Review: Linguistic Purism in the Germanic Languages

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Mar 9 17:35:04 UTC 2006

Forwarded from Linguist-List,

TITLE: Linguistic Purism in the Germanic Languages
SERIES: Studia Linguistica Germanica 75
PUBLISHER: Mouton de Gruyter
YEAR: 2005
Announced at

Marc Pierce, University of Texas at Austin


As the editors note in the introduction to this book, linguistic purism is
an increasingly popular subject of scholarly study. This book provides a
Germanic perspective on the topic (one paper on a non-Germanic language,
an article by Zo Boughton on French, has been included for comparative
purposes), and consists of papers originally presented at a conference
held at the University of Bristol in April 2003. The volume opens with an
essay titled ''An Introduction to Linguistic Purism'' (1-17), written by
the editors. This chapter offers a useful survey of some of the relevant
issues (e.g., a definition of linguistic purism and the relationship
between purism and standardization), before outlining the contents of the
rest of the volume.

The first section, ''Historical Prescriptivism and Purism,'' contains five
papers. It begins with ''Language norm and language reality.
Effectiveness and limits of prescriptivism in New High German'' (20- 45),
by Stephan Elspa. Here Elspa notes that prescriptivist ideals have
successfully eliminated a number of constructions from standard German,
e.g., double negatives and past participles without the ge- prefix, but
have been unable to remove others, e.g., the use of dative case with
supposedly genitive prepositions like wegen 'because of'.  He suggests
that three main factors can contribute to this process:  the ''regional
distribution of a certain figure, its functionality and the intensity of
its stigmatization'' (42). Thus, to take up two of the factors, double
negatives are mainly restricted to the south and are intensely
stigmatized, while the use of dative case with wegen is much more
widespread, and most speakers of German seem happy to accept it.

The next paper, ''Taming thistles and weeds amidst the wheat:  language
gardening in nineteenth-century Flanders,'' by Wim Vandenbussche, Roland
Willemyns, Jetje De Groof, and Eline Vanhecke (46-61), picks up the
metaphor of language as a garden (see Burridge 2002, 2005 for recent
applications of this metaphor to English) and applies it to
nineteenth-century Belgium, where there were in fact two major language
conflicts: French vs. Dutch, as well as one within Dutch (perhaps better
phrased as Flemish vs. Dutch).  Topics discussed here include
integrationist purism in contrast to particularist purism, the abuse of
purism, and its effects.

Next, Maria Barbara Lange discusses ''Bad language in Germany's past - the
birth of linguistic norms in the seventeenth century'' (62- 85). This
article can be divided into two main sections. The first section looks at
handbooks of the history of German (e.g. Wells 1985), with special
attention to their discussion and assessment of seventeenth-century
grammarians, while the second section turns to the primary sources
themselves (e.g. works by Christof Arnold and Justus Schottelius), with an
eye to the negative value judgments about the German language expressed

Joachim Scharloth then discusses ''The revolutionary argumentative pattern
in puristic discourse: The Swabian dialect in the debate about the
standardization of German in the eighteenth century'' (86-96).  Scharloth
draws two main conclusions: puristic discourse tends to treat dialects in
one of two ways, either as varieties deserving criticism or as varieties
that can be ''purer'' than the standard language; and that there are two
patterns normally found in puristic discourse, one conservative and one

The final paper in this section is ''A comparative study of linguistic
purism in the history of England and Germany'' (97-108), by Maria Geers.
After a brief terminological discussion, Geers offers an effective
discussion of different trends in linguistic purism manifested in England
and Germany.

The second section, ''Nationhood and Purism,'' contains four papers.  It
opens with ''Linguistic purism in German-speaking Switzerland and the
Deutschschweizerischer Sprachverein 1904-1942'' (110-113), by Felicity
Rash. The main topics discussed here are the protection of standard German
in Switzerland (from foreign languages and the Swiss German dialects) and
the protection of the Swiss German dialects (from foreign languages,
standard German, and each other), with an emphasis on the role of the

The next paper is ''Language nationalism in the Schiller commemoration
addresses of 1859'' (124-143), by Evelyn Ziegler, and deals with ''the
construction of a national language ideology [for Germany] by studying the
ritual of civic festivities during which Germans collectively represented
their formation as a cultural entity'' (124); the specific ''civic
festivities'' discussed here are the celebrations of the centennial of the
birth of the well-known German author Friedrich Schiller. Based on an
examination of addresses given at these celebrations, Ziegler concludes,
among other things, that Schiller's use of language is idealized, and that
his ''Germanness'' is also heavily emphasized, thus contributing to the
formation of a specifically German language ideology.

The scene then changes to South Africa for the next paper, ''Standard
Afrikaans and the different faces of 'Pure Afrikaans' in the twentieth
century'' (144-165), by Ria van den Berg, which traces the phases of
development of Standard Afrikaans, from its origins as ''Kitchen Dutch''
to its emergence as a fully-fledged standardized language. This
development was cyclical, as Afrikaans was originally a stigmatized
variety of Dutch, became an accepted standard language, was then
restigmatized because of apartheid, and now seems to be being
destigmatized following the end of apartheid.

The last paper in this section is ''Reimagining the nation: Discourses of
language purism in Luxembourg'' (166-185), by Kristine Horner. This paper
analyzes the ongoing debate about the changing language situation in
Luxembourg, with regard to three main issues: the politicization
Luxembourgish (and why it is happening at this particular time), the major
figures in this development, and the links between manifestations of
linguistic purism and Luxembourgish national identity.

The next section, ''Modern Society and Purism,'' opens with Dieter Stein's
''On the role of language ideologies in linguistic theory and practice:
purism and beyond'' (188-203). This paper deals with a wide range of
issues, including the definition of ''ideology'' and the notion of
''segregationalism'' (cf. Harris 1996).

The next paper, ''Elements of traditional and 'reverse' purism in relation
to computer-mediated communication'' (204-220), by Peter Hohenhaus,
concentrates on ''reverse purism,'' by which he means a type of purism
whose characteristics are the exact opposite of those of traditional
purism, in several genres of computer-mediated communication. Hohenhaus
outlines the characteristics of traditional purism and ''reverse purism''
(see also Crystal 2001 on this issue), describes the types of
computer-mediated communication he will focus on, then presents his
analysis, focusing on English, and closes with a brief section on two
aspects of computer-mediated communication in German (the use of formal
vs. informal forms of address and the use of Anglicisms).

Patrick Stevenson offers a paper titled ''Once an Ossi, always an Ossi:
language ideologies and social division in contemporary Germany''
(221-237), which fits nicely into the growing body of research on this
topic (see, for instance, Dailey-O'Cain [2000], Stevenson [2002], and the
various papers collected in Reiher and Baumann [2000] and Reiher and
Laezer [1993)]). Stevenson argues convincingly that ''language ideologies
may provide an interpretative frame for understanding the role of
(perceptions of) language in use in sustaining social division in Germany
since 1990'' (233).

The fourth section, ''Folk linguistics and purism,'' opens with '''The
Grand Daddy of English': US, UK, New Zealand and Australian students'
attitudes toward varieties of English'' (241-251), by Betsy Evans. The
data discussed here represents the results of a questionnaire distributed
to university students in the four countries mentioned in the title, and
suggests, among other things, that UK English is given a high status,
while US English is generally viewed negatively. Australian and New
Zealand English both inspired mixed reactions.

Nancy Niedzielski then discusses ''Linguistic Purism from several
perspectives: views from the 'secure' and 'insecure''' (252-262). This
paper first looks at groups of what Niedzielski calls ''linguistically
secure'' speakers (a term apparently coined by Labov 1966), i.e.
speakers who have ''demonstrated high degrees [of] confidence in the
correctness of their own variety'' (253), in this case speakers from
Michigan and California, and then contrasts this with the results obtained
from investigating groups of linguistically insecure speakers, in this
case speakers from Texas and New Zealand. The results of the investigation
are intriguing - among other items of interest, the data from the
linguistically secure speakers exhibits certain features that are seen as
non-standard, even by these speakers themselves.

The next paper is ''Dialect and written language: Change in dialect norms
in the history of the German language'' (263-282), by Klaus J.
Mattheier. In this paper, Mattheier points out that certain varieties of
German have been favored since at least the Middle Ages, and then briefly
traces some of the changes that have occurred in this area, with the most
space being devoted to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The final paper in the section is Zo Boughton's contribution,
''Investigating puristic attitudes in France: Folk perceptions of
variation in standard French'' (282-299). Here Boughton reports on a study
investigating folk perceptions of the variety of French spoken in Nancy (a
city in northeastern France), and then compares the results and methods of
her work with the earlier study of Kuiper (1999).

The final section of the volume, ''Linguists and purism,'' contains three
papers. It opens with '''Vorsicht ist nicht immer der bessere Teil der
Tapferkeit' - Purism in the historiography of the German language''
(302-323), by Katja Leyhausen. After some remarks on the nature of
historiography, Leyhausen discusses purist statements found in some
histories of the German language (e.g. Grimm 1848 and Stahlmann 1940).

The next paper is ''Some effects of purist ideologies on historical
descriptions of English'' (324-342), by James Milroy. Milroy notes that
''it is generally assumed that purist beliefs about language are held only
by members of the general public ... and not by professional language
scholars'' (324), and goes on to argue that this is in fact not the case,
and that scholarly knowledge of the history of English has been shaped by
the purist beliefs held by some linguists. For example, a number of
histories of English (e.g. Wyld 1927) focus exclusively on the development
of the standard language, thus excluding nonstandard varieties from the

The final paper of the book is ''Usefulness and uselessness of the term
Fremdwort'' (343-360), by Oskar Reichmann. Here the old distinction
between Fremdwort ('foreign word') and Lehnwort ('loan word') is taken up,
and its usefulness in discussions of semantics, the ''formal expression of
lexical units'' (353), and word formation is reviewed. Reichmann concludes
that the term Fremdwort has its uses, but can sometimes be problematic. He
further suggests that this question is also relevant to discussions of
dialectology and linguistic purism, among other areas of linguistics.


This is a stimulating book. The papers are generally of high quality, and
some of them are absolutely first rate. Many of the papers would also be
of excellent use in various courses on Germanic linguistics; I have
already used the papers by Elspass and Stevenson as supplemental reading
in a course on variation in German for advanced undergraduates, and they
were both very well-received.

The volume itself is the usual high quality that one expects from this
publisher. Typographical errors are few and generally self-correcting (the
most serious glitch that I noticed was in the introduction, where some of
the bibliographical references are not in the correct alphabetical order,
and capitalization is sometimes inconsistent).  Some authors are
inconsistent when dealing with quotations from languages other than
English; for example, in her article, Lange gives English translations of
German quotations in the body of the text, but does not give the German
originals in footnotes. Moreover, Lange generally does not translate
German quotations given in footnotes, and also fails to translate Early
New High German quotes. A personal preference is for a unified set of
references, as that would have eliminated repetition and thus saved some

However, such problems are minor when compared with the substantial merits
of this work. The high price of the volume will no doubt keep it out of
many hands, but it is to be hoped that it finds the wide reception that it
certainly deserves.


Burridge, Kate. 2002. Blooming English: Observations on the roots,
cultivation and hybrids of the English language. Sydney: ABC Books.

Burridge, Kate. 2005. Weeds in the garden of words. Further
observations on the tangled history of the English language.
Cambridge: CUP.

Crystal, David. 2001. Language and the internet. Cambridge: CUP.

Dailey-O'Cain, Jennifer. 2000. Competing language ideologies in
post-unification Germany: When East meets West. In: Relocating
Germanness. Discursive disunity in unified Germany. Edited by
Patrick Stevenson and John Theobald. Basingstoke: Macmillan. Pp.

Grimm, Jacob. 1848. Geschichte der deutschen Sprache. Leipzig:

Harris, Roy. 1996. Signs, language and communication: Integrational
and segregational approaches. London: Routledge.

Kuiper, Lawrence. 1999. Variation and the norm: Parisian
perceptions of regional French. In: Handbook of perceptual
dialectology, volume 1. Edited by Dennis Preston. Amsterdam: John
Benjamins. Pp. 243-262.

Labov, William. 1966. The social stratification of English in New York
City. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Reiher, Ruth and Antje Baumann (editors). 2000. Mit gespaltener
Zunge? Die deutsche Sprach nach dem Fall der Mauer. Berlin:

Reiher, Ruth and Rdiger Lzer (editors). 1993. Wer spricht das
wahre Deutsch? Erkundungen zur Sprache im vereinten
Deutschland. Berlin: Aufbau.

Stahlmann, Hans. 1940. Vom Werden und Wandel der
Muttersprache. Ein Hilfsbuch fr Studierende, Lehrer und Freunde
unserer Muttersprache. Leipzig: Brandstetter.

Stevenson, Patrick. Language and German disunity. Oxford: OUP.

Wells, Christopher J. 1985. German: A linguistic history to 1945.
Oxford: OUP.

Wyld, Henry C. 1927. A short history of English. 3rd edition.
London: John Murray.


Marc Pierce is a visiting assistant professor of German at the University
of Texas at Austin. His main research interests are historical
linguistics, Germanic linguistics, phonology, and the history of

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list