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Rechtschreibreform: German Spelling Reform and Prohibition

Is German spelling reform headed for the same fate as US Prohibition?

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Orthographie

Any repeal of German spelling reform could cost publishers and readers millions of euros.

Foto: DER SPIEGEL - AP

Rechtschreibreform: How Do You Spell 'Chaos' in German?

August 2004 - German spelling reform, first introduced back in 1996 and made "official" in 1998, is beginning to look more and more like Prohibition in the United States in the 1920s. Like Prohibition, Rechtschreibreform may become a well-intended but misguided endeavor headed for failure. Some eight years after its introduction in schools, the public debate about Rechtschreibreform has become more heated than ever.

The latest turmoil came about when the large Axel Springer publishing house and the German news magazine Der Spiegel announced in early August 2004 that they would return to the old spelling rules for all of their periodicals. Soon Munich's Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) was saying "me too." This all came as a shock, coming a full four years after the influential Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) had made a similar announcement. But until the latest orthographic defection, Frankfurt's respected daily newspaper had remained one of the few important German periodicals to reject the 1996 reforms. After four years, suddenly and unexpectedly in mid-2004 FAZ had several allies in its spelling reform revolt.

From the beginning German spelling reform has never been popular. Most current surveys indicate that about 60% of Germans are against Rechtschreibreform and would prefer to return to the pre-1996 rules. Fewer than 14% favor the reforms, with the remainder divided over whether the new spelling rules went too far or not far enough. As regular readers know, I belong to the minority who think the reforms were a step in the right direction, but failed to reach a logical final form. Even opponents of the reforms often admit that some of the new rules are a good idea, including fewer and simpler rules for German punctuation and hyphenation (which was a very ugly affair under the old rules). For example, Hans Werner Kilz, editor-in-chief of Munich's Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), claimed his paper might actually keep some of the new rules, particularly for hyphenation. He even cast doubt on whether his newspaper would go back to "daß" (old) rather than "dass" (new).

Many Germans (plus Austrians and German Swiss) sometimes act as if their language has never changed and it should just stay that way. They seem to forget that the language of Luther and Goethe has constantly undergone change, just like any other language. But the last official reform before the recent one took place over a century ago. Many other minor changes have taken place unofficially since the Staatliche Orthographie-Konferenz of 1901, including making the Duden publishing house the official arbiter of the language (in 1955), but the German language was probably overdue for some serious updates and revisions after 95 years. No living language stands still.

A dramatic and amusing illustration of this fact came from the German satire magazine Titanic right after the Spiegel announcement. Using the truly antiquated and inconsistent German orthography of several centuries ago, the editors of Titanic wrote that they would go Der Spiegel and Springer one better and return to the really ancient German spelling: "TITANICK kehrt zurück zur ganz, ganz alten Rechtschreybung Sie habent eyn Eynsehen: Der Spiegel-Verlag und Springer kehren zurück zur alten Rechtschreybung. Doch TITANICK gehet noch eyn Schrittleyn weyter und schreybet ab dem heutiglichen Tage im würklich klassischen Teutsch..." It's as if English were to adopt the spelling of Shakespeare's time.

But the widespread German displeasure with spelling reform is inspired by many factors, including how the reform came about. In fact I suspect that the main reason why many German-speakers object so strenuously to spelling reform has less to do with the actual reforms themselves and more to do with the politics of the reforms. Understandably, many people see the imposition of spelling reform by a committee (made up of representatives from all the German-speaking countries) as dictatorial and undemocratic. Der Spiegel editor-in-chief Stefan Aust called his magazine's decision to drop the reforms "ein Akt des zivilen Ungehorsams" (an act of civil disobedience). This objection to Rechtschreibreform als Diktat may help explain why the Germans seem to be leading the revolt, while the Austrians and Swiss are more inclined to wonder what all the fuss is about. The reforms are not very popular in any of the German-speaking countries, but the Germans seem to be leading the rush to the barricades.

Objections to the reforms also arise from... (More on next page)

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