Spelling Reform Spells Trouble for Germany

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon Mar 6 14:15:34 UTC 2006

Toma Tasovac | www.dw-world.de |  Deutsche Welle.

Opinion: Spelling Reform Spells Trouble for Germany
German spelling rules are not for the faint-hearted

Germany is changing its orthography for the second time in 10 years.
Politicians are praising the revised set of rules, but it is unlikely that
the second-hand reform will put an end to German spelling woes. If a
German soccer player gets a yellow card during the World Cup this summer,
it will be called a "gelbe Karte." On Aug. 1, however, three weeks after
the end of the championship, that same unwanted gift will become illegal.
That doesn't mean that soccer players will be allowed to run amok, take
off their shirts and dance the hula-hula, but rather that they will be --
in accordance with a new set of German spelling rules -- penalized with a
"Gelbe Karte" (capital G) instead.

Germany's regional culture ministers on Thursday called on newspaper
editors and book publishers to fall into line behind the newly revised
regulations on spelling. The ministers from the country's 16 regional
states unanimously approved proposals from the German Council for
Spelling, which was given the task of modifying reforms on spelling
adopted in 1996 by German-speaking countries. The new set of rules, which,
among other things, outlaws the "gelbe Karte"  with a lower-case "g," is
not only an attempt at pacifying the vocal opponents of the spelling
reform, but also a face-saving endeavor for Germany's cultural and
political establishment. Above all, it is a barometer of how the country
perceives and reacts to change -- an important consideration in view of
Germany's economic crisis.

Reform of the reform

The original spelling reform of 1996, which was meant to harmonize the
spelling rules across the German-speaking countries, turned out to be a
major embarrassment if not outright failure. After six years of teaching
the new spelling rules, two German states which make up over one-third of
Germany's population -- Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia -- decided to
throw out both the baby and the bath water and not make the new spelling
compulsory. One of Germany's major newspapers, the Frankfurter Allgemeine
Zeitung, and several other press groups turned their back on the 1996
rules, preferring the traditional spelling rules. German Nobel prize
winner Guenter Grass stood up against the reforms, and the country found a
new national pastime: trashing the writing reform. Organizations such as
the German Language Research Group or Teachers Against the Spelling Reform
launched their impassioned campaigns with the result that in 2004, 77
percent of Germans still considered the spelling reform not sensible.

It is truly mind-boggling to an outsider that in a country with an
unemployment rate of over five million, spelling rules should stir up so
much passion. It is even more mind-boggling that spelling seems like a
more controversial topic than equal access to education, integration
policies and German education underachievement in the EU context. Yet it
is beyond any doubt that failed reforms, partial reforms and reforms of
the reforms can only undermine public trust in their cultural and
political institutions.

Correct me if I'm wrong

For all their proverbial discipline and meticulousness, many Germans are
actually sloppy spellers -- partly because of the complex capitalization,
punctuation and syllabification rules. Harald Buessing, a Berlin teacher,
discovered -- for example -- that the German constitution had at least two
spelling mistakes. His petition to have the mistakes corrected was
rejected by the officials because the mistakes had apparently not caused
any problems since the basic law was signed by Konrad Adenauer, the future
first chancellor, on May 23, 1943. [moderator's note: wrong date!]

No sensible teacher would accept a student's argument that his or her
spelling mistakes are causing no problems and should therefore be
overlooked. Spelling is a conventional set of rules, and it is definitely
not set in stone. But it requires consistency and should not be changed
every few years. German, for its part, is not the most efficient of
languages: It needs 11 letters for a surname consisting of only three
distinct sounds (Tzschtzsch), but the German spelling reform was never
that ground-shaking in the first place. Attempts by the Institute for the
German Language and the Society for the German Language in the late
eighties to do away with the complicated capitalization of nouns and make
the German spelling more phonetic were never considered even remotely
acceptable by the political establishment or the general public.

The reforms ended up being about whether ice-skating (eislaufen) should be
written as one or two words, and whether "ice" in ice-skating should be
capitalized, like most German nouns. The devil is, surely, in the detail
but the new set of proposals is still not guaranteeing pain-free German
classes in schools. According to the new proposal, the act of ice-skating
will revert to a single word, despite it being separated into two words in
the decree of a decade ago. However, the experts decided that "Rad
fahren", or biking, must remain two words.

Too little, too late?

The German publisher Duden announced that the new rules would be
incorporated into the 24th edition of its authoritative spelling
dictionary on July 22.After a public outcry against what the majority of
Germans saw as pointless and artificial spelling rules, the ministers
declared the latest changes to be a victory of common sense. Jan-Hendrik
Olbertz, culture minister of Saxony-Anhalt, said that "the Gordian knot
has been cut and perhaps the misery is over."Not everybody, however, was
ready to pat the ministers on the shoulder.

Hans-Joachim Otto of the German opposition free-market liberal Free
Democratic Party (FDP) called the spelling reform a fiasco and a proof
that "the state should not meddle with the language."

It's hard to tell what the chances are of the second reform to succeed
where the first one failed. Bavaria and North Rhein-Westphalia signalized
they would make the new spelling rules binding. Last week, the German
publisher Axel Springer Verlag announced it was considering abandoning the
old spelling rules that it demonstratively readopted in 2004. The
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which went back to the old spelling in
2000, is also considering the new compromise recommendations, but will
wait for the new spelling dictionaries to come out.

"We will see if they are more useful than the last editions and whether
there would still be so many discrepancies between the dictionaries," said
FAZ editor Hubert Spiegel. Angela Merkel's government will directly
benefit from the recent developments: According to the revised spelling
rules, "grand coalition"  will be capitalized as "Grosse Koalition,"
adding an orthographic sense of grandeur to a bipartisan marriage of
convenience. But the overall course of the spelling reforms spells trouble
for the German nation because it shows that the ability to change is
predicated upon the ability to give up old habits. And it is in the
department of old habits that Germany is showing its greatest weakness.


Toma Tasovac | www.dw-world.de |  Deutsche Welle.

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