[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J22, 1997-2 p24]
[On this page: Swiss German, Hebrew.]
[See other articles about German spelling, including those by Gerhard Augst.]

Update on the German Spelling Reform.

Gerhard Augst reports

JSSS J21 1997/1 (pp22-24 & 36) reported on the reform of German spelling currently in progress. Our editorial adviser, Professor Dr Gerhard Augst, now describes some of the latest developments. We congratulate him on his installation in March this year as Chairman of the new Mannheim-based permanent Commission for German Spelling with its twelve government-appointed members, six from Germany, three from Austria and three from Switzerland.

There continues to be considerable opposition to the reform. Following the publication of the revised dictionaries (published by Duden and by Bertelsmann), this takes two main forms:

1. While politicians and lawyers are demanding that the 16 German provincial ('Land') parliaments and the Federal Parliament should enact the reform as law, a campaign is being mounted to demand referendums on it in Bavaria, Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein. In the Federal Parliament, an all-party group of 48 MPs is calling for Parliament to reject the new spellings. Individual parents are appealing to the Administrative Courts for the reformed spellings not to be used in schools until the legal position is clarified.

2. The above legal proceedings are based on the assertion that the new spellings are worse than the old ones. Every one of the new spellings has provoked objection from someone or other. Amongst the critics are numerous writers and even some linguists, such as Professor Theodor Ickler (Erlangen University), who has been acting as linguistic advisor to many of the objectors, including the above-mentioned campaigners.

The 'Spelling Commission' (to advise on the future development of German spelling) was set up shortly before Easter. Its first task will be to consider discrepancies in dictionaries and decide, for instance, whether or not the new rules require that wiedersehen 'see again' (as in auf Wiedersehen 'goodbye') should rather be split as wieder sehen.

[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 22, 1997-2 p24]

Notes from Switzerland.

Edited by Chris Upward.

We here report items of interest from Rechtschreibung, newsletter of the Swiss BVR (Bund für vereinfachte rechtschreibung 'Federation for Simplified Spelling'), which campaigns for German nouns to be decapitalized.

Following the spelling reform agreed in 1996 by Austria, Germany and Switzerland for implementation in 1998-2005 (for details, see JSSS J21 1997/1 pp22-24 & 36, with update above), it is noted that the Duden dictionary listing the new forms is a bestseller in the bookshops, and that some newspapers and periodicals have already adopted the new forms.

The Swiss are well-known in German-speaking Europe for not using the letter Eszet, 'ß', (called Schleifen-S 'looped S' in Switzerland) which German uses everywhere else - they prefer international ss instead. BVR-committee-member Dr Arthur Baur decided to research the history of this mark of Swiss orthographic individuality, and discovered it had its origin in the Swiss typewriter. Switzerland is quadrilingual, having French, Italian and Romansch as official languages beside German, which is the mother tongue of the majority. Swiss typewriters therefore require a special keyboard to cope with French diacritics (acute, circumflex and grave accents, plus the cedilla and dieresis) as well as German Ä, Ö, Ü, and there was consequently no room for the German 'looped S' on the keyboard.

In 1938 the education committee for the canton Zürich applied this alphabetic amputation to the schoolroom. The abandonment in 1933 of the old German 'gothic' script known as Fraktur had whetted appetites for change, and the 'looped S' had already been lost from texts produced by typewriter. Conservative warnings that children would miss the experience of 'logical thinking' entailed by the 'looped S' (though its rules were notoriously illogical) were outvoted, and the committee resolved to instruct all teachers henceforth to write ss in place of ß. This earth-shattering initiative attracted little comment at the time, but before long the other German-speaking cantons were following Zürich's lead.

The 1990 reform of French spelling (see JSSS J15 1993/2 pp3-5) is currently being implemented in Switzerland. Details of the changes have been issued to all teachers in the French-speaking western cantons of Switzerland, though many of the simplified spellings are optional. The new forms have found a place in the major dictionaries, but the storm of protest originally provoked by the reform has blocked official implementation in France. This has, however, not prevented a certain merriment in the French-speaking Swiss press at the inhibitions manifested in Germany at some of the new German spellings.

[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J22 1997/2 p25]

Hebrew is not exactly a language for speed readers.

Robert Alberg.

We are grateful to SSS member Sarita Cohen of Tel Aviv for alerting us to this article, which first appeared in the Jerusalem Post (19 June 1986, p7), and is now reprinted by permission of the author.

Do you feel you cannot read Hebrew as well as you'd like to? Well don't worry because the truth is that nobody can read Hebrew as well as he ought. As well as English readers can read English, for instance.

Linguists have defined effective reading as rapid reading. If you have to read slowly, by the time you get to the end of one section of text you may have forgotten what was at the beginning.

Ever since Hebrew first became an everyday language 100 years ago, people have complained that they cannot read it as well as they would like. Most native Hebrew readers do not complain nowadays because they are not proficient in another language and therefore cannot make the comparison.

The main shortcoming that has bothered so many readers is that Hebrew is printed without most of the 'dots' that indicate vowels. We have added a few more letters here and there to try to overcome this - more yuds and vavs - but this has helped only slightly.

Some radical proposals have been broached. In 1962 members of the Hebrew Language Academy proposed creating two new letters to represent the sounds of the vowels A and E. This was not accepted: it changed the whole look of the Hebrew page, and it made it difficult to recognize the roots of the word.

One man produced a Hebrew paper using Latin type, but few people wanted to read it. Hebrew is an extremely 'consonantal' language, and the introduction of many vowel letters makes it hard to recognize the root words.

The solution that most students of the problem have agreed upon is to print just a few vowel points - the minimum necessary to indicate the required vowel sounds. But until recently this has been difficult, because setting type with vowel points has been cumbersome. But now new computers have made this feasible.

Together with several other researchers, I have been working on this problem. We have worked out a system of minimal vowel-pointing, which we intend to propose to the Hebrew Language Academy.

About one word in three can be read in two or more ways. Of course, one can decipher the correct reading by referring to the context, but this is the main drawback. The necessity of examining carefully the other words before or after a doubtful word is what slows up our reading considerably.

Linguists measure the reading of words or phrases in the hundredths of seconds. In English our eyes glide speedily over words or phrases because their pronunciation is definite.

Many Hebrew words can be read in seven ways, with seven different meanings. MSPR can be read as mispar, msaper, mi-sefer, mi-sapar, mi-sfar, masper, mi-sper.

There are three other reasons why reading Hebrew is slower than other languages. Firstly, prepositions are printed as the first letter of a word: b, l, m, etc. Bmai can be read as b mai 'in May' or as bamai 'a stage director'. We propose a simple reform: to print these prepositions as separate words.

Secondly, Hebrew lacks capital letters. In English our eyes often search out the words with capital letters because names are of particular interest, or we are searching for a specific name. Or alternatively we wish to skip over all the names or jump to the next sentence. Fortunately our computers can now enable us to print capitals in Hebrew.

Finally, many Hebrew letters resemble each other, and the eye must examine each one carefully and slowly.

In English there are some letters which are 'ascenders' (above the line) while others are 'descenders'. In reading, our eyes always rest on the tops of the letters, and in English the great variety of shapes of the letters is enough to tell us what the letters are. But in Hebrew our eyes must examine both the top and the bottom of each letter, and this is a slower process.

Books which discuss this problem often demonstrate the difference by showing two sentences cut horizontally in the middle. The English sentence can be read easily by seeing only the top half, while in the Hebrew sentence this is very difficult.

We are working on a style of Hebrew type which can reduce this problem. Again, as in many other fields, the computer is making our life easier.

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