for _I am (feeling) hot / cold._

Occasionally I would have included additional lexical items
under some entries, e.g. _behalten_ 'to remember, retain
information' under _sich erinnern_ 'remember'.  While there
is an example of _behalten_ in this meaning under the entry
_behalten_ 'keep', it lacks an appropriate gloss or
cross-reference to or from _sich erinnern_. Why not include
_mixen_ under _mischen_ 'to mix', despite its English
heritage?  A clear explanation of its restricted uses in
German would be helpful to an English-speaking user.

For verbs Durrell always indicates valence. Why not do the
same for nouns and adjectives that optionally take a
prepositional phrase or an infinitive clause as complement?
These prepositions are rarely predictable from English, and
often are difficult to locate in dictionaries. While many of
his example sentences incorporate them, systematically
including them along with the lemma would both sensitize
learners to these constructions and make them easier to

In his introduction (xi), Durrell explains that this book's
organization by German near-synonyms, distinguishes it from
existing works like Farrell (1977) and Beaton (1996), which
discuss the range of German translations for English words.
(At $175 the latter is hardly a candidate for the student's
bookshelf!)  This principle is sound: ultimately learners
must distinguish alternatives for a German concept, not an
English one.  Unfortunately, strict adherence to it can
leave lacunae in the user's understanding of a lexical field
to be filled by complementary reference materials.  For
example, Durrell treats _leben_ 'to live, be alive' and
_wohnen_ 'to live,  reside' as synonyms within a larger
lexical field, and provides glosses, notes and examples to
clarify the range of their uses; the two can overlap in the
case of "permanent residence in an area"(132), e.g. _Sie
wohnt / lebt auf dem Land._ 'She lives in the country.'
_Wohnen_ is also used for staying someplace temporarily,
e.g. at a hotel or someone's house, another lexical field
not covered in this book which includes other items such as
_uebernachten_, _absteigen_ etc.  Beginning learners often
translate English _stay_ in this meaning incorrectly with
the familiar German word _bleiben_ 'to stay, remain'.  Since
_wohnen_ and _bleiben_ belong to different semantic fields
in German, Durrell's approach offers no way to alert the
learner to this potential problem. (Incidentally, the entry
for _stay_ in the English index points only to _leben_, as
_bleiben_ does not belong to a "difficult" lexical field.)
Here and elsewhere, more generous use of prose explanations
to address potential interference from English would benefit
a broader range of users by rounding out the lexical picture
and providing greater guidance to learners

One of this book's great strengths occasionally becomes an
impediment to using it.  By striving to treat each semantic
field as exhaustively as current usage warrants, Durrell
allows some entries to become so unwieldy that only the most
devoted logophiles will attempt to navigate them. An entry
with a half a dozen or so lexical items with glosses and example
sentences will not daunt a motivated user.  However, more
expansive lexical fields such as 'drunk', 'crazy', 'stupid',
'fight', 'beat up', 'leave', 'flee' list up to thirty items.
Like a massive buffet of haphazardly arrayed unfamiliar
dishes, such lists bewilder users by abandoning them to
figure out on their own where to start and how to select.
When an entry extends over several pages, some organization
in addition to alphabetical order becomes vital. Typically
these undigestable entries reflect variation by register,
region, or valence, they could easily be broken down into
subgroups with an explanation for how the entry is
organized.  Such regroupings would foster understanding of
the function of a given item within its lexical field.  The
additional effort required to locate a specific word within
a subdivided entry would be fully offset by the ease of
finding the best item for one's purposes.  Here again I
would suggest greater guidance in prose: usage tags and
valence abbreviations are efficient shorthand for the
expert, but they are less effective means of leading a
learner to the most appropriate choice.

By now I have proposed several ways this book could assume a
more active role in guiding potential users. Who will these
users be, and how much German will they know? While the
author targets "advanced learners", the publisher's blurb
extends that range to intermediate students at one end, and
to teachers and linguists at the other. Can the former group
use it?  Will the latter profit from it?

There are indeed many entries that would benefit
intermediate learners as is. The percentage of lexical
fields useful for this group could increase if some of my
suggestions were implemented, especially if glosses were
added to some example sentences, but a large number of the
entries will confuse rather than enlighten students at this
level.  However, if learners familiarize themselves with
this book early on through level-appropriate exercises, it
can sensitize them to the challenges and rewards of
mastering German vocabulary and teach them to approach their
dictionaries with greater skepticism. After regular directed
work targeted to vocabulary found in other learning
materials, it can evolve into a work they instinctively
consult on their own.

In contrast, the most advanced and conscientious learners
will benefit from _Using German Synonyms_ directly,
particularly to understand the stylistic and grammatical
organization of lexical fields with words they have come
across in reading, conversation, and other reference works.
It will enable them judge when and how less familiar words
are appropriate and allow them to relate regionalisms they
encounter to vocabulary they already know. By consulting it
they make sense of the bewildering alternatives which
bilingual dictionaries often present with few clues to their
use, and they will find it far more useful than a
German-only thesaurus.

Perhaps the most frequent and enthusiastic users of this
work will be found among teachers and developers of
instructional materials, whether native speakers of German
or not. For those with sufficient command of German, the
wealth of information and examples clarifies rather than
confuses, and it can help them formulate the differences
among near-synonyms more effectively for their students.

While _Using German Synonyms_ may rarely function as a
reference tool of first resort, it definitely fills a
persistent need, and does so in an exemplary fashion.  For
clearly delimiting the semantic fields from a German point
of view and for supplying essential information on grammar
and register of the entries, it is simply the best work
available in English. The missed "didactic moments" and
opportunities to extend its usefulness to a wider audience
could be made up in a future edition without compromising
its affordability or portability. A true pleasure to read,
this book will join the German references I regularly
consult while preparing lesson materials, and I will
recommend it to colleagues and advanced students.


Beaton, K. B.  1996.  A Practical Dictionary of English
Usage.  Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Farrell, R. B.  1977.  Dictionary of German Synonyms. 3rd
ed.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.

William H. Fletcher is Associate Professor of German and
Spanish at the United States Naval Academy. His current
research focuses on exploiting the Web as a linguistic
corpus <http://miniappolis.com/KWiCFinder/>;
past work includes the fields of technology-enhanced
language learning and linguistic description of modern


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