Sentence diagramming in Germany

German educationalists seem to have invented both the main diagramming systems taken up in the UK and the USA: tables and trees.


The term ‘analysis’ may have been used first in syntax by Karl Ferdinand Becker in his 1827 Deutsche Sprachlehre (Vol 2, p.295):


Comment. For a certain understanding of speech, to which grammar gives rise, it is important that one should recognise easily and quickly to what kind of sentence-relations a member of the sentence belongs as ‘factor’, and whether it is headword or relation-word in the same, and that one should give each member of the sentence its place and significance in the whole. This businesss – the analysis of the sentence – is made easier for the beginner if he notices that two members express a predicative sentence-relation when they express a thought, and an attributive or objective sentence-relation when they express a concept, namely first when they express the concept of a being and lastly when they express the concept of an activity.



Becker also may have been the first to use tables for presenting sentence structure, as in this representative example from the same book (p.381):

His ‘Schulgrammatik’ (1831) offers a slightly different use of tables (p.696):

His tables seems to have been popular, as we find a very similar one in a grammar-book by a different author (Wurst, Raimund Jakob. 1852. Deutsche Sprachdenklehre. Zum Selbstunterricht in der Muttersprache, eingerichtet aund mit einer Erklärung der Gebrauchs-Methode versehen, von Wilhelm Nast.)

Networks and trees

The first network representation for a sentence seems to have been this one, from page 102 of Lateinische Syntax für die obern Klassen gelehrter Schulen. Leipzig: Weidmann (1832), by Johann Billroth.

The book concerns the syntax of Latin, and the Latin example is: Miltiades, dux Atheniensium, toti Graeciae libertatem paene oppressam in pugna apud Marathonem reddidit (Miltiades, the leader of the Athenians, returned (reddidit) the liberty (which had been) almost oppressed in the battle at Marathon’). Some comments:

  • The diagram shown here is the only one in the whole book, and I don’t know whether anyone else followed this lead. But it’s hard not to be struck by the similarity to the much later Reed-Kellogg diagrams!
  • Little seems to be known about Johann Billroth, but it’s possible that he is the Professor Johann Billroth who died in 1836 in Leipzig and also the father who died of tuberculosis when the surgeon Theodor Billroth was five – i.e. in 1834. If he did die in the 1830s he had little chance to spread his ideas, or his diagrams.
  • According to a document by Hodges, the philosopher Gottfried Frege was probably the first to use trees in linguistic theory (1879), and may have learned such trees from a text written by his father for 9-13 year olds, (Frege, Karl Alexander. 1850. Hülfsbuch zum Unterrichte in der deutschen Sprache für Kinder von 9 bis 13 Jahren (second edition). Wismar.), which has been described as taking a word-based approach contrasting with the currently popular sentence-based approach of grammar books by Becker and Wurst (discussed above).
  • Like the Reed-Kellogg diagrams, this can’t really be called a ‘tree’ because of the horizontal line at the top. This line reflects the dominant sentence-based view that the basic structure of a simple sentence divides it into two equal parts, the subject and the predicate.

The first true tree was produced by Franz Kern in 1884 in opposition to the Billroth/Reed-Kellogg diagrams  (Kern, Franz. 1884. Grundriss der Deutschen Satzlehre. Berlin: Nicolaische Verlags-Buchhandlung), who saw the finite verb as the highest-ranked word. Here’s the opening paragraph of the book:

Translation: ‘The sketch of German sentence-study intended for the classes up to ‘Tertia’ (? the Gymnasium, standing beyond primary and secondary levels) which I lay out here for teachers of German differs from other books of this type especially through the fact that it starts with the word which is essential for the sentence, the finite verb. I consider this approach to be not only the one most justified scientifically but also the one which is most right practically, as it is only in relation to the finite verb that everything else in the sentence can be explored and determined. (Compare section 26.)’

Here’s the first diagram in his book (p. 30):

The diagram gives the analysis for the German sentence: Eine stolze Krähe schmückte sich mit den ausgefallenen Federn der Pfauen. ‘A proud crow decorated itself with the fallen-out feathers of the peacocks.’ To make the diagram clearer I have redrawn it and translated the grammatical terms:

(In later diagrams he just gives the grammatical terms without the example words.) This structure is almost identical to the much later (1959) stemmas of Lucien Tesnière (who had ample opportunity to learn about Kern’s diagrams while he was studying Germanic languages in Leipzig just before 1914, though he doesn’t mention Kern in his main book, the Eléments de Syntaxe Structurale). The most obvious difference is the treatment of the preposition (mit, ‘with’) as a marker of the noun with similar status to the latter’s inflectional case.



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