Word! The Language Column  Much ado about spelling: The tumultuous German spelling reform

Illustration: An open book, above it a speech bubble with exclamation mark
Meanwhile, spelling is firmly anchored in minds © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

The wrangling about the German spelling reform in the 1990s could hardly have been more acrimonious. What caused this heated row in the German press and public administration, in schools and even in barrooms? Our columnist Henning Lobin recaps the tumultuous history of this controversial reform.

Is there any other country in which spelling is such a bone of contention? Not that I know of. But maybe the debate about German orthography unleashes energy that is applied in other countries to standardizing the vocabulary and grammar. For spelling is the only aspect of the German language that is standardized by the state – and in every officially German-speaking country.

Looking back

The German spelling reform was introduced exactly 25 years ago, in early July of 1996. Now we’re allowed to write Schifffahrt (shipping) with a triple f, and radfahren (to ride a bike) separated by spaces: Rad fahren. The conjunction dass (that) is now written with a double s instead of ß (daß) and vor Kurzem (recently) is now capitalized. The aim of the reform was to make spelling easier by laying down more consistent rules and adjusting the spelling of many words to fit in with the system of German orthography.
A previous overhaul of German spelling had already been undertaken in 1901, forming the basis for the spellings provided in the Duden dictionary, which held sway for nearly the entire 20th century. Konrad Duden himself took part in drafting that reform and subsequently made his dictionary the pre-eminent reference work in matters of German spelling. And in 1955, the Duden spellings were reaffirmed as the official standard for Germany’s public administration and schools.
Actually, a large-scale reform was supposed to be instituted then, but it was impossible to establish uniform rules in a divided Germany. So it had to wait till German reunification in the 1990s – after some far more radical proposals (e.g. to replace “Der Kaiser saß im Boot” with "Der keiser sass im bot" (“The emperor was sitting in the boat”)) had been shelved.

 Vehement opposition

But even the comparatively moderate reform of 1996 inflamed passions to such a pitch that a veritable culture war broke out and lasted for a few years: some leading newspapers refused to implement the reform – and they were at liberty to do so. Parents were outraged at what their kids were now supposed to learn at school. And a number of writers sounded the alarm, warning of the threat the new rules posed to the beautiful German language. Ultimately, the Federal Constitutional Court was called upon to rule on the implementation of the reform in German schools, and a referendum in Schleswig-Holstein succeeded in suspending it for a while.
There were various reasons for all these objections. For one thing, the committee that had drawn up the new rules was made up almost entirely of linguists, with precious little input from the press, publishers and other media and groups in society, many of whom were actually surprised at the new rules. The much-needed public debate about such a very public issue as changing the rules of spelling did not take place until after the powers that be had handed down their decisions.
For another thing, the reform committee espoused an approach to orthography that not everyone subscribes to: namely, that spelling should reflect sound wherever possible, while still abiding by the so-called “stem principle” (e.g. although the d in Rad (wheel) is pronounced as a t, it’s still spelled with a d because its plural is Räder). This makes writing easier, but reading more difficult. Detractors also zeroed in on another drawback in the new rules, which rendered certain differences in meaning unrecognizable (e.g. between falsch liegen (to lie in the wrong position) and falschliegen (to be wrong)).

Restoration of the orthographic peace

After the controversy had rumbled on for years, the competent government bodies in the German-speaking countries set up a more broadly based committee to revise the rules, as well as a 40-member German Spelling Council to monitor developments in actual spelling behaviour and to tweak the rules accordingly. The revised rules were finally officialized in 2006, allowing various spellings for a number of words.
The “orthographic peace” has by and large been kept since then. Only occasionally do we hark back to the spelling spats – and inconsistencies – of the past. A whole generation of schoolchildren have now been raised on the new spellings, so they’re firmly fixed in many minds. Others, however, are still struggling after the long transition and, under the new rules, still often make mistakes. But spelling behaviour has changed considerably in recent years owing to the triumph of smartphones. So it’s hard to judge whether problems with spelling are a result of the reform or new writing habits. One thing’s for sure, though: after the ups and downs of the last spelling reform, there won’t be another one anytime soon.

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.

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