Coming to Terms with Germany′s new Spelling Reform | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 02.08.2003
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Coming to Terms with Germany's new Spelling Reform

Five years after Germany's controversial spelling reforms were introduced, many Germans are still confused by the new spelling rules, while others simply refuse to use them.


Both Germans and foreigners find the new rules confusing

When it was launched on August 1, 1998, many protested at Germany's "Rechtschreibreform", its new spelling reform.

The controversial changes, which will finally become law on August 1st 2005, were an attempt to rationalise some of the many quirks in German, a relatively new language which was plagued by regional differences when the country was first unified in 1871.

The reforms -- which came about after decades of failed attempts to unify the language -- include various spelling changes such as using "ss" instead of the until then common "ß" character. The reforms also thin out the hundreds of complex rules regarding the use of commas.

But not all will have to abide by the rules. Only German school children and the country's massed ranks of civil servants will have to heed the new spellings.

Five years on, some believe things are looking good for the reforms. Klaus Heller, one of the heads of the commission which swept through with the reforms in the mid 1990s, said Germany had responded well to change and "there was a clear tendency towards (the use of) the new spelling reforms." He added almost half of all Germans who are not officially bound by the rules were using the new spellings in their everyday writing.

Smooth transition for German learners?

Parent groups also claim children across Germany are successfully coming to terms with the changes.

Speaking on German radio, Renate Hendricks, the head of Germany's Federal Parent Council, said that particularly children who had only now been taught the new spelling rules "had no problems" with the reforms. Almost 100 percent of new educational books are now published using the new spelling and include the new grammar rules.

But for foreigners learning German the changes have resulted in mixed results, according to the department of German at Britain's prestigious University of Cambridge.

"The students who are coming up now, have all been taught the new spelling rules right the way through (their German education)," Sharon Nevill, the secretary at the German department there told Deutsche Welle.

Nevill, who is heavily involved with setting German language exam papers at Cambridge and preparing them for publication, also says many of the university's older students -- who have been taught both spelling systems during their educations -- have found the changeover very confusing.

"Obviously we're trying to get to grips with it as fast we can, but we're remaining flexible in this crossover period. We tend to ask students to be consistent in their exam papers and stick to either the old or the new system," she says, adding: "I do think some are pretty confused by it."

Writers stick to the old rules

But whilst Germany's students have been brought into line by the new spelling police, Germany's writers are still standing by the old school of spelling.

Speaking to German public broadcaster, ARD, the president of the German arm of international literary organization, P.E.N., called the reforms "unacceptable for writers." Leading German writers, including Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Nobel prize winner Günter Grass have all continued to write according to the old rules. Although the majority of German media, including mass circulation tabloid Bild and news magazines Stern and Spiegel have introduced the changes into their style books, the traditional broadsheet, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which has stuck by the old rules, which it re-introduced in August 2000 after a short flirtation with the new linguistics.

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