Figurative Verben in der alltäglichen Wissenschaftssprache des Deutschen

Eine korpuslinguistische Pilotstudie


  • 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 Germany.

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. betrachten).

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.




How to Cite

Meissner, C. (2009). Figurative Verben in der alltäglichen Wissenschaftssprache des Deutschen: Eine korpuslinguistische Pilotstudie. Apples - Journal of Applied Language Studies, 3(1), 96–116. Retrieved from