Word! The German Language Column
Duden: Germany’s pre-eminent dictionary

Illustration: Dictionary
Which words are in the Duden? | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Duden was the authority on German spelling till the 1996 spelling reform. The dictionary’s monopoly is a thing of the past, but the media, the authorities and most producers of text continue to follow Duden’s recommended spellings. About a time-honoured dictionary that’s still going strong today.


My head is abuzz with toasts in German, English, Spanish, Russian and even Georgian. I’m at a lexicographers’ convention in Tbilisi, where specialists from Italy, Spain, Georgia, Germany, France, South Africa, the US, The Netherlands, Denmark, Armenia, Hungary and Portugal have gathered to discuss dictionaries and how to train the next generation of lexicographers. Europe has the world’s only programme to train young people from all over the world to carry on a tradition that goes back thousands of years: writing and putting together dictionaries. But that's where the problem begins: can what they’re talking about still be called “dictionaries”? Or would “digital lexicographical information systems” be a more fitting description? Or will we soon be dealing with nothing but linguistic data? 

More than a dictionary: users want it all

We Duden editors are constantly asking these questions. We want to find out what users all over the world want from us: printed dictionaries, a comprehensive online lexicographical information system, offline digital dictionaries, writing support in the form of a complete proofing and error flagging, or high-quality lexical data they can work into their programs ... Actually, it turns out they want it all.
So what does that mean for a publishing house like ours, with a list of over 700 titles, but only one of which is known to most people: namely the Rechtschreibduden, aka “DER DUDEN”, the bible of German spelling? How come Duden is a household name in Germany, but out of the whole wide range of printed Dudenverlag products, that’s the only one people have at home? 

Of schoolmaster Duden and German spelling

Konrad Duden was a high school German teacher and headmaster when, in 1880, he brought out a “complete orthographic dictionary of the German language” for the price of 1 Deutschmark. It was published by the Bibliographisches Institut in Leipzig. All 26 subsequent editions have been published by the same house, which has since relocated to Berlin. German spelling still wasn’t standardized back in 1880. So Duden pored over existing dictionaries and zeroed in on spelling difficulties his students came up against, and gathered all this material up into his Orthographikon, a dictionary of spelling and nothing more.


That book and subsequent editions soon became bestsellers, especially after Duden spelling was declared official at the so-called Second Orthographic Conference in 1901. But unlike dictionaries in other countries, Duden remained a spelling dictionary, though it did include some grammatical information for nouns such as gender and genitive and plural forms, as well as occasional definitions, pronunciations and notes on usage. But none of the publisher's big dictionaries giving complete definitions of each entry has ever achieved such renown. Not so in France or Great Britain, where the biggest defining dictionaries are also the most well-known titles on the publishers’ lists, such as the Oxford English Dictionary.
However, all these dictionaries do have one thing in common: the publication of a new edition with thousands of new words is a major media event, and the subject of language rarely receives as much public attention, including disputes over why one word made it into the dictionary and another did not. I’ll explain why that is in my next article.

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? ~ Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.