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German Spelling Reform
Hits the Newsstand

Deutsche Rechtschreibreform


German spelling reform (Rechtschreibreform) was a hot topic even before its official adoption by all the German-speaking countries on August 1, 1998. At that time, the new rules applied to all government agencies and schools. (A transitional period allows the old and new spellings to coexist until the end of July 2005, after which only the new spelling rules will be valid.) We first wrote about the reforms in an earlier article entitled "Spelling Reform: Double-S Words."

With their readers less than enthusiastic about the revised rules, the German media were not quick to jump on the new spelling bandwagon. Only now, a full year after die neue Rechtschreibung went into effect for educators and government officials, have Germany's newspapers and magazines begun to print their articles using the new rules. But a look at recent editions of the news magazine Der Spiegel (Hamburg) or Munich's daily Süddeutsche Zeitung makes one wonder what all the fuss was about.

At first glance it's difficult to notice any changes at all. The most obvious difference is the common conjunction dass—which used to be spelled daß—and many other double-s words. (But the ß character hasn't disappeared completely. More here.) There are other changes, but one really has to concentrate to find most of them--no doubt because the reforms only affect a fraction of German vocabulary. Of the 212 previous rules for German spelling only 112 remain; the rules for commas alone were reduced from 57 to nine. In the so-called Grundwortschatz (basic vocabulary) of 12,000 words, only 185 were impacted.

My own first reaction was to wonder why voters in Schleswig-Holstein got their figurative lederhosen in such a twist over the issue. That Bundesland was the only one of Germany's 16 states to pass a referendum against the new orthography in September 1998. (Some of the state's periodicals also have yet to join in the new spelling wave.) Theoretically, students in Schleswig-Holstein will be the only ones using textbooks printed the old way, but German book publishers are unlikely to print special editions just for the state's 2.6 million residents (a mere three percent of Germany's total population), and German courts have upheld the legality of Rechtschreibreform in the rest of the country.

Meanwhile, most of Germany has decided to move on. In the first week of August 1999, German news agencies such as dpa (Deutsche Presseagentur) and the majority of Germany's media began using the new spelling rules -- as modified for journalistic use. The official rules sometimes allow alternative spellings for the same word, particularly for foreign words (both "Joghurt" and "Jogurt" are correct), but the news media have adopted their own rules to be consistent. (They decided to keep the h in "Joghurt.") Periodicals have adopted their own style guides within the new rules.

Duden cover Attached to the cover of its Aug. 9th issue, the German news weekly Focus offered a booklet with "30 Regeln zur neuen Rechtschreibung" ("30 rules for the new orthography"). It also contains 450 of the "most important" examples of spelling changes as they will appear in Focus and most German publications. The rules and examples include both punctuation and spelling modifications: "Rad fahren" replaces "radfahren" (cycling) while the syllables of "Weste" (vest) are now divided as Wes-te rather than We-ste.

Nevertheless, most Germans continue to write their native language just as they always have. And the new rules really don't prevent that. Only in official documents and in schools are the new rules mandatory. But that hasn't prevented a high demand for German spelling guides. Among the best-selling non-fiction books in Germany last week were Duden's Die deutsche Rechtschreibung (number one) and Bertelsmann's lexicon with the same title (in 9th place). (To order these books, see our German Spelling Guides listing.)

For the English-speaking German-learner the biggest problem right now is finding a German-English dictionary with the new German. Most bilingual dictionaries being sold today are still out of date. Even some dictionaries with a copyright of 1998 or later are not printed using the new rules. (See our reviews of German-English dictionaries.)

Even in Germany, some authors and publishers of non-reference works are making their own rules, picking and choosing among old and new. There is much less consistency here than in the news media. Many well-known German authors have actively opposed the reforms, and the leading Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung decided to return to the old spelling rules on August 1, 2000. (See Die Reform der Reform by your Guide for more.) In August 2004, three more German publishers announced a return to the old spelling rules: Bild, Der Spiegel, and the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Here at the About German Language site we still use the new spelling rules, just like any new German-English dictionary you may be using.

Die Reform der Reform: Spelling Reform - Again!
The German spelling reform controversy never ends! On Aug. 1, 2000 Germany's leading newspaper rejected the new spelling and returned to the former orthography.

Spelling Reform Timeline
Here's the history and official timeline of Rechtschreibreform: 1901-2005.

Spelling Reform: Double-S Words
A previous feature about German spelling reform.

Rechtschreibreform - Poll!
Rechtschreibreform - ja oder nein? See what others think.

More Spelling Reform

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