[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J19, 1995/2, p18-21.]
[See other articles about German spelling reform.]
{Also on this page: Materials for spelling reform.

German Reform: Two Years in Twilight.

Der Spiegel, # 25, 1995.

Translated by Margot McCaffrey.

They removed only two words from a list of 12,000 and did not object to the 112 rules. A "study group" of officials of the ministries of culture of the 16 German states was very satisfied when they met in Hannover recently. Their mandate was simply a last check of the 244-page proposal for the reform of German spelling.

Last November this set of rules was adopted by an international conference in Vienna, with final approval by Austria, Switzerland, and seven countries with German minorities. The German delegation's vote, however, was subject to approval by the ministries of culture. This is scheduled for September 28 1995 in Halle. Before the end of the year the new Set of Rules will be ceremoniously signed in Vienna.

This reform will bring the most extensive changes to German spelling since the adoption of the first binding Set of Rules in 1901. Until now, Germans were given only vague information about this reform thru news articles and special pamphlets. The Set of Rules was available to participants only. It will be published in a few days by Verlag Gunther Narr, Tubingen. Now those affected, primarily teachers and students, can assess what is approaching them.

The Set of Rules is a compromise between experts, nearly all of them had hoped for a more radical, systematic reform, and the officials of the ministries of culture, who were trying to prevent an unreasonable burden on the writing population. It took seven years for diverse committees on both sides to come to a conclusion.

The seven-year war about the extent of reform left its marks in the current edition of the Set of Rules, lessening its value considerably. A positive result is that many things will be easier, a few will remain unnecessarily difficult or even made more difficult. The ministers of culture could change this.

For example: At the Vienna Conference in November 1994 the dispute about foreign words finally ended. The reformers wanted Germans to write Dubel, Siluette, Tur, and Obergine, also Rytmus, Apoteke, and Kommunikee. The ministers of culture prevented the worst. They insisted on maintaining Double, Silhouette, Tour, and Aubergine. For other foreign words they allowed dual spellings as a compromise. Next to Rhythmus, Apotheke, and Kommuniqué, they also permit Rytmus, Apoteke, and Kommunikee. There is no need for it.

If the ministers of culture make it easy for themselves and add no changes to the reform, teachers and students will have a difficult time. They will have to study some nonsense and a few unimportant things. They are confronted with difficult times anyway, if the reform progresses at the "study group's" time-table.

The new rules shall not be effective until two years from now, in August 1, 1997. Two long school years - 1995/96 and 1996/97 - will be a "phase of twilight" as Franz Niehl calls it. He heads the school department in the ministry of culture of the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen and for the last seven years the "study group spelling reform". During these two years every teacher may choose how much of the old and how much of the new he wants to teach.

Teaching as usual will not start again until 2001. Until then, words spelt according to the old rules may not be marked as mistakes. Probably there will be more rapid progress than these time plans indicate. Günther Drosdowski, long-time chief editor at "Duden", says these plans are unrealistic. He says these plans are going too far, but he will put them into action immediately. (See SPIEGEL interview.)

Should the ministers of culture pass the Set of Rules this fall, Duden will publish the new rules in its next edition this year. The editors are working on them with "high pressure". Drosdowski: "As soon as the new Duden is published no teacher will or can teach according to the old rules.

SPIEGEL INTERVIEW by Werner Harenberg:

Paket, Rytmus, Tron? Günther Drosdowski on Spelling Reform.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Drosdowski, you belonged to the German commission which worked on spelling reform for many years. Most members would have liked to go much farther than the decisions made at the international conference in Vienna last November. Did you agree with them?

Drosdowski: No, I would have liked to make a few cuts here and there.

S: Seven years ago a reform proposal failed because of simplifications like Kaiser to Keiser, Hai to Hei and Boot to Bot. These changes were all logical in theory, but in practice they would have been senseless. Now again a few strange changes are proposed, e. g. Packet instead of Paket.

D: They could easily have done without it. They claim the verb packen is its root, but now they have conceded that the word Packet will be pronounced differently because it used to have stress on the second syllable.

S: And behände instead of behende?

D: They reason that this word comes from Hand. I conducted a little test and found that eight out of ten Germanic philologists did not know this. How should laymen be aware of this root?

S: Zigarette gets an additional r and becomes Zigarrette.

D: I am not happy about this either. But you brought along a list of horrors and could add more words, Frefel Kangeru, and Tron come to mind. In my opinion, these could have been omitted, too. These are blemishes which do not alter the fact that the reform proposal as a whole should be welcomed. Most of the other intrusions are moderate, they lead to clear simplifications and improvements. Therefore, the Duden editors are firmly determined to transform the reform into practice quickly.

S: Why so many "blemishes" - there are many more - in this "work of the century"?

D: I don't think anyone has used this lofty term, it is inappropriate. This reform is not a big deal but a small reform of reason, as I like to say. There were too many opposing opinions and interests, therefore, we must be content with this compromise. More was not possible. None of the participants agreed with everything, everyone would have liked something differently.

S: What about Rytmus, Katastrofe, Restorant?

D: There you are not talking about any detail but a basic problem. The Set of Rules allows for dual spellings for these and several dozen other words. Rythmus remains, but Rytmus is also allowed. There will be Katustrophe and Katastrofe, Restaurant and Restorant. In newspapers and books you will continue to read Rhythmus, Katastrophe, and Restaurant, I am sure of it. Schools will have to struggle with it, altho it literally leads to nothing.

S: There are dual meanings in the Duden.

D: But not nearly as many and only when the development of language calls for it. Therefore, we have Telefon next to Telephon. But do you know of anybody who writes Katastrofe? I don't.

S: 69% of Germans spell Rhythmus incorrectly. From a SPIEGEL test we learned how they spell it: Rytmus, Rythmus, Rhythmus, Ritmus, Rithmus, even Rittmuß. Even larger majorities have difficulties with Portemannaie, Hamorrhoiden, and Necessaire. Can these people be helped? In the future they can also write Portmonee, Hamorriden, and Nessessär.

D: The high percentage of spelling errors has to be taken seriously, but it should not be the only decisive factor. By the way, those who have trouble with Portemonnais will also have trouble with portmonee, because they will put one n too many or one e too few at the end. Even more weighty than the percentage of errors is the fact that dual spelling promotes Germanization which is contrary to the main development of language and life in general. The development points toward mass tourism all over the world and understanding across international borders. But we make Krepp out of Crêpe, Teke out of Theke, Strofe out of Strophe, Spagetti out of Spaghetti. Absurd.

S: Mr. D., the proposal is positive in finally eliminating much nonsense prescribed by Duden. We are astonished to hear your criticism of Duden rules as if you had not been Duden editor for 34 years. In your lectures you speak about coincidences and inconsistencies, questionable rules, and deplorable spellings - existing only because they are printed in Duden. Aren't you responsible for all this?

D: No, not at all. Our spelling grew without systematization for centuries and even Konrad Duden abided by the rules and spellings officially established. Even the editors of Duden consider themselves the extended arm of the state in matters of spelling.

S: For 90 years Konrad Duden and the editors of Duden did nothing but interpret the Set of Rules of 1901?

D: But, of course, much more, otherwise we could have played Scrabble every day. For some areas, e.g. punctuation and writing words together or separately there were no official rules in 1901. Konrad Duden did that later. The other rules were differentiated first by Konrad Duden then by the Duden editors in order to clear up cases of doubt. Furthermore, during the course of centuries we have always adopted new words, the original Duden contained 27,000. Today there are nearly 120,000.

S: We would like to know: Why couldn't the self-reliant, independently working Duden editors throw out ballast instead of waiting for 90 years for a reform agreed upon by others?

D: There I have to agree with you. Today I regret that we did not step in and eliminate nonsense like "in bezug auf" and "mit Bezug auf", radfahren and Auto fahren.

S: Instead you even tried to explain such nonsense scientifically.

D: Well, not really.

S: Radfahren is spelt in one word and not like Auto fahren in two words "because the image of activity prevails".

D: Because you step in the pedals while biking? Where did you find that?

S: Duden, 20th edition 1991 - that is the latest, Rule 207.

D: (looks it up) Well, yes, it also says, the noun has to be faded.

S: The Duden has been ridiculed for its fading nouns for a long time.

D: But I don't want to defend us. I was unaware of this rule. You see there is not only hurrying-ahead obedience but also hurrying-ahead forgetfulness. These differences should finally be abolished therefore Rad fahren like Auto fahren.

S: In the future there will be an independent committee at the Institute for German Language - also here in Mannheim - which will decide on all innovations. Will Duden then lose its official "order" of 1955 which you often like to mention? At that time the conference of ministers of culture declared "in cases of doubt the spellings and rules used in Duden are binding."

D: Nothing will change in our work, even if the ministers of culture withdraw the 1955 order.

S: The Institute for German Language wants the new committee to decide whether and how rules will be changed. Then the Duden editors only would have to put to reality the committee's decisions.

D: I can understand that some reformers think that way, but that is not the way it will happen. Duden is known for its speedy and up-to-date work. Every new word is in the next edition. We would have to wait much too long for the committee's decision, if it's ever made. I think it is superfluous.

S: When spelling now changes, will Duden change, too?

D: I don't see any reason for that. Lay-out, size, structure, hopefully even price, principally it will remain the same as successfully proven in the past.

S: Most frequently the Duden editors are accused of developing too many and too rigid rules. Famous is a sentence by Hermann Hesse, the Duden is "an authority where no appeal exists, a bogy and god of iron rules, a potentially complete standardization".

D: Hesse never worked with the Duden, but left that to his publisher's reader. Often Hesse was astonished and furious that the reader found so many errors in his manuscripts. Those who reproach us with exaggeration should compare the Duden with the proposal of the new Set of Rules. There is more extensive standardization at least partially than we have.

S: There are bad sections in the new Set of Rules, e.g. 12 special rules just for short vowels. But there are worse sections in Duden, 37 rules just for the comma. In the future there will be only 8.

D: Indeed the new comma rule is easily handled.

S: The Duden throws the tight net of its rules and spellings over all words and sentences. Couldn't you occasionally say, "This is optional"? It seems to us the idea to allow freedom is completely unfamiliar to the Duden editors.

D: Yes, it is unfamiliar and will have to stay that way. When the reformers are perplexed and disunited - a rather typical situation for them - and they cannot decide on one rule, there is always one who calls for liberalization. That is poison for spelling. We need clarity.

S: Couldn't you leave these examples unregulated: kall stelit or kalisteltt, kategorischer or Kategorischer lmperativ by Immanuel Kant, in the letter "Ich liebe Dich" or "Ich liebe dich", Multiple-choice-Verfahren or Multiplechioceverfahren? This freedom exists neither according to Duden nor according to the new Set of Rules.

D: It has to stay that way. It is a fad to complain about difficult spelling and Duden. But the more you liberalize spelling the more difficult will be reading. The reader expects the same spelling, not side-by-side and absolutely no mix-up. And what should the teacher do? Tell the students, write as you like it? Schools need clear, precise rules.

S: In your information pamphlet about spelling reform you write, "many young people are filled with fear of humiliation for the rest of their lives when writing". Are only the schools or also Duden to be blamed for that?

D: I will not blame Duden, on the contrary, it wants to make possible spelling without mistakes.

S: Some reformers consider it a threat when you announce that Duden is starting to convert the new Set of Rules into practice. How big is the danger that the aim of the reform to simplify and facilitate spelling might be undone by Duden's excessive standardization to the last word?

D: Such a danger doesn't exist at all. On the contrary, we will make it easier for everyone to convert to the new rules.

S: What happens to the rules, you do not simply accept them?

D: No, we sort out what is important in practice and incorporate it into the guidelines printed at the front of the Duden.

S: And some of it you throw into the wastebasket immediately?

D: The rules about sound/letter relations are so complicated and superfluous, we put them aside completely. The user of the Duden will learn about changes in this area in the dictionary, that is entirely sufficient.

S: You are critical of some parts of the reform. Will that affect the next Duden?

D: Not at all so, we do not omit what we don't like. We discussed the dual spelling of foreign words. In the dictionary it will say Rhythmus with a reference to the guidelines where the reader will learn that a Germanized spelling also exists.

S: So the word Rytmus will not appear in Duden?

D: Probably not, maybe as an example in the guidelines, in no case in the dictionary.

S: The public debate will resume when the proposal of the new Set of Rules will be published. Internally a critical mood is already developing. Especially educators are finally realizing what they are facing. Some experts are still submitting wishes, e.g. to keep daß and not introduce dass.

D: It's too late for that. The experts and the associations, by the way also teachers associations, have spoken. Their suggestions were either considered or rejected. Now it's too late. Out. Finished. Next time again in 30 or 60 or 90 years.

S: The ministers of culture have the last word. Mr. D., do you hope the ministers will bless the Set of Rules and not change one iota?

D: That is assumed by all those who are or were participating in this work. Especially we assume this because at the Vienna Conference in 1994 the delegates passed the resolution.

S: The officials' declarations are not binding on the ministers. In this case they have not yet looked into the matter but left that to their state secretaries.

D: Still, the decision by the conference of ministers of culture will be just a matter of form, I think.

S: The minister of culture of Hessen, Hartmut Holzapfel, looks at it differently. He questions some of the innovations which still must be discussed, "because they are derived from abstract logic of language but do not correspond to living linguistic usage". Why shouldn't the ministers be allowed to discuss such innovations and reject them?

D: Because then the danger exists of failure for the entire reform. Whatever might be changed, whether a detail or a whole section, the whole process would have to start from the beginning. We would have to negotiate anew with the Austrians and Swiss and all the experts would have to be united. I consider this next to impossible.

S: Mr. Drosdowski, we thank you for this interview.

[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J19, 1995/2, p26.]
[See Journal, Newsletter, Anthology, SPB articles, Personal View 10 and website by Valerie Yule.]


Valerie Yule, Monash University, Clayton, Vic. Australia.

Computer databases are likely to overlook research on spelling reform unless steps are taken, such as the provision of bibliographies. The electronic control of knowledge can be a threat to progress in spelling reform in two ways. Most unexpectedly, it can restrict access to information and research on spelling reform. Surprise. How is this, and what can be done about it?

The ERIC database, now almost universally available in Universities and colleges, contains 2794 entries on Spelling for the 16 years 1966-1981, and another 2057 for the 11 years 1981-92. This shows an increasing interest in spelling, at about 7% per year.

The next question for wonder is, why then, after all this research in English spelling, has there been no improvement in the system? Most of the ERIC entries on Spelling are concerned with learning and teaching the stuff, and with what is wrong with those who cannot spell, and how to cure them - whereas from 1982 to 1992, only 12 of the 2057 entries on Spelling are listed under "Spelling Reform".

Worse, this selection of 12 articles omits significant books and articles during that period. From the SSS Third International Conference on Spelling in Edinburgh, only Beech's research is included.

Nothing even of Venezky, or most of Downing's writings, or Rondthaler, or the bibliographies and other work compiled by the SSS, Upward's work, or Newell Tune's anthology on spelling reform or from his other publications. Sometimes directly relevant articles are listed under Spelling, but not under Spelling Reform.

When my article on the "Design of Spelling" was published in Harvard Educational Review in 1986, it included arguments that research in spelling improvement was both necessary and feasible, a review across many disciplines drawing attention to research already relevant, outlining what remained to be done, consideration of possibilities for the future and how they could be tested - a foundation for others to use in future work. But others will not find it. The article is listed under "Design of Spelling" - but only if you know of it already, to look there.

The abstract given is the first sentence from the HER editors' introduction. It omits the vital contents of the rest of their summary, "English spelling, ... not only makes the achievement of literacy generally difficult but results in the uneven distribution of power and opportunity. She proposes areas for research that could lead to creative and practical ways to resolve these difficulties." In the academic world, limits to omniscience of electronic bibliographies are increasingly not recognized, with the assumption that what is not there, under the appropriate heading, is not worth chasing up. It will not be cited, and will not be used.

It is essential that the SSS prepare complete updated bibliographies of research and evidence that are relevant to continuing work and progress in spelling reform, and that we do our best to insure that these bibliographies, with regular further updates, are not only published by SSS in say the Journal or in other professional and research journals, but also appear under the correct heading in electronic as well as paper data bases, e.g. ERIC, Modern Language Abstracts, Social Sciences Index, Language Abstracts, and Psychological Abstracts. With computers, what is put in is what others will get.

Ready Experiments.

One experiment badly needing to be done is to continue investigation into the effects of practice in reading in surplus-cut spellings (SC). Yule & McKay made a start at this in a project in which 92 average and poor readers read for an hour a day for three weeks, but circumstances prevented its adequat completion and pland followup. However the 46 texts, around 50,000 total words, are still availabl in both TO and SC forms, and on disk they can be purpos-adapted for a wide range of experiments.

Most of the texts are at around a nine-year reading level, with some up to easy versions of Shakespeare that retain the quotes. They include fiction, non-fiction, classics, verse, comic stories, adventure, romance, and international authors and settings. They can introduce readers who have read very little to a wide range of interesting and worth-while reading on many subjects. All texts were either purpos-written, out of copyright, or used for reserch purposes with the permission of the publishers. They include:

1. The Vikings. Their lives and history.
4. Spelling reform in ancient Egypt. Mark Twain.
7. Lisa and the tent. An old Persian Sufi story.
8. Round the world in 80 days. Jules Verne.
17. Shakespeare's Macbeth, summary, quotes.
19. How to learn spelling.
24. The eight ages of life. Erik Erikson.
27. A history of the world in three pages.
33. Parkinson's Law on How work expands.

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