Linguistic Change

Chronicle Of A Long Debate: The Spelling Reform

Cop: picture-alliance/dpaThe controversial and occasionally emotionally charged debate on the German spelling system, which raged for over a decade, is over. Following several amendments, it finally came into force on August 1, 2007.

The long history of the German spelling reform is quick to recount. In the mid 1980s, a working group of experts from Germany, Austria and Switzerland was convened to produce a formal proposal for the reorganisation of the German spelling system. The reform was supposed to end the monopoly of Duden's definitive dictionary of the German language, whose spelling system had been declared binding by the Standing Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs (KMK) of the Länder back in the 1950s: "If in doubt, Duden applies".

Proposals for a spelling reform that were drafted by the Institute for the German Language (IDS) on behalf of the relevant government agencies were criticised, rejected, and reworked. Ten years later, on July 1, 1996, the first milestone was reached when Germany, Austria and Switzerland signed a Joint Declaration of Intent on the Reform of German Orthography in Vienna. The new rules officially entered into force on August 1, 1998, with a transitional period of seven years. From then on the new system of spelling was taught in schools and used in official correspondence. And at every stage, it created massive controversy.

Reform under growing pressure

Although the German-language news agencies and most newspapers and magazines switched to the new spelling system on August 1, 1999, the controversy raged on. The nearer the end of the transitional period, the longer the features columns on protests against the reform.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung was the first to revert to what it called the "established" system of spelling on August 1, 2000. In March 2003, the German Academy of Language and Literature proposed a compromise. In November 2003, science and arts institutions appealed to the Education and Culture Ministers to radically rethink the reform, and in May 2004, the German PEN Center even called for the spelling reform to be dropped completely. Finally, in August 2004 the newspapers of the Axel Springer publishing group (including Bild and Die Welt) and news magazine Der Spiegel also reverted to the old-style orthography.

The Council of Wise Men

On June 3, 2004, despite much pressure from the reform's opponents the Standing Conference of Education and Culture Ministers voted in favour of the spelling reform's mandatory introduction in German schools. However, at the same time the ministers announced that they were setting up a Council for German Orthography.

This new body, which was formally convened in December 2004 under the chairmanship of former Bavarian Education Minister Hans Zehetmair, consisted of 38 experts from five countries – linguists and representatives of the publishing industry, writers' and journalists' associations, teachers' unions and the Federal Association of Parents. Its mission was to come up with an acceptable solution to the reform controversy. Opponents of the reform were therefore also invited to contribute to the work of the Council.

The German Academy of Language and Literature initially refused to become involved after Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek published an open letter appealing to it to refuse any cooperation in what she called the "completely botched" reform. "We will not kow-tow to any authorities seeking to impose a system on us, nor are we searching for compromises. As perfectionists in the art of language, we are not interested in second-rate solutions." At the beginning of June 2005 the Academy nevertheless – “for the sake of orthographical peace” – became a full Council member.

Negotiating a compromise

At the time, the first result of the Council’s work in its search for a compromise was that on August 1, 2005, only parts of the spelling reform were to become obligatory for German schools and administrative bodies. For the time being, only those elements of the reform that the KMK deemed uncontroversial would come into effect. These were the assignment of letters to sounds (for example, double ‘s’ instead of ‘ß’ after a short vowel), the coincidence of three consonants (as in ‘Schifffahrt’), and the spelling of loan words.

For the four major contentious areas of the reform - writing compounds separately or as a single word, the use of lower and upper case, punctuation and syllabification - the Council produced recommendations that were unanimously adopted by the KMK on March 2, 2006 in Berlin. The Conference of Minister Presidents confirmed the decision on March 30, 2006 so that the spelling reform, including the agreed modifications, could finally be introduced in schools and the public administration system on August 1, 2006. However, the new rules became binding only one year later on August 1, 2007. Since then the use of the old spelling system has been counted as a mistake in schools.

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and other reform-critical dailies aligned their orthography with the modified rules already on January 1, 2007. The compromise finally brought a longed-for end to the debate, albeit against the resistance of a number of hardliners. Writers such as Judith Hermann, Daniel Kehlmann, Christian Kracht, Helmut Krausser and Feridun Zaimoglu declared: 'The government is not an instance to which literature will submit (...). We will continue to have our works published with the orthography that we consider correct.' And they are, and always will be, well within their rights to do so.

Dagmar Giersberg
is a freelance publicist in Bonn

Translation: Hillary Crowe, Heather Moers, update: Karin Gartshore
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

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December 2007

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