[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J21, 1997-1 pp22-24,36]
[Chris Upward: see Journals, Newsletters, Leaflets, Media, Pamflet 15, Book, Papers.]

Spelling Reform in German.

edited by Chris Upward.

JSSS has over the past decade regularly reported on the progress of proposals for spelling reform in German (see under German in Journal topics). We receive documentation from the Institut für deutsche Sprache (IdS) in Mannheim, which is the co-ordinating centre of the reform. We now present a selective translation-cum-summary-cum-discussion of the July 1996 special edition of the IdS Sprachreport (produced by Dr Klaus Heller), which bears the simple title 'Rechtschreibreform' ('Spelling Reform') and, of course, itself uses the new spellings.


On 1 July 1996, in Vienna, political representatives of the German-speaking countries finally issued a joint statement on the 're-regulation' (Neuregelung) of German spelling, so concluding long years of preparation and negotiation. The outcome is a reform that updates and simplifies written German in the interests of both writers and readers. However, to minimize disruption to the traditional appearance of the language it has also had to accept numerous compromises. For the future, the Mannheim Institut für deutsche Sprache is to host a permanent Interstate Commission whose task will be to oversee and co-ordinate the further development of spelling in the German-speaking countries.

The Context.

The function of orthography.
Both spoken and written language require rules to ensure smooth communication. It is in everyone's interest that they be observed. The rules for writing are stricter than those for speech, because writing has a more permanent function, and are therefore especially important. As a result, people are sometimes wrongly judged more by the accuracy of their spelling than by the logic or style of what they write.

Why reform German spelling?
The previous official spelling system dates from 1901-1902, and was designed to provide a standard for teaching in German-speaking schools everywhere. Simplicity was not its primary aim, and numerous complications have arisen since. Further reforms to make the orthography simpler and more systematic in keeping with today's needs were long overdue.

'Official' spelling.
The new spelling will, like the old, be obligatory for schools and public bodies. It will also be recommended for all those, such as printers, publishers and editors, who wish to use generally accepted forms, as well as for private use.

What principles underlie the reform?
The main aim of the reform is to simplify by removing exceptions. The rules thereby become more widely applicable and more systematic, and the orthography easier to learn and use. At the same time, the general appearance of the written language will be unaffected, so ensuring that old texts are still readable.

How was the reform planned?
The proposals are the product of years of scholarly collaboration between working parties in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and were first published in book form in 1992. After an extended period of consultation and sometimes vociferous public debate, revisions were introduced to take account of reactions from government, the publishing industry, and the general public.

The official documentation.
This contains the revised rules and some 12,000 examples of all the root forms of standard modern everyday German, including all the new spellings.

The changeover.
Schools may begin teaching the new spellings from the school year 1996-97, and are required to do so from 1998. The old spellings will be considered 'out-of-date', but not stigmatized as 'wrong' until 2005.

No particular costs are foreseen. Only literacy textbooks will need to be specially reprinted. Other books will be respelt as old stocks are exhausted. The same applies to official forms.

The future.
The new spellings should be considered as a long-term standard, as frequent change causes uncertainty. Nevertheless, some amendments will undoubtedly be needed to take account of changing circumstances, or to delete obsolete forms (such as alternative spellings) from the official wordlist. But whereas in the past such changes have often been made without proper co-ordination, in future they will be determined by the Interstate Commission on Orthography, to be based in Mannheim at the Institut für deutsche Sprache.

The reform at a glance.

1. Sound-symbol correspondences

Switching Ä-E.
Certain roots spelt with Ä or E hitherto had derivatives spelt anomalously with homophonous E or Ä. So the former verbleuen 'to beat black and blue' will now be spelt verbläuen, as from blau 'blue'. In other cases alternatives will be allowed, thus aufwendig 'expensive', hitherto considered to derive from aufwenden 'provide finance', will now also be allowed as aufwändig, as derived from Aufwand 'expenditure'.

Consonant doubling after short vowels.
This will occur where related words already show doubling. Thus, numerieren 'to number' becomes nummerieren to align with eine Nummer 'a number'.

Regularizing SS.
In German/Austrian (but not Swiss) usage, SS was written ß except between vowels when the preceding vowel was short. This caused variation of roots: thus küssen 'to kiss' with SS became ein Kuß 'a kiss', er küßt 'he kisses' with ß. Now SS will never be written ß after short vowels, and SS will persist through küssen/Kuss/küsst. The very common word daß 'that' becomes dass. After long vowels, ß remains, thereby reliably showing the length of the preceding vowel.

Consonants tripled in compounds.
Hitherto, when a word ending in a double consonant was prefixed to a word beginning with the same letter, the three consonants were often (but not always) reduced to two; thus Schiff + Fahrt 'ship + voyage' combined as Schiffahrt 'shipping' (yet Schifffracht 'ship freight' always had FFF). This reduction now no longer occurs, and Schifffahrt in future has FFF. Applied with the ß>SS regularization, this will turn Fluß + Sand 'river sand' from Flußsand to Flusssand.

Simplified consonants doubled.
Similarly, where in compounds identical consecutive consonants were simplified, as in Roheit 'rawness' from roh + heit, they will now stay doubled, giving Rohheit. The same principle will allow selbst 'self' + ständig 'standing', whose present form selbständig 'autonomous' is often misspelt with STST, alternatively so to be written: selbstständig.

Miscellaneous regularizations.
Since rauh 'rough' and Känguruh 'kangaroo' rhyme with blau, Gnu without H, the forms rau, Känguru will be standard in future. Adjectives ending in -TIELL may be optionally aligned with related nouns ending in -Z; thus differentiell may align with Differenz to give differenziell, and likewise substantiell may be written with Z as substanziell, like Substanz.

Foreign loanwords.
Foreign loans pose a dilemma: should they adapt to German spelling rules or not? In practice, most recent loanwords keep their original foreign spellings in German, only some common ones adapting.

Where patterns of adaptation already operate, they may now be extended. Thus F may already replace PH in Fotografie, so justifying Geografie, Orthografie by analogy; but there is no such model for changing Philosophie. Other Greco-Latin consonant digraphs with silent H, such as RH, TH (pronounced /t/ in German), may similarly be reduced to R, T in selected cases, thus Katarrh will be allowed as Katarr and Panther as Panter. Silent H may disappear elsewhere too: Joghurt, Spaghetti may become Jogurt, Spagetti.

French loanwords may also be affected, so façade, militaire (long respelt Fassade, Militär) justify germanizing Necessaire as Nessessär. French comité 'committee' and liqueur have long been written Komitee, Likör, so Kommuniqué (already respelt with initial K) will be allowed as Kommunikee.

The list given in the Sprachreport includes one English loanword: Ketchup germanized as Ketschup.

2. Metaorthographical features.

Word division creates uncertainty in many languages. German generally dislikes hyphens, preferring (sometimes multiple) solid compounds. However, anomalies arose over the years, as when Auto fahren 'to drive a car' contrasted with the compound radfahren 'to ride a bicycle'. The latter will now be written Rad fahren. Conversely, to remove the present discrepancy between divided irgend etwas 'something or other' and solid irgendwann 'some time or other', the compound irgendetwas becomes the norm. Aversion to hyphens will also affect English loanwords: Hair-Stylist, Job-sharing, Midlife-Crisis, Sex-Appeal, Shopping-center will in future need no hyphen - and the second element will be decapitalized (Sexappeal, etc).

German nouns are traditionally written with capital letters, but the difficulty of deciding which words are nouns leads to error and inconsistency. Many past reform proposals therefore demanded an end to capitalization. Today's reformers encountered insuperable political opposition to such a radical change to the appearance of written German. Nevertheless, some anomalies have been resolved. The synonymous expressions in bezug auf/mit Bezug auf 'with regard to' will both capitalize Bezug, and former auf deutsch 'in German' becomes auf Deutsch.

Punctuation, particularly the use of commas, has long been subject to strict rules, which depend very often on a quite subtle analysis of sentence structures. These rules will now be somewhat relaxed, especially before the words und 'and', oder 'or', where commas are to be left to the writer's discretion.

Strict, sometimes arbitrary rules have traditionally governed the splitting of words at line-ends. Thus the string ST was debarred from splitting - but not SK or SP; thus Weste 'waistcoat' could only be split as We-ste, not as Wes-te. Another peculiarity was that, if CK was split, it became K-K, with Zucker 'sugar' becoming Zuk-ker. By contrast foreign loanwords could be subject to different splitting rules. The reform allows general simplification on all such points


German-English comparisons.
It is noteworthy that German should have wished to reform its spelling, when it already had rules which. enabled learners and users to spell the spoken word and pronounce the written word correctly most of the time. The superiority even of unreformed German over English in this regard was recently highlighted by Wimmer & Goswami [1], who showed how much less well English primary school children read than their German counterparts, and by Upward [2] who showed how much more prone British university students were to misspelling English than German. Nonetheless, some of the rules for spelling German were needlessly complex and even inconsistent, and the overriding aim of the present reform is to improve the user-friendliness of the writing system.

Helping learners and users.
Non-native-speaking learners of German as well as German learners themselves (not to mention their teachers) will at once recognize and welcome some of the main targets for regularization. The old rules for distinguishing SS/ß, for capitalization, and for placing the comma were all notoriously error-prone. From now on SS will always appear after a short vowel and ß after a long vowel; some perplexing anomalies of capitalization will be resolved; and the use of the comma will be left far more to the writer's discretion, rather as in English. In all these cases the chief criterion for reform has been to assist learners and users generally in exercising their literacy skills.

New spellings.
Whether all the respelt forms will prove helpful is less clear. Some dozen words change E to Ä as in verbleuen > verbläuen), much as if speak/speech were to be aligned in English as speak/speach or speek/speech. But whereas speak/speech are high frequency words in English, the German examples are less common (indeed the common Eltern 'parents' from älter 'older' is excluded from this change for that very reason), and one reaction to such respellings has been "Why bother?" The IdS documentation makes no reference to error-analysis, and one wonders how far these changes may be motivated more by a desire to tidy up marginal discrepancies than to resolve a real problem of usage. Might not such changes actually aggravate the (for German) rare ambiguity of sound values between E and Ä? Is it not as though in English one had to spell the plural of man as män (cf German Mann/Männer) instead of aligning it phonetically with its rhyme ten? Might spellings with E be in any sense 'easier' than with Ä? It would be interesting to have some statistics on the use of E versus Ä in German.

Other reformed spellings, by contrast, remove obvious anomalies of sound-symbol correspondence, as when the redundant final H is cut from rauh, Känguruh. Of particular relevance to English is the respelling of T pronounced /ts/ by analogy with cognate words using unambiguous Z. Thus the final Z of the noun Substanz (and others like it) may replace the present T in the adjective substantiell, giving substanziell. English has a parallel anomaly between substance/substantial, as highlighted by comparison with finance/financial, face/facial, space/spacious (despite spatial), and would gain by substituting C for T to give substancial, spacial (cf special), etc. German might in fact replace T by Z in some other contexts too, thus *Posizion for Position; but there are currently no examples of -ZION (Italian posizione is too foreign) to provide a model. (English would have the model of suspicion - beside Spanish posición - to justify reviving 16th century posicion). It is in general a feature of this reform of German that truly innovative spellings are eschewed.

Alternative spellings.
While many of the new spellings will be mandatory, others are offered as permissible alternatives, so creating a kind of uncertainty familiar in English (eg, we have a choice between yoghourt, yoghurt, yogurt), but largely absent from German. Thus substantiell will still be allowed beside the new substanziell. Other alternatives are seen in Geografie/Geographie, Spagetti/Spaghetti, Ketschup/Ketchup, Katarr/Katarrh, Panter/Panther, Portmonee/Portemonnaie 'purse'. The IdS documentation does not state whether these alternatives represent compromises with opponents of reform and/or whether they are intended as a temporary expedient; nor is it apparent whether school textbooks are recommended to choose one or other of the alternatives in preference.

The criterion of economy is not mentioned in the documentation. It is noticeable that a good number of the new spellings save letters, as when GH, PH, RH, QU are reduced to just G, F, R. K, the French ending -AIRE is shortened to -ÄR, and, most strikingly, the French spelling Portemonnaie loses three letters to become Portmonee. Sometimes no savings arise (as when Ä or Z replace E or T), but in a majority of examples listed the new spelling involves extra letters (eg, SS for ß or C, or single consonants doubled and doubled consonants tripled), or extra spaces, or hyphens, or capitalization. Such lengthening not merely reduces the immediate transparency of word-structures, but uses more paper and takes more time to compose.

Consonant-doubling for shortness or stress?
In both English and German doubled consonants often follow a short vowel that is also stressed. Thus in English the doubled L in holly serves to distinguish the preceding short O from the long O of holy, and in German the FF distinguishes the short O of hoffe 'hope' from the long O of Hofe 'court'. In English these doubled consonants may, especially before suffixes, also reflect a preceding stressed vowel; thus the stressed I in omitted before TT contrasts with the unstressed I before single T in vomited, though both are short. Similarly in German, the LL of formell 'formal' with second syllable stress, contrasts with Formel 'formula' with first syllable stress. (English of course is quite inconsistent in both these uses of doubled consonants - compare vowel length in holiday with holly/holy and the stress pattern of compelled with British travelled.)

Some of the German reforms bring the above functions happily together: thus former Karamel (culinary term) carries third syllable stress like its cognate Karamelle (the sweet/candy), and respelling as Karamell therefore satisfies all criteria (except that of economy). In other cases, the new spelling does not match the stress pattern so easily; thus former numerieren 'to number' and plazieren 'to place' are respelt with MM, TZ to match their cognates Nummer, Platz, although -IER- carries the main stress in both verbs. Other cases look even less comfortable: when Paket (already Germanized from French paquet) is respelt Packet by analogy with Pack, English readers will find the second-syllable stress contrasts confusingly with the first syllable stress in English packet. Most awkward, one might think, is the respelling of Zigarette, Zigarillo (third syllable stress) with RR (Zigarrette, etc) to match Zigarre 'cigar' (2nd syllable stress). Here the criteria seem stacked against the change: RR is less economical, conflicts with the stress pattern, and misaligns German with English, French and Italian (though Spanish has RR in Cigarrillo, to show the strong trill). One is reminded of Ed Rondthaler's wise dictum that a word should be spelt as it is itself pronounced, not as cognate words are pronounced. Zigarrette with RR does not at first sight look like an improvement.

Lessons for English.
Though the debates that preceded the reform appeared to last for ever, and public consultation led to some dilution, now that agreement has been reached, implementation is proceeding briskly. New dictionaries have appeared, parents are hastening to buy new schoolbooks for their children, bookshops are distributing information sheets, and a belated objection from traditionalists attracted ridicule. Unlike the half-hearted attempt to reform French spelling in 1990, the German reform is becoming an inescapable reality. This demonstration that reform can be efficiently implemented may be the chief lesson for English.

Yet behind the reform lies a long-term perspective. It is recognized that not every spelling problem in German has been solved, and there are voices urging further reform, such as the Swiss BVR [3] calling for the decapitalization of nouns, and, brilliant but less serious, the writer Zé do Rock [4], on whom we hope to report in a future JSSS. Most importantly, machinery to advance the cause of spelling modernization more smoothly in future has been set up in Mannheim in the form of an international Commission for Spelling Questions. English should be following its work closely.


[1] Wimmer, H. & Goswami, U. (1994) The influence of orthographic consistency on reading development: word recognition in English and German children. Cognition, 51, pp91-103.

[2] Upward, C. (1992) Is traditionl english spelng mor dificlt than jermn? Journal of Research in Reading, 15(2), pp82-94.

[3] Bund für vereinfachte rechtschreibung 'Federation for Simplified Spelling', with which the SSS has contact.

[4] do Rock, Z. (1995) fom winde ferfeelt Berlin: Edition diá. See Member Books.

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