The Sounds Of German

The Sounds Of German
By Charles V. J. Russ
Cambridge University Press
ISBN: 9780521694629 – £21.99

In 1932, in relation to language, speech and communication, W. H. Auden wrote: ‘’Words […] are a bridge between a speaker and a listener. What the bridge carries, i.e what the speaker gives and the listener receives, we call the meaning of words.

In anything we say there are four different kinds of meaning; any one of them may be more important than the other three, but there is generally something of all four’’ (The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose – Volume I 1926 – 1938, Princeton).

I will briefly return to two of these (four) different kinds of meaning in the course of this review, but might I say right away, that had author Charles V. J. Russ taken heed of some of said meaning(s), he might have done both himself and his readers a mighty big favour. For as resolutely well researched and documented as The Sounds Of German is, it is nevertheless, conveyed in a manner that remains far too scientific for its own good.

It may well tackle how German speakers stress their words, how the sounds of German are produced, and how over time, the German language as a whole has developed, but as Auden esoterically reminds us, there is always a certain amount of (inadvertent) expectation ingrained within communication: ‘’Sense. We say something or expect something to be said to us about something. ‘’Stinker is a man.’’ We now know that there is a thing called Stinker and that thing is a man and not a dog or anything else.’’ By throwing in the word ‘Stinker,’ not only do we get the point, but for a fleeting split second, we are also mildly amused. Reason being, contained within the actual conveying is a slight diversion, which, given the rather dense subject matter both authors are writing about, is as surely valid as the subject matter itself.

In other words, herein lies the fundamental difference between a writer by nature and a writer by numbers.

At the outset of ‘Standards of Pronunciation’ for instance, Russ writes: ‘’Sounds are part of the communication system between human beings that we call language. One of the main characteristics of language as against other communication systems is that it is transmitted through the medium of sound produced by air from the lungs being expelled through the mouth and nose and modified by the so-called organs of speech […]. This medium of transmission we shall call the vocal-auditory channel since language is both produced by the vocal apparatus and heard by the ears.’’ Okay, absolutely nothing inherently wrong here, but whether or not one is compelled to continue reading (to any great length at least), is another matter altogether.

What’s sorely missing in the above excerpt, and indeed many of the twelve chapters of The Sounds of German, is some flesh and blood and cogent communication. Or, as Auden would put it: ‘’Feeling. We generally have feelings about the things of which we are talking. ‘There’s that horrible man Stinker.’ We now know that the speaker does not like Stinker.’’

Replete with an accompanying CD, these 249 pages kneel at the altar of pure academia; which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, you’ve just really got to be in the mood to wade through all the dense terrain.

David Marx


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