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If Germans can reform...

2005.02.21 — Culture | Language | Spelling | by Roland Grant

German spelling

German spelling. [AP]

The German-speaking people of the world embarked on a bold experiment in 1996 that ends in August of this year, successfully or not. The government of Germany and several other German-speaking nations put together a language council to look into reforming German spelling and fixing some of its more irritating aspects. A variety of changes were discussed, including ending the practice of capitalizing all nouns (rejected), but the end results are fairly conservative... and fairly disliked.

German does not have the same kinds of problems that English does, for the most part. Germans like a nice, tidy—and strict—set of rules governing things like comma use and hyphenation. Speakers of English can't agree on whether to put punctuation inside or outside of quotation marks, let alone formulate a coherent set of dozens of rules for using commas.

The changes made to German starting in 1996 include comma use and hyphenation as well as what we usually think of as spelling, but even then they revolve around peculiarly German things like the use of ss instead of es-zet (ß) and the treatment of compound words, which German is so fond of. Mechanically, it's not much of a model for reforming English spelling, but its accomplishment is.

Some counties, like Switzerland and Austria, more or less accepted the changes and have implemented them fully. Germans themselves, however, or more skeptical, perhaps owing to a less committed (or less popular) government. Some major publications have reverted to the old ways (spelling, that is, not fascism).

A number of nations have implemented their own spelling simplification in the last hundred years or so (Germany did it before in 1902)—even the famously conservative Académie Française—all with mixed success (or, in the case of French, no success). It was tried in United States with the guidance of Teddy Roosevelt and the Chicago Tribune, but few of the rather haphazard changes stuck.

When the changes seem sensible to the public and genuinely simplify spelling and language acquisition, they tend to be quite successful. When they merely try to make things more logical and seem to fail, people tend to reject them (Germans notoriously hate the new rule that can create triple letters in compound words, such as Stemmmeißel). That's why I think that English spelling reform can work in spite of America's famous lack of interest in improving things that don't work very well (like voting and the measurement system).


Look for part 2: "...So can Americans."


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