Figurative verbs in academic German: a corpus-linguistic pilot study

Cordula Meißner

deutsch als wissenschaftssprache, wissenschaftssprachliche verben, korpuslinguistik, figurativität, deutsch als fremdsprache


Expressions such as ‘einer Frage nachgehen’, ‘ein Beispiel heranziehen’ or ‘an einem
Beispiel etw. sehen’ are common in academic German. Interestingly, the verbs in such
expressions are often – in part (e.g. gehen, ziehen), or as a whole (e.g. sehen) – derived
from everyday language and they have developed a figurative meaning from a
concrete origin. The seemingly ‘easy’ base forms often belong to the most frequent
German verbs (Jones & Tschirner 2005) and are encountered relatively early by
learners of German as a foreign language. However, studies concerned with English as
a foreign language (Altenberg & Granger 2001, Lennon 1996) point to the difficulties
that even advanced learners have with such verbs due to their polysemy and their
occurrence in similar lexical forms, that is, in products of word formation. These
figuratively used words or expressions are considered to be an essential characteristic
feature of academic German (e.g. Graefen 1997, Hund 1999, Fandrych 2004),
distinguishing it from other languages. Fandrych (2001, 2002, 2005) compared text
commenting devices in both academic German and English. His results point to a
difference between these otherwise closely related languages with respect to academic
lexis: while English draws more on vocabulary of Latin-Roman origin, German derives
words from everyday language.
However, previous studies are based on a rather limited data base and do not
provide any quantitative information about this type of German academic vocabulary.
A comprehensive empirical study is needed to verify the observation, especially with
regard to the importance of this lexis for learners of German who wish to study in
In this paper a corpus-linguistic pilot study is presented which aims to empirically
examine the contention that such figurativeness is a central feature of academic
German. The term figurativeness in the context of academic language is used with
respect to phenomena of meaning transfer and meaning extension from concrete to
abstract. That is, the perspective of cognitive linguistics is adopted which sees
figurative expressions as means of conceptualizing the abstract in terms of the concrete
and not just as ornamental figures of speech (e.g. Sweetser 1990). The analysis focuses
on verbs, whose figurativeness is assessed according to the following criterion: a verb
used in academic texts is considered figurative if the verb as a whole or its verbal base
also has a concrete meaning, that is, they denote a physical activity or perception
(compare ein Beispiel geben, einen Begriff kritisch betrachten or auf eine Frage eingehen, eine
Entwicklung darstellen).
With regard to the types of vocabulary in academic texts the verbs under study
are part of what Ehlich has called 'alltägliche Wissenschaftssprache', that is, lexical
items derived from everyday language that are used in a similar way in most
disciplines (Ehlich 1993).
The study aims to shed light on three questions: First, what is the proportion of
figurative verbs in academic German and to which semantic fields do the base verbs
belong? Second, does the concrete meaning of the base contribute to or is reflected in
the meaning of the derived verb used in academic language? Third, in which way do
everyday uses and academic uses of a verb differ?
These questions are examined on the basis of two corpora of written academic
German: The first corpus is the academic part of the Herder-BYU (Tschirner & Jones
2005). It comprises about 1 million tokens from a range of academic disciplines and
genres. It is divided into three subcorpora: humanities, science, and
law/business/technology. The second corpus is a 1.2 million token corpus of research
articles collected from various German language and literature studies journals. This
corpus also consists of three subcorpora: literature studies, linguistics, and applied
linguistics/German as a foreign language.
What is the proportion of figurative verbs in academic German and to
which semantic fields do the base verbs belong?
To answer this question a sample was compiled from the two corpora. To empirically
meet the criteria of alltägliche Wissenschaftssprache and to not introduce any other a
priori restrictions, the sample of verbs was designed in an indirect way. First, all nouns
were captured that occurred in the two corpora with a frequency of at least 100 times
per subcorpus. These requirements were met by 16 nouns (Arbeit, Art, Bedeutung,
Begriff, Beispiel, Entwicklung, Fall, Form, Frage, Grund, Jahr, Mensch, Möglichkeit, Sinn,
Teil, Zeit). The sample of verbs then comprised all verbs that occurred together with
these nouns. In the pilot study only those verbs were analyzed that occurred in
conjunction with the following five nouns: Arbeit, Begriff, Beispiel, Frage and Teil. The
quantitative analysis suggests that figurative verbs can indeed be regarded as a
characteristic of academic German: In the pilot sample these verbs covered more than
50% (i.e. about 55% of the corpus of research articles and about 51 % of the academic
Herder-BYU). Furthermore, it turned out that these verbs fall into seven groups
according to the semantic fields to which the base verbs belong: verbs of motion and
caused motion (e.g. einer Sache nachgehen, etw. auf etw. beziehen), verbs of posture and
caused posture (e.g. entstehen, etw. feststellen), verbs of transfer (e.g. etw. angeben, etw.
annehmen), verbs of showing (e.g. etw. zeigen, auf etw. hinweisen), verbs of grasping (e.g.
etw. aufgreifen, etw. zusammenfassen), verbs of connecting and separating (e.g. etw. mit
etw. verbinden, etw. von etw. trennen) and verbs of perception (e.g. etw. als etw. sehen, etw.
Does the concrete meaning of the base contribute to or is reflected in
the meaning of the derived verb used in academic language?
To answer the second question, a group of prefix verbs of the form ‘über + verb of
motion’ (übergehen, überschreiten, überspringen and übersteigen) was examined. The
occurrences of these verbs in the corpora under study suggest that the choice of the
root motion verb is not arbitrary with respect to the meaning and usage of the derived
verb in academic German.
In which way does everyday use of a verb differ from academic use?
Looking more closely at the verb ‘(einer Sache) nachgehen’ by comparing its academic
uses with its occurrences in the non-academic parts of the Herder-BYU corpus (i.e.
literature, newspapers, everyday prose and spoken German), it turned out that this
verb has developed a special function in academic texts, especially in (German
language and literature studies) research articles. There it is most commonly used to
comment on the organization of the text, e.g. to announce forthcoming topics, or to
refer to the work of other researchers. This metalinguistic function is reflected in the
co-occurrence of nachgehen with deictic expressions such as hier, im Folgenden, in diesem
Beitrag or with references. The typical co-occurring object of the verb in this context is
the noun Frage. In contrast to this specific function, the occurrences of nachgehen in nonacademic
texts hardly ever exhibit this text-commenting pattern.
The results are finally discussed with respect to possible applications in teaching
academic German. It is suggested that special emphasis should be given to the form of
verbs. A characteristic of German academic verbs is the occurrence of the same prefix
and base forms in numerous complex verbs with different meanings (e.g. eingehen auf,
ausgehen von, angehen, hervorgehen aus / zurückgehen auf, zurückkommen auf,
zurückführen auf, zurückkehren zu, zurückverfolgen, zurückgreifen auf). Most of the
bases of these complex verbs belong as simplex to the most frequent German verbs (cf.
Jones & Tschirner 2005). Their basic meanings will be encountered relatively early in
learning German. But, as studies have shown (e.g. Lennon 1996, Altenberg & Granger
2001), these frequent and ‘well known’ words often pose difficulties for advanced
learners. Laufer (1997, 2000) has introduced the term of deceptive transparency for cases
in which part of a complex word seems to be familiar to the learner and therefore the
word as a whole does not receive special attention, which may lead to
misinterpretation. Focusing on the form of these verbs, speculating about the derived
meaning and working out the specific functions in academic texts may help learners in
coping with the vocabulary of academic German.

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