August 07, 2004

More on spelling unreform

Julia Hockenmaier emailed in response to my post on German spelling unreform. She corrected Deutsche Welle's mistranslation of Adolf Muschg, pointed to some remarks in the Stuttgarter Zeitung by Wolfgang Sternefeld, and added some comments of her own.

Here's her email, which I'll quote in full:

I just saw your post on the Language log about the German spelling reform; I also just found an article (based on a DPA newswire story) in which Wolfgang Sternefeld gives his opinion about it. The article that I found is at (there might be others).

Sternefeld says that he expects that the reform will essentially become moot, since a lot of the new rules don't make any sense from a linguistic point of view, so that people will not actually follow them in practice. He also says that those who are the least able to deal with the reform are school teachers, since they have "no competence in orthography". But he thinks that the students [who have been taught the new rules exclusively since at least '98] wouldn't find it hard to return to the old rules. [I think I might disagree with him there: I know some teachers who have said they found it very difficult to switch to the new spelling, but I'd imagine younger children would find it hard to get back to the old system, especially since all new children's books now published with the new spelling]

Sternefeld also says [rightly so] that the reform became a political issue early on that took its own course. He also says that hardly anybody listened to the linguists, so that some of them became frustrated and stopped participating in the debate.

His prognosis is that the reform will largely be retracted in practice and that only the reasonable rules are going to survive. He himself only adopted two of the new rules: to use "ss" instead of "ß" after short vowels and the hyphenation of "s-t" [I don't even know what rule that is], and he finds the new rules to spell certain kinds of compounds as separate words very confusing.

I haven't lived in Germany since 1999, and my German spelling and punctuation are now certainly much worse than they were before I wrote and read mostly in English; but I do remember that a lot of the new rules seemed very counterintuitive, and even wrong, when they were first introduced. As far as I can tell, a lot of people now spell whichever way they want. But this recent debate made me look back at the old spelling, and I was surprised to find that I have switched to the new spelling in many cases (just like I now find some British spellings a little unusual, after only 18 months in the US).

The new rules concern mostly difficult cases of capitalization, some compounds or prefixes, punctuation, and the spelling of some loan words to make them look more German. Apart from the spelling of individual words, most of these rules concern aspects of the language that do not exist in English (the capitalization rules), or are not very much reglemented (punctuation, certain compounds), so it probably doesn't make people cease to understand each other if they do not adhere to the new (or old) rules.

Some of the new rules really do not make much sense: certain compound rules create homographs that didn't exist before or create otherwise unintended ambiguities, some new spellings of foreign words make it hard to relate them to where they originated (which itself might not be too bad, but it now looks in some cases as if words with very different origins have similar roots). But other (like the ss rule) certainly make a lot of sense.

Whatever one thinks about government-ordered spelling rules, simply returning to the old rules is not going to improve anything. A linguistically well-informed discussion would certainly be much needed. Good spelling is still very much considered a hallmark of education (which probably explains why people reacted so emotionally to the issue), but probably for all the wrong reasons.  Also, in Germany "dyslexic" is still far too often used as an insult (to people who are anything but) without any understanding of the disability, and the people at der Spiegel should know better not to use it in the way they did.

Germany has changed a lot over the last 15 years (in increasingly painful ways for many) and people seem to be keen to hold on to whatever they can. Perhaps this whole debate should be seen in that light. (The Spiegel statement says also that they are "in favor of urgently needed and sensible reforms in our society", which they contrast with the spelling reforms).



PS: Muschg said "goiter" (Kropf), not "gout" --  "unnötig wie ein Kropf" just means completely unnecessary.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 7, 2004 12:56 PM