Germans bridle at language law
P. Kerim Friedman
kerim.list at oxus.net
Tue Aug 10 19:26:09 UTC 2004
Germans bridle at language law
Luke Harding in Berlin
Sunday August 8, 2004
It is the language of Goethe, the Brothers Grimm and Bertolt Brecht.
But an official attempt to reform German has provoked an unprecedented
denunciation of the changes by writers, publishers and literary critics
as 'stupid and confusing'.
A committee of bureaucrats introduced the reforms - known as neue
Rechtschreibung, or new spelling - six years ago to make the complex
language easier to learn. Since then opposition to the changes has
grown. It culminated in Germany's two leading publishing houses, Axel
Springer and Der Spiegel, announcing on Friday that their publications
would revert to the old spelling.
The reforms had failed, the publishers said, providing neither
'enlightenment nor simplicity'. They urged other newspapers to follow
the example of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which had gone back
to old spelling.
Leading literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki dismissed the changes last
week as a 'national catastrophe'. In an essay, he declared: 'Chaos has
broken out ... In no other major European country is the gap so deep
between the language of the people and the language of literature.'
Günter Grass and other members of Germany's literary establishment have
refused to allow their books to be printed using the new forms. Even
page three girls have joined the rebellion. A model called Theresa,
wearing only orange knickers, told Axel Springer's tabloid Bild she
had her doubts about the wisdom of abandoning classical German
Under the new rules, the old-fashioned double S or S-Zett in German -
which looks like a fat B - has been replaced in some cases with a
double 'ss'. Other words have been capitalised for the first time,
while compound verbs like radfahren - to ride a bike - have been split
up, into Rad fahren.
Although the changes only affect 5 per cent of the vocabulary, they
have provoked widespread confusion. They also appear to have been
rejected by most Germans. But Professor Rudolf Hoberg, a member of the
committee that introduced the changes, was unapologetic. 'The changes
are sensible. They make German simpler. I believe the language is
substantially better off as a result.'
Others are unconvinced. 'The reforms are simply stupid. These sorts of
things happen when the state meddles in areas which shouldn't concern
it,' Dr Friedrich Dietman, a writer and the vice-president of
Saxony's Academy of Arts, said.
Germany's leaders have already gone over to the new spelling, which
from next August will become compulsory for every German official. But
there are signs of a growing political revolt, with the heads of three
of the federal states - all of them run by the right-wing opposition
CDU party - announcing that they want to go back to the old rules. The
federal culture ministers will discuss the subject in October.
What would Goethe, and other dead German authors, have made of the row?
'We only agreed on a unified German spelling a century ago,' Roberg
said. 'Goethe spelled his name several different ways. I don't think he
would have cared.'
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