, Volume 17, Issue 1, pp 77-108
Date: 29 Aug 2007

Islands of resilience: the history of the German strong verbs from a systemic point of view

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Existing accounts of the German strong verbs show notable confusion about their historical development and remarkable diversity with regard to their systemic conceptualisation. Using a principal parts approach, this paper brings out the drastic changes the system of the Germanic strong verbs has undergone since its genesis. In particular, it is shown that the loss of the paradigmatic connection between the phonological root structure of a verb and its ablaut pattern is the key alteration that transformed the strong verbs from a highly homogenous and learner-friendly system to a complicated array of inflection classes whose predictability is no longer based on the citation form stored in the mental lexicon. However, this paper also reveals that it is exactly the remnants of the old system that keep the German strong verbs together as a group and even ensure a limited degree of productivity. The conclusions drawn for a synchronic representation are that the traditional concept of inflection classes, based on the phonological root structure, may be of more value than generally believed and that the conceptualisation of the paradigms of the strong verbs involving stem forms with different ablaut grades as principal parts is supported from the diachronic as well as from the synchronic point of view.