Dieter Zimmer reports on how trivial changes to German spelling rules are causing uproar among the literatiby Dieter Zimmer / December 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Reading an unknown Spanish word, you know immediately how to pronounce it. Every letter corresponds to a particular sound. But with a new English word you are in a much more awkward position-the problem is summed up by GB Shaw in his remark that fish could be spelt ghoti: gh as in laugh, o as in women, ti as in motion. German lies somewhere in between. Its correspondence of letters and sounds is not as unpredictable as English, nor as consistent as Spanish. There is however no consistency even in inconsistency. We therefore have an orthographic problem.
The great writers of the 18th and 19th centuries did not. They had no qualms about spelling the same word this way in one paragraph, that way in the next. It was only when the public education system spread throughout the German-speaking countries that this beautiful chaos was no longer acceptable. Effective communication in a heterogeneous mass society demands standardised spelling. As a consequence, school orthography was born, first in Prussia in 1880, followed by Bavaria, and then the whole Reich in 1901.
The pioneers of Germanic philology in the 19th century had dreamt of a uniform orthography, but they envisaged it with an inner logic. Some wanted a word’s spelling to reflect its etymology. Others advocated a clear correspondence of letter and sound. Almost all wanted to get rid of the baroque grandeur of capitalised nouns. The first orthographic conference, which met in 1876, discussed these and other ideas, but a storm of public protest protected the status quo. It has been obvious since then that German orthography would only be reformed with difficulty. Our orthography is full of inconsistencies; people do not love it, but they are fond of it, and they view any change as an attack on their innermost souls.
Just recently, it has happened again. This summer, after decades of toil, the ministers of culture, education and church affairs of the German states (and their counterparts from other German-speaking countries) replaced the old regulations of 1901 with a new standardised orthography. The innovations are so modest that the whole exercise hardly deserves the name of reform. The most visible change is that the idiosyncratic German ? (unknown in Switzerland) will now only occur after long vowel sounds: Ku? (kiss) will hence be Kuss, but Gru? (greeting) will remain Gru?. In a handful of words, a single letter…