[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1989-2 pp.15-17 later designated J11]
[See Journal items about German spelling.]

The Latest on the 'Re-regulating' Written German.

On 19 July 1988 the West German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published an article by our editorial adviser, Professor Dr Gerhard Augst on the proposals that were shortly to be presented to the West German government for the 're-regulation' of German orthography. After some introductory remarks on the German writing system, we here summarize his account and an analysis of press reactions to the proposals that appeared in Sprachreport 4/88, the quarterly bulletin of the Institut für deutsche Sprache (Mannheim).

English 'spelling' and German 'orthography'.

The English concept of 'spelling' does not have an exact equivalent in a language such as German. In English, 'spelling' suggests the choice of letters of the alphabet to represent specific words, and is notoriously an arcane, arbitrary and yet quite rigid procedure that bears a somewhat remote relation to the sound of words. Printers may also bother about punctuation, hyphenation and capitalization, but such matters are not felt by individual writers to be of great concern, and they scarcely impinge on the question of 'spelling' itself.

German, on the other hand, enjoys by and large a much more straightforward relation between sounds and letters, and such traps of sound-symbol correspondence as may exist usually 'only' worry the less well-educated. Thus whatever grammatical mistakes English students of German may make, they are less prone to pure misspelling in German than in their mother tongue. However, the conventions such as punctuation and hyphenation, which in English are largely relegated to the province of typography, are in German subject to strict rules, and their infringement is stigmatized in much the same way as misspelling in English. The English concept of 'spelling' is therefore subsumed in German under the broader concept of 'Orthographie', or, to give it its equivalent native German name, 'Rechtschreibung' ('right writing'). The question of which letters to use in writing is then only one (and arguably not the most important one) of the questions with which German orthographers are concerned.

The 1902 rules and the role of Duden.

German orthography is sanctioned in law. In 1901 a conference was held in Berlin (at which the Austrians had observer status) and decided to remove certain oddities and coordinate the variations that had hitherto prevailed in the different states (or Länder) of the Reich. In 1902 the rules drawn up at the conference were made legally binding by decree, and were also accepted by the Swiss.

The subsequent history of the rules then promulgated is bound up with the successive volumes of 'Duden', the reference work founded by the 19th century educationist Konrad Duden which in the 20th century acquired quasi-official status as the authority for written German. A complication however was that Duden was soon required to act as the authority not only for the teaching of orthography in schools, but also for the practice of printers who needed stricter and more sophisticated guidelines. This distinction is an interesting one which the English-speaking world might do well to reflect on: two levels of precision, a stricter one for publishing and a more relaxed one for private use. As time went on, the Duden Orthographical Dictionary attempted to formulate guidelines for increasing numbers of special cases, and an originally fairly manageable set of rules developed into what was for most people an almost impenetrable, illogical and sometimes even contradictory jungle. For instance, the original rules stated that when compound words resulted in three consecutive identical letters, one of them could be omitted; so when Brenn ('burn') was joined to Nessel ('nettle'), the compound 'stinging nettle' could, optionally, be written Brennessel; but later rules made the omission obligatory, while insisting on exceptions when another consonant followed; thus only two <f>s were allowed in Stoffetzen (=Stoff +Feizen), but three were required in Sauerstoffflasche (=Sauerstoff + Flasche). By the 1970s the whole situation was widely felt to have become unacceptable, and the urge to simplify began to rear its head.


An early manifestafion of this urge was the controversy aroused in 1972 by the writer Gerhard Zwerenz, who suggested (with what seriousness is not entirely clear) that the widespread uncertainty over the use of capital letters for nouns in German should be overcome by their complete abolition. This extreme suggestion provoked equally extreme opposition, but by 1982 orthographers from all four German-speaking countries (the Federal Republic of Germany, the German Democratic Republic, Austria and Switzerland) had met to agree on a scheme for so-called 'moderate decapilitazation' ('gemäßgigte Kleinschreibung'). By this was meant, not the total abolition of capitals, but that ordinary nouns should henceforth be written with small letters (as had been the practice with some avant-garde poetry since early in the century), although proper names and God would keep their capitals. This would make the rules for capitalization as simple as in French. Amongst orthographers the debate on this question centred on whether the benefits for the reader, who is believed to be assisted by the highlighting of nouns in the text, are outweighed by the disadvantages for the writer, who has to make sometimes quite subtle decisions as to which words count as 'nouns'. Among the public, however, even this 'moderate' suggestion proved controversial, and the advocates of re-regulation decided it would be wise to give this particular proposal a lower profile for the time being.

Progress towards new rules.

A positive result of that 1982 international agreement of orthographers was that the political authorities began to take an interest, notable among them the Austrian government and the education minister for the West German state of Rhineland-Palatinate (Rheinland-Pfalz). He instigated an official request from the West German Minister of the Interior and the Standing Conference of Ministers of Education of the West German states to the Mannheim Institut für deutsche Sprache in February 1987, that the latter should prepare a report on the possibilities for 're-regulating German orthography' (the term 'reform' being avoided as too controversial).

In fact, an agreement had already been reached by the orthographers of the four countries in 1984 on word-breaks for line-end hyphenation and by 1987 they had agreed on 're-regulating' punctuation, which chiefly meant relaxing the rules for the use of the comma. In 1988 they agreed to 're-regulate' the patterns of compound formation, especially links between nouns and verbs. That left two main areas to be dealt with (if we exclude the vexed question of decapitalization): establishing standard sound-symbol correspondences, and advising on the spelling of loan-words from other languages with different writing systems.

The Commission submitted the 250-odd pages of its report to the government on 17 October 1988. The ball was then in the politicians' court to decide whether to accept it, and if so, to provide the necessary official, legal framework for the new rules to be implemented.

Simplified rules for the presentation of text.

Objectives. The orthographers' strategic aim in 're-regulating' the rules was to re-establish the old distinction between simple rules for the learner and for private use, and sophisticated rules for publishers. Children and adults who do not write often must be able to master the essential rules needed for written communication. But compositors will need the full panoply of rules covering all complications, and these too will have to be worked out afresh.

Line-end hyphenation. Previously, German has used different rules for splitting German words and loan-words, the one according to syllable-structure, the other according to etymology. In future, writers will be able to use their own judgement as to a sensible division into syllables. So whereas, before, the Greek-derived Pädagogik could only be hyphenated as Päd-ago-gik, now the alternative Pä-da-go-gik would also be permissible (as it used to be in 1902, in fact). Another old rule was that the consonant string <st> could not be split (Fenster could only divide as Fen-ster), although <sp> and other pairs could perfectly well be separated; but the new rule would allow Fens-ter too.

Compounding. The rules for triple consonants at morpheme-boundaries in compound words would be regularized: if the separate morphemes contain 2 + 1 identical consonants, the simplified rules will require them always to be kept, thus giving Brennnessel, Stofffetzen, Sauerstoffflasche. Splitting some verbal compounds would now be optional, allowing both Erfolg versprechend and erfolgversprechend. In other cases, where some parallel structures were always compounded and others never were, the new rules align them, giving kennen lernen and schwimmen lernen, whereas the former was hitherto written kennenlernen as a single word; similarly, radfahren would be allowed to align with Auto fahren as Rad fahren.

Punctuation. One of the most difficult features of German orthography both for Germans and for foreign learners has been the strict but complex rules for marking clause-boundaries by commas. Hitherto a comma has sometimes been required before the conjunction und ('and') and sometimes not; henceforth the comma would be optional in that position. Similarly, commas would no longer normally be obligatory before certain participial or infinitive phrases.

Re-spelling words.

Sound-symbol correspondence. One of the less drastic proposals in this area involves simplifying the rules for the use of <ß> and <ss>, so that <ss> is always written after a short vowel and <ß> only after a long vowel; there would thus be no variation between the forms of individual roots, as occurs at present. Thus while today the plural Flüsse ('rivers') contrasts with its singular Fluß, the new rules would give Fluss, Flüsse. However, after a long vowel <ß> would be retained (though it is not used at all in Switzerland): Fuß( 'foot'), Füße (but Fuss, Füsse in Switzerland). More disturbing for traditionalists is the simplification of the conjunction daß ('that') to the spelling of its homophone, the pronoun das, although this merger would overcome one of the greatest sources of misspelling in German (consider the difficulties that writers would face in English if that had to be spelt thatt whenever it served as a conjunction rather than as a pronoun).

Writing <ss> for <ß> however in a sense only represents a change in letter-form, rather than a changed spelling as such. More striking, visually, are cases involving the omission or addition of a letter. Thus vowel length is at present indicated by a doubled vowel-letter in some words but not in others, and greater consistency can be achieved by using only one in all cases; for example, since Staat ('state') rhymes with Skat (a card-game) and Boot ('boat') is a homophone of bot ('offered'), the proposals recommend the cut forms Stat, Bot. In some other cases the rather unusual long <i> is extended to the standard <ie>; so present Biber ('beaver') is aligned with its rhyme Fieber ('fever') as Bieber (Cut Spelling in English could produce the opposite result with the equivalent words: the forms bever: fever show the longer word aligning with the shorter, not vice versa). Some redundant <h>s are also cut, as when rauh ('rough') becomes rau to match the rhymes blau, grau, and Fehde ('feud') is cut to Fede to parallel Feder ('feather'). In some cases a consonant would be doubled to match the spelling of related words: the anomalous As ('ace'), Tip ('tip'), numerieren ('to number') would become Ass, Tipp, nummerieren to match the plural Asse, the verb tippen and the noun Nummer.

Much more radical-seeming, and evidently found much more disturbing by the public and the media, are proposals that actually require different letters to be used to represent certain sounds. At present the same vowel-sounds can be represented by the graphemes <e> and <ä> and by the two digraphs <eu, äu>. Often the forms with <ä> represent <a> with a changed value ('Umlaut') in an inflected form; thus Mann, Haus ('man, house') become Männer, Häuser ('men, houses') in the plural; and in these cases the <ä> would be kept. But in other cases there is no reason to link <ä, a> and <äu, au>, and the spelling would be changed accordingly; so räuspern ('to clear the throat') would be respelt reuspern. Similarly, the sound normally spelt <ei> is occasionally found as <ai> (as in Kaiser), and it is proposed that this vowel should almost always be written <ei>; but the suggested form Keiser has particularly affronted national sentiment. Lastly, a few consonants in German are pronounced unpredictably, as when the <b> in Abt ('abbot') and the <v> in Frevel ('misdeed') are devoiced; these words would therefore be spelt Apt, Frefel.

Loan-words. In all writing systems irregularities are inclined to arise when foreign words are introduced into the vocabulary in their original spelling, whose system will then often conflict with that of the borrowing language. German has in recent centuries borrowed many words from French, and the older ones have frequently been respelt according to the German rules of sound-symbol correspondence; so French liqueur is normally written Likör. Other French loan-words are found in two forms, one with adapted spelling, the other not; thus French cousine appears both as Cousine and as Kusine. Others again are not normally adapted at all, and the proposals then sometimes suggest a cautious move towards further integration. Chaiselongue might stay as in French, but défaitiste would become Defätist, while for mayonnaise the French form (duly capitalized) could remain as an alternative to the Germanized Majonäse.

Relatively few English words, on the other hand, have seen any attempt at adaptation, in some cases perhaps because the underlying Germanic sound-symbol correspondence of English has not been perceived as being so inconsistent with German norms, but no doubt also because many English words are of more recent borrowing. The present proposals however do suggest the forms Träning and Hobbi for training, hobby.

Public reactions.

The 4/88 issue of the Institut für deutsche Sprache's quarterly bulletin Sprachreport described public reactions to the Commission's proposals. A typical response from the press was to damn the reforms by exaggerating the effects, with sensationalizing headlines like "Wenn der Keiser im Sal den großen Leib isst" designed to shock readers with its four changes from the present spelling "Wenn der Kaiser im Saal den großen Laib ißt'. Several important proposals received little public attention: the simplified rules for the use of the comma, for splitting and joining words, and for spelling foreign words. Nor have the media said much about the reasons for the changes, often merely implying that they are an arbitrary innovation deliberately designed to annoy everyone. Some commentators concentrated on the earlier de-capitalization proposal, although that was not formally part of the Commission's present proposal. By and large the press treated the proposals either as a bad joke or as wilful mischief-making. Public opinion all too often saw them as the work of mad scientists, criminals or communists, whose plans to ruin the language and its cultural heritage had to be stopped at all costs.

However, even more thoughtful newspapers showed little understanding of the issues involved. Objections included: complexity is valuable in itself; English and French spelling are in far greater need of reform than German; the proposals mean lowering standards; and conversion to a reformed orthography would be fraught with practical obstacles. Objections to reform were often self-contradictory: opponents sometimes recommended other changes themselves while rejecting all the Commission's changes in principle; or they tripped up in their correspondence over precisely the difficulties the reforms were designed to remove. Another view was that people who can't write 'correctly' have no need to do so.

But the Institut also received letters in support, especially from people who have direct experience of the problems caused by the present rules, such as teachers; and the news-magazine Spiegel stood out for its well-informed treatment of the whole question. Some contributors to the debate actually wanted the proposals to go even farther in the direction of phonographic representation.

The fierce controversy aroused by the proposals has meant that the real issues have been largely obscured. Actual reformed spellings (such as Keiser for Kaiser) are limited and enhance the regularity of the system. The present distinction between daß: das is grammatical, not phonological, and requires children to be taught grammatical subtleties they would otherwise be spared.

The practicalities of implementation need cause little difficulty if a relaxed approach were adopted, perhaps along the following lines: "People who want to continue writing as before may do so; but they will have to tolerate the new forms when reading. Primary schools will launch the new forms, but printers will have a certain number of years to effect the change."

Back to the top.