As part of the 2001-2002 Bonwit-Heine Lecture Series, Theo Vennemann will speak on “Why are German and English different?”
German and English are different languages; as such they may be expected to be different. The real question–and the question to be addressed in the presentation–is: Why are German and English so very different? After all, English is, like Dutch and Low German, genetically a variety of Coastal West Germanic and thus very closely related also to Inland West Germanic, i.e. High German; and Dutch and Low German are entirely within the limits of linguistic similarity or dissimilarity that is to be expected for varieties of “the same language” after less than two millennia: They all reflect the same structural language type and share almost all of the inherited Germanic vocabulary. But English is of a different structural language type, and its inherited Germanic words do not amount to more than a meagre fourth of its entire vernacular vocabulary.
The explanation proposed in the presentation will rest on the following theses: (1) German continues nearly undisturbed the Germanic structural and lexical language type. (2) By contrast, English was structurally and lexically transformed into something entirely new, owing (a) to the original (and dialectally continuing) substratal Celtic influence which approximated the Coastal West Germanic Anglo-Saxon to the Semitic-Celtic structural type, and (b) to the forced superstratal Norman-French contact which severely disrupted the Germanic word-formation behavior, destroying in particular its loan-formation capacities, and approximated the Germanic Anglo-Saxon to the Romance lexical type.
Theo Vennemann gen. Nierfeld, born in Oberhausen-Sterkrade (Rhineland) in 1937, studied mathematics, physics, Germanic philology, Indo-European, and philosophy in Goettingen, Marburg, and Los Angeles. He received his PhD in Germanic Languages from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1968 and, after a year on the Irvine campus, taught at UCLA as Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Professor of Linguistics until 1974. Since then he has held the Chair of Germanic and Theoretical Linguistics at the University of Munich. He lives in the village of Ried, between Munich and Augsburg, where he has been a member of the Community Council since 1996. In the Bavarian communal elections a month ago he was reelected for a second six-year term. Vennemann’s research interests include phonology, word order, metrics, the theory of language change, the history of German and other Indo-European languages, and the linguistic prehistory of Europe as reflected in external influences on Indo-European.