German Dialectology: Advantages and Disadvantages of Isoglosses

1. Introduction

Referred to as ‘bundles’ of isoglosses, such as the well-known Benrather Linie that distinguishes High German from the other West Germanic languages.

The use of isoglosses in German dialectology has been the source of much debate ever since it was first created, and the continued use has meant they are still debated in the disciple today. In this essay, I will review some of the advantages and disadvantages that are attributed to isoglosses in the literature and decide whether the former outweighs the latter or quite the opposite. Throughout my research, however, I found that there has been much emphasis placed on their weaknesses rather than their usefulness and thus, I will begin by focusing my attention on the disadvantages.

2. Disadvantages

2.1 Represents an arbitrary conceptualisation

Isoglosses are criticised by dialectologists for their arbitrariness, the linguistic approach of defining particular distributions of sounds by isolating particular language features into regions is purely conceptual. The attempt to over-simply such a complex notion into mere lines on a map by restricting the data to single tokens of single utterances is severely inadequate. Given the scale of dialect studies, covering vast regions and even including more than one country in some cases, it is unreasonable to think they can produce true reproductions of reality given the vast linguistic differences that can occur even within a particular region. Even within the narrow confines of a family, there is never absolute unity. In reality, language is a much more abstract concept than what the lines of an isogloss constitute. The strict lines between regions imply that there are strict borders and cut off points to where one form of a word begins and one form ends, which appears to be one of the isoglosses biggest limitations. Isoglosses ignore that bordering regions have the potential to interact with one another to some degree, no matter where they are located and therefore would differ more than the impression that an isogloss gives.

We lose a lot of detail when we simplify dialect maps in this way, as there may be the odd exception to the dominant form in an area, although to the reader it looks strictly homogenous. There is no way of knowing that there might be some locations where a different form is attested to what is indicated on the map. Furthermore, we do not know exactly how many observations were made and therefore struggle to identify how reliable the data actually is. There may be more respondents of the survey in one area in comparison to the other, but this is hard to recognise just by looking at the map. When we observe der Benrather Linie for example, an isogloss which distinguishes between High German and Low German whereby the linguistic item machen (make, do) is realised in two different ways. To the north of the isogloss, machen is pronounced with the velar plosive /k/ although in the south it is pronounced with the velar fricative /x/. Most dialect geographers would presumably place this isogloss in the middle of where these two terms are attested, but this can be incredibly inaccurate if there are people living in-between who were not asked to take part in the survey. 

Therefore, this leaves the reader to believe that everyone in the North says /maken/ and everyone in the south says /maxen/ which is incredibly misleading given that there can be considerable overlap between the linguistic forms. For instance, some areas may actually use both forms of a particular linguistic item, in what is referred to as transitional areas or Übergangs- or Saumlandschaften, where we see a so-called ‘mixed lect’.The isogloss gives no insight into areas that do not fall into the category of being 100% ‘pure’ North or ‘pure’ South. It seems reasonable to assume, therefore, that the isogloss completely disregards areas where both forms are attested, despite investigators knowing that such existences occur in the data. If one was to include such variability, it seems the isogloss would disappear. This, therefore, renders isoglosses incredibly inaccurate and makes it difficult to offer them as a useful tool due to its arbitrariness, excluding certain features, ignoring divergences among the isoglosses.

However, dialect geographers try to get around this by using a kombinierte Punktsymbol-flächenkarte, which provides details of all the forms that are attested in that region using symbols. Through this, we are able to obtain more reliable data as it allows us to see if there are any exceptions in a specific area which is a key disadvantage of isoglosses. It also allows us to see how many observations were made and where exactly they were made. This helps us to formulate a more accurate picture of the phonological or lexical distributions that make up German dialects. Despite this, the use of these maps is rare as they require lots of time and detail.

One could argue, however, that isoglosses set out exactly what they mean to do and nothing more, to provide a visual representation of dialect features within a region in order to give some insight into the language use. Although they are abstract, nevertheless they provide us with meaningful data in which conclusions can be drawn and allows us to pursue further research into this field. Isoglosses are not “abstractions” or “approximations” when used as a linguistic tool and neither are they “the centre of a transition area” isoglosses are, and should be clear lines on a map – and have a right to do so because they rely on the positive evidence of the sample and exists as a conceptual and predictive tool. Moreover, isoglosses never claim to be exact, they merely exist only as a way for patterns to be shown. However, the disadvantages have not deterred many investigators thus far, it seems reasonable to assume there are no better alternatives that have yet been discovered.

2.2 Potential for investigator bias

Another disadvantage of isoglosses, that perhaps possesses equal weight to that of the first, is the problem of investigator bias. The line drawn on a dialect map is an approximation depending on the investigators’ data and therefore has the ability to be altered. This could mean that if a second investigator was to draw the same line, they probably would not obtain the same results. This reiterates again the problem of arbitrariness that underlies the very nature of isoglosses, in that the linguistic method is not sufficiently objective as there is some freedom from personal choice. However, Kretzschmar argues that isoglosses are only abstractions when one subsequently interprets their predictions about the population. This seems hard to grasp, given that regions could potentially be missed out, or added, and leads us to believe isoglosses are incredibly inaccurate and thus cannot be scientific. It seems dubious to rely on data that relies on a matter of judgement depending on who drew the map. In some cases, investigators may construct an isogloss that fits their ideal of what the isogloss should look like, rather than what it actually looks like. Moulton suggests that investigators would often give preference to those isoglosses that supported their preconceived vision of dialect areas. It seems impossible, then, to think than any advantages could outweigh such compelling limitations. Additionally, the isoglosses’ ability to be objective is completely diminished, leading us to be sceptical at coming to conclusions on the patterns which are made. This, however, is not what most investigators set to do in their work. Most disciplines strive for an empirically tested method that is accurate, and German dialectology is no different.

To counteract this issue, then, scholars have adopted structural criteria by means of an algorithm that allows dialectologists to follow a step-by-step guide to obtain identical results twice from the same data set. This algorithm was put forth by the German dialectologist Karl Haag, who based it on several steps for people to follow in order to strive for objectiveness. The use of this algorithm created maps that showed a typical characteristic of honeycomb, what are referred to as Warbenkarte or Integrierte Flächenkombinationskarte. Such isoglosses can actually emphasise if there are differences between a specific area through the use of thicker lines, as to create the honeycomb look. These types of isoglosses are useful when you want to look at the bigger picture, as you can see the major divisions between different dialects for certain linguistic features. Thus, you are able to see the major dividing lines and can justify distinguishing a particular German dialect group from another. This approach is claimed to lead to a more objective description of regional variation. The use of a universal algorithm for investigators to use makes more explicit some of the processes used to draw a line and makes the prediction of isogloss more explicit and quantifiable. But despite this having the potential to change the way certain dialectologists view isoglosses, Warbenkarte is not widely used and thus the standard has continued to be used isogloss despite its obvious flaws. Perhaps because they have to be explained away in order to make any progress. Nevertheless, the use of the algorithm has the potential to outweigh most of the disadvantages it faces. But overall, the graphic effect is not so far different from that of the isoglosses. Furthermore, Pi proposes an alternative technique called isograph. Rather than drawing boundaries, the isograph ‘links areal units with the smallest percentage difference when compared to adjacent observations’. However, the use of statistics only covers over the failure of the isoglossic approach so that it seems more “scientific” but actually tends to over-complicate things.

2.3 Reliability issues

Given that isoglosses are a scaled-down version of reality, it seems reasonable to suggest that the isogloss does not represent an actual line and is merely there for guidance purposes only. On an actual map, for instance, a few millimetres on a diagram may actually be 10’s of miles in real life. Therefore, it is impossible to tell whether the isogloss is really ‘to-scale’, as if we were to scale it properly, the isogloss may not even constitute a line or may even vanish. Furthermore, as isoglosses are based on a subset of the real population, the majority of the speakers who live in the blank space are not actually included in the sample. Isoglosses predict the reality of usage in the population, but the relationship of the prediction remains to a certain extent unknown because there is no good way to observe the reality of usage entirely. Isoglosses, cannot by their nature, indulge in probability and there may be no such thing as a random sample. It is impossible to predict whether a form will be found in a certain area. Isoglosses are a nonetheless good record of language variation at a particular point in time. We can use them for describing language varieties and showing what happens ‘at the edges’, but anything in-between is guesswork. While isoglosses seem useful and present a neat picture of sound distributions, they only apply to speakers of traditional dialects and do no justice to relevant factors such as age, gender, class, rural/urban divisions.

Chambers states that there tends to be a sample of predominantly ‘NORMs’ in dialectology, that is non-mobile, older, rural and male participants, despite the majority of the population being quite the opposite. It seems that much older people speak dialect, especially in rural areas, and men more so than women because women tend to have a more aspirational look on life and are more likely to articulate over prestige. The majority of the population is also mobile and may have moved out of certain areas. This deliberate bias of sampling a particular subset of the population means that there will be more autochthonous speakers, which perhaps do not reflect the dialect in a broader sense and thus renders the isogloss unreliable and making predictions on this would be an error. However, in German-speaking countries, most of the people in the surveys were children, for example in Georg Wenker’s der Deutsche Sprachatlas. Therefore, it seems reasonable to think that German dialectology does not follow the criterion of ‘older’ participants and thus results are more representational. A more recent study, such as Dr Eberhard Zwirner’s survey, namely Zwirner-Korpus in which audio recordings of spoken language were part of the materials gathered in that survey. Zwirner felt that it was important that German dialect be recorded, especially after the Second World War in which there was large population movements. He felt it was important to compare the autochthonous and allochthonous speakers to record the strongest form of the dialect and obtain a sample of speakers from three different age groups (around 20, around 40 and over 60). This study highlights that many German dialectologists tended not to obtain samples of NORMs unlike the rest, making the results more reliable. However, such a large study meant that there was a huge amount of data to be analysed, which led to not all the recordings being transcribed. Nevertheless, the dialect that he analysed has not changed at all and is still upheld as a useful tool for German dialectology.

2.4 Stereotyping

One of the main purposes of an isogloss is to make generalisations from the data. However, when dialect boundaries are shown on a map, they shed light on a clear division between two dialect areas. If societal prestige is definable and can be correlated with a certain linguistic form, this division of data in such a strict way can be a chaotic notion, as speakers that fall on the side which is deemed less prestigious may feel inadequate. For example, people can begin to form stereotypes about a particular person that uses a distinct form and can be the subject of much judgement or ridicule. The question, then, is whether such stereotyping from isoglosses is regressive. However, this is definitely not the intention of isoglosses. It merely makes light of the linguistic forms that are often a transient phenomenon, therefore subject to much fluctuation and change at any point in time. However, comparisons are necessary for the development of the discipline.

3.0 Advantages

3.1 Simplicity

One of the biggest advantages of isoglosses is what they are also criticised for; their simplicity. Isoglosses are simplified in this way not to mislead the reader, but to make them manageable so that the reader can actually get an idea of what is going on. Maps are not so straightforward and thus require a certain level of understanding to interpret them fully. Isoglosses make interpreting the data that much easier by making it more appealing for the reader, particularly when used with colour. This is very helpful when we want to analyse the Second Sound Shift for instance, in which each isogloss line in der Rheinischer Fächer is given a colour. This makes it easier to distinguish one from another and the reader can obtain results quicker. One can quickly differentiate then, the Speyer line from the Hunsrück line, the Eifel line from the Uerdingen line and so on. The isoglosses provide much more clarity of information albeit condensed, but you can really grasp the full picture of what is happening. On the contrary, it is important to note that these lines represent a cluster of bundles so it really is an over-simplification, nevertheless, it provides us with a pattern which can be analysed.

Furthermore, it is so straightforward to draw a Flächenkarte, with crosses you can define transitional areas such as isoglosses in isolation which can be a helpful way of setting out research. Unlike with Punktsymbolekarte, you can bring several linguistic features together into a single map, those differentiate Flächenkombintionskarte. It allows us to see how certain isoglosses seem to cluster, partly because they have been chosen but it’s not something that can be entirely invented, and you can also see the apparent randomness of variation. Moreover, isoglosses are categorised according to the type of linguistic feature they describe in order to determine their linguistic significance. Separating these isoglosses into lexical, phonological and grammatical features is useful and easier to interpret.

3.2 Patterns of isoglosses allow us to see changes in language

Isoglosses serve a number of descriptive purposes. Certain patterns that reoccur indicate something of the nature of the linguistic situation that exists in the region and can tell you quite a bit about how language change spreads and what the particular circumstances are for language change in a certain region. One such recurrent pattern is a Kreis. This happens when linguistic innovations occur in the Zentrum of a city, an area with the most instability and change, are spread outward to the surrounding areas. This is because people from different dialects meet here and communicate with each other and tend to bury their own particular dialect somewhat, this influence then leads to change. After the change is spread it is stopped for various reasons, and this is where extra-linguistic factors come into play such as geographical boundaries. Furthermore, isoglosses allow us to see innovations that travel in one direction, creating Stufen- or Staffelandschaft in which each step is delimited by a bundle of isoglosses. Interestingly, it is these bundles that makeup der Rheinischer Fächer that is a key part of German dialectology and has allowed us to see what areas have undergone a certain linguistic change. The use of these isoglosses has allowed us to pinpoint specific lines that Certain patterns of isoglosses have recurred time and again in various surveys that have been carried out.

For the most part, dialectologists have assumed that innovations diffuse continuously along immigration routes or transportation lines so it has allowed further study into this field. Isoglosses tell people about the findings of a dialect study and specifically how to show what sort of words people use where, how to pronounce them, and what their word structures are in certain places. They demonstrate how language and geography go together.

3.3 Paved the way for further research

Thanks to the pioneering efforts from the likes of Georg Wenker and his 1876 survey, isoglosses were an integral part of surveys of traditional dialects. His work went on to possibly inspire further works such as the Zwirner-Korpus, as previously mentioned above. Both researchers and many others have obtained a substantial amount for research into the field of German dialectology and thus have encouraged further acknowledgement into this field. They have shown that isoglosses are not just something that can be entirely invented and highlight how isoglosses have the potential to enrich research.

4. Conclusion

In sum, it is clear from the literature that the disadvantages heavily outweigh the advantages. 

29 April 2022
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