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Opinion: Spelling Reform Spells Trouble for Germany

Toma Tasovac
March 3, 2006

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.

German spelling rules are not for the faint-heartedImage: AP

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

Deutsch-türkische Schulklasse in Berlin
German school children suffer the most with constant spelling reformsImage: dpa

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 Günter 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

Unterzeichnung Grundgesetz 1949
Konrad Adenauer probably didn't notice the spelling mistakes when he signed the ConstitutionImage: AP

For all their proverbial discipline and meticulousness, many Germans are actually sloppy spellers -- partly because of the complex capitalization, punctuation and syllabification rules. Harald Büssing, 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, 1949.

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 (Tzschätzsch), 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.

Buchstabensuppe Rechtschreibung p178
German spelling is -- this time, literally -- in the soupImage: AP

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."

Please try again

Günter Grass Porträtaufnahme
German novelist Günter Grass is one of the most vocal opponents of the spelling reformImage: AP

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.

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