Inflectional and Derivational Morphology

A Comparison of English and German

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2014 14 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


A Comparison of English and German

Generally spoken, Contrastive Linguistics is the systematic comparison of two or more languages, aiming to trace their similarities and differences. However, the objective may vary:

Language comparison is of great interest in a theoretical as well as an applied perspective. It reveals what is general and what is language specific and is therefore important both for the understanding of language in general and for the study of the individual languages compared. (Johansson and Hofland 1994:25)

Hence, it can be concluded that Contrastive Linguistics is not a unified field of study. The focus may be on general features as well as language specific features. The study may be without any immediate application, or it may be applied for a specific purpose as explained in the following chapter named “Definition of Contrastive Linguistics”. The term Contrastive Linguistics is especially associated with applied Contrastive Studies when it comes to predicting and explaining frequently upcoming difficulties concerning learning a foreign language. Linguist Dr. Robert Lado (1957) expresses the rationale of this approach as follows:

The plan […] rests on the assumption that we can predict and describe the

patterns which will cause difficulty in learning and those that will not cause difficulty.

(Lado 1957:vii)

A comparison on different levels like morphology, syntax or phonology would therefore identify difficult matters subject to language teaching as Charles Fries implies:

The most efficient materials are those that are based upon a scientific description of

the language to be learned, carefully compared with a parallel description of the native

language of the learner.

(Fries 1945:9)

The rationale of both linguists can be found as well when looking at Bernd Kortmann’s approach. He is focused on analyzing similarities as well as contrasts of both linguistic systems English and German. Furthermore he aims to relate these differences to general tendencies of other languages in order to roughly understand its essence.

In this term paper, Kortmann’s general insights will be explained more in detail in to give a broad overview of the concept of Contrastive Linguistics. English and German will be opposed to each other, looking at different views of other important linguists on selected morphological issues. Finally, a conclusion will be made, including a personal observation in my everyday life.

1. Definition of Contrastive Linguistics

Generally, Kortmann defines Contrastive Linguistics as the parallel comparison of two languages concerning their language parameters. According to him, it is especially important to identify separate bundles with structural differences and find the relation between them, the so-called “Kontrastbündel” (contrast bundles). Each one of these bundles can be deduced from the construction plan of the contrastive language.

In this regard, Kortmann starts his analysis by comparing his purpose of Contrastive Linguistics to its original use. He refers to the fact that in the early 40s till 60s these language differences were considered the reason for the problems occurring when learning a foreign language. Hence, Contrastive Linguistics was primarily important for pedagogical use. The systematic comparison of two languages was supposed to improve the learner’s and teacher’s understanding of the foreign language by for example predicting mistakes often made. In this context, Kortmann sees the previously mentioned Contrastive Hypothesis from Lado as a good explanation for the main factors which trigger contrasts.

1.1 Contrastive Hypothesis

The Contrastive Hypothesis indicates that similarities between the native language (L1) and the foreign language (L2) lead to an easy and fast learning process whereas differences lead to difficulties and are the main reason for making mistakes. Thus, the basic idea of the Contrastive Hypothesis is the transfer of the characteristics of the native language to the foreign language. Depending on whether this transfer promotes or represses the learning process, it is considered a positive or negative transfer. A negative transfer is also referred to as interference. The most important types of interference are substitution (1), over-differentiation, under-differentiation, over-representation and under-representation (2). Here, Kortmann comments that according to this basic assumption of Contrastive Linguistics only substitution, over-differentiation and under-differentiation can trigger mistakes. Over-representation and under-representation, however, solely create certain stylistic effects which are grammatically not incorrect but reveal the speaker as a non-native. He also notes that over-representation and under-representation are very often observed with beginners and slightly advanced learners for they try to compensate their lack of vocabulary this way.

The following examples will give a general insight into what is meant by the terms mentioned, with L1 again being the native language and L2 the foreign language.

(1) a. Ich bekomme ein Bier.

*I become a beer.

b. Wenn ich ihn fragen würde…

* If I would ask him…

The meaning of substitution in this example is clear. In a, the learner does not know the difference between the English verb to become and the German verb bekommen. Due to the lack of knowledge or skills, the learner substitutes words which sound familiar to the words in L1, therefore misusing certain expressions in L2 and creating incomprehensible sentences in most cases. Example b is a different way of substitution for the learner’s choice of words is not incorrect in terms of their meaning. However, would cannot be used in the first part of an if-clause in standard English grammar. The correct phrase requires the main verb, in this case ask, to be put into simple past.

Over-differentiation can be found quite often when comparing English and German. This term describes the phenomenon of not being able to differentiate terms of L1 in L2, meaning that something is differentiated in e.g. German but not in English. Perfect examples are the different terms for fruit in German, namely Frucht and Obst. In English, the difference is not met and can therefore lead to the feeling of not being able to express oneself entirely in the foreign language.

Under-differentiation, however, is the exact opposite: the differentiation in L2 is not met in L1. Examples are shade/shadow versus Schatten or snail/slug versus Schnecke. In this case, grammar also plays a bigger role when it comes to under-differentiation between English and German. The Perfekt in German is used as the main way to express the past tense in spoken language. Other than in English, the Perfekt does not indicate a past situation which lasts up to the present. Here the English language separates between the regular Past Tense and the Present Perfect, both stating a different duration of the sentence’s content and therefore changing the meaning. It is the same with the Simple/Progressive Present in which English differentiates the present time in whether, for example, a student is playing soccer right at the moment or plays soccer in general. This form does not exist in German.



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University of Heidelberg – Institut für Übersetzen und Dolmetschen
morphology contrastive linguistics derivational inflection derivation comparison



Title: Inflectional and Derivational Morphology