9.1547, Disc: Last Posting: German Spelling Reform

LINGUIST Network linguist at linguistlist.org
Wed Nov 4 14:46:22 UTC 1998

LINGUIST List:  Vol-9-1547. Wed Nov 4 1998. ISSN: 1068-4875.

Subject: 9.1547, Disc: Last Posting:  German Spelling Reform

Moderators: Anthony Rodrigues Aristar: Wayne State U.<aristar at linguistlist.org>
            Helen Dry: Eastern Michigan U. <hdry at linguistlist.org>
            Andrew Carnie: U. of Arizona <carnie at linguistlist.org>

Reviews: Andrew Carnie: U. of Arizona <carnie at linguistlist.org>

Associate Editors:  Martin Jacobsen <marty at linguistlist.org>
                    Brett Churchill <brett at linguistlist.org>
                    Ljuba Veselinova <ljuba at linguistlist.org>

Assistant Editors:  Scott Fults <scott at linguistlist.org>
		    Jody Huellmantel <jody at linguistlist.org>
		    Karen Milligan <karen at linguistlist.org>

Software development: John H. Remmers <remmers at emunix.emich.edu>
                      Chris Brown <chris at linguistlist.org>
                      Zhiping Zheng <zzheng at online.emich.edu>

Home Page:  http://linguistlist.org/

Editor for this issue: Anthony Rodrigues Aristar <aristar at linguistlist.org>


Date:  Tue, 3 Nov 1998 17:40:24 +0000
From:  "Gerald Heusing" <heusing at rz.uni-leipzig.de>
Subject:  Re: 9.1520, Disc: German Spelling Reform

Date:  Wed, 4 Nov 1998 13:46:26 +0100
From:  "John R. Rennison" <john at ling.univie.ac.at>
Subject:  Re: 9.1528, Disc: German Spelling Reform

-------------------------------- Message 1 -------------------------------

Date:  Tue, 3 Nov 1998 17:40:24 +0000
From:  "Gerald Heusing" <heusing at rz.uni-leipzig.de>
Subject:  Re: 9.1520, Disc: German Spelling Reform

Dear colleagues,

Just one remark on Mr Ryan contributions: The peaceful revolution
in the former GDR and the democratization of the political system in
Eastern Germany started in Leipzig. People in this area DO know what
democracy (and the fight for it) means. And even if Mr Ryan is not
ready to accept this fact, he should know that to my knowledge Martin
Haspelmath is a Westener (who also stayed in the US for some time)
and moved to Leipzig only some weeks ago. At least with such a
background he understands completely what is meant by "democratic" in
English - if we follow Mr Ryan s opinion.

In order to continue what started as an interesting discussion
participants should leave their prejudices aside and start to talk
reasonably again - as scientists are supposed to do.

Best regards, G. Heusing.


Dr. Gerald Heusing

Universitaet Leipzig
Institut fuer Afrikanistik
Burgstr. 21
D-04109 Leipzig

(+49) 341 9737034 Phone
(+49) 341 9737048 Fax

heusing at rz.uni-leipzig.de

-------------------------------- Message 2 -------------------------------

Date:  Wed, 4 Nov 1998 13:46:26 +0100
From:  "John R. Rennison" <john at ling.univie.ac.at>
Subject:  Re: 9.1528, Disc: German Spelling Reform

Anthea Fraser GUPTA wrote:

>> But assuming that a standard language also
>> has a pronunciation, then the standard spelling will be the spelling
>> of that "dialect".
>This is a big assumption -- Standard English CERTAINLY doesn't have a
>single pronunciation attached to it.  Indeed there are very major
>differences between high prestige varieties around the world, the
>biggest being the treatment of post-vocalic r.

First of all, thank you for responding to a linguistic issue amongst all the
ideological undergrowth.

English is a problem of its own. In German the standard varieties are
sufficiently similar to permit a reasonably homogeneous spelling
system -- particularly if the few regional variants that do exist are
tolerated (e.g. Austrian word-initial [s] where "German" German has

>The German spelling reform is a minor and not a complete spelling
>reform, I gather, a sort of tidying up of the edges.  A complete
>spelling reform only comes in in revolutionary circumstances, I feel.

This is what annoys (most of) us Austrian linguists. First, we get the
blame.  Second, the reform is watered down to a "tidying up" of
ridiculour details. It seems to me that if the German-speaking
countries want to afford themselves the expensive luxury of a reform,
then it should be one that resolves problems for a long time to
come. Or they should keep the old system and save money.

A case in point: so-called "sharp s" (or sz) vs. double s. As
Friedrich Neubarth pointed out, the "sharp s" was a historical
typographic accident. Now they want to allow some double s's in place
of sharp s's. This is STUPID. They should have a single s for the
voiceless [s] and a single z for voiced [z]. Then the problem is
solved once and for all.

Confusing for people who write by the old system? Yes. But that takes
us right back to the question: do you want a reform or not? Replacing
the present set of complex and idiosyncratic rules with another set is
a waste of time and money AND brings us linguists into disrepute.

My impression is that no linguist in Austria supports the present
reform. All say: either do it right or not at all (the latter probably
being the majority).

But if we are forced into this ridiculous "tidying up" exercise, then
isn't it better to be hung for a wolf than for a lamb?

Peter T. Daniels <grammatim at worldnet.att.net> wrote

>> Yes, of course it has. But assuming that a standard language also has a
>>pronunciation, then the standard spelling will be the spelling of that
>Is the suggestion, then, that every compositor become a specialist in
>German dialects, so as to interpret each writer's idiosyncratic regional
>spellings when putting their writings into standard spelling for
>publication throughout the Germanophone world?

My suggestion is that every compositor become a specialist in the standard
variety that he hears daily on the radio and TV.

>Picking this or that good feature from this or that neighboring language
>is hardly a move toward compatibility. Changing German <sch> to Polish
><s'> (if that's the suggestion) doesn't increase compatibility with
>Dutch spelling.

It's not German speakers' problems to reform the spelling of English
or Dutch (as many other contributors have also implied). All I suggest
is that IF a new spelling is introduced, it would just as well conform
with the spelling of other languages.

A case in point was <sch>. The only letter of the three that could be
used for that one sound is <c> (assuming that <s> is [s] and <h> is
[h]). That would be okay, because <c> in the present orthography is
superfluous. "Alone" it is either [ts] or [k] -- which could be
written <ts> and <k>. But using <c> for [S] (the voiceless
alveopalatal grooved fricative) would mean introducing an
idiosyncratic spelling that is unique in Europe (perhaps the
world). So why not use s-hachek as in Czech?

>I wasn't thinking of English's handful of strong verbs; I was thinking
>of such standard examples as <photograph/photography/photographic>,
>where the spelling of the base doesn't change as it goes through vowel
>and stress alternations in its derivations.

These are the problems of English, not of German. There are no such
stress shifts involving complete loss of vowel quality in German. But
the "handful of strong verbs" in German will be split by the new
reform just as they are now. You write a-umlaut for "(er) faehrt"
(here written <ae>) because other forms have an <a> ("(wir) fahren");
but by the same logic we should write an <a> with a <u> diacritic for
"(er) fuhr" and "(wir) fuhren". Why not simply write "(er) feert"
"(wir) faaren" "(er) fuur" "(wir) fuuren", and to hell with the
"semantic principle"?

Re. "handful": Strong verbs have only been preserved with their
stem-vowel alternations because they are so common. So these are the
verbs that are being written most often.

Re. describe vs. prescribe: You're right that prescribing isn't our
job. But if the prescribers claim to base their norms on our
descriptions and on criteria that we linguists investigate
(e.g. learnability, ease of manipulation, etc.), then they should
either ask our opinion or do their homework right. Neither has
happened in the present German spelling reform.

Finally, if anyone is interested, I spent a quarter of an hour (about
2 years ago) working out how German should (could) be spelt. The only
real problem is the velar nasal (which will require a new
letter). Otherwise the existing alphabet is quite adequate, and there
are even a few letters left over (like w and a-umlaut).

John Rennison

(Ao. Univ.-Prof. Dr.) John R. Rennison
Dept. of Linguistics, University of Vienna

Inst. f. Sprachwissenschaft          e-mail: john at ling.univie.ac.at
Berggasse 11
A-1090 Wien                          Fax:          +43 1 3155347
Austria / Europe                     Tel.:         +43 1 3103886/32


LINGUIST List: Vol-9-1547

More information about the Linguist mailing list