The new German

10th August 2004, Comments 0 comments

Germany might be in the middle of a major drive to reform its welfare state and labour market but, as Jean-Baptiste Piggin reports, feelings have also been running high about new set of spelling rules.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrat-led government has thrown its weight behind a reform that has been nearly 25 years in the making: the launch of more consistent rules for spelling in German.

Bureaucrats and schoolchildren are supposed to adopt the new spelling next year

Government bureaucrats and schoolchildren are supposed to adopt the new spelling next year, ending a transition period that began in 1998. But major news publishers, who fell in line with the changes five years ago, have decided to revert to the old spelling.

Schroeder's Social Democrat-Green Party government rejected their revolt. "The government is not giving any consideration to reversing the spelling reform," said the Chancellor's spokesman Hans-Hermann Langguth in Berlin. The chancellor had already made plain that he thought the backward step was wrong.

Only a few dozen of the commoner words needed to be re-spelt under the reform, which was first proposed by academics in 1980, watered down in tri-nation political meetings and introduced to schools six years ago.

But critics say the "simpler" rules are difficult to learn. A group of 70 German, Austrian and Swiss law professors have appealed for a referendum in the three nations on the changes.

Doris Ahnen, who chairs the council of German education ministers, rejected the appeal. She said most Germans had other more pressing issues on their minds, and the reform would proceed.

*quote1*The changes, modelled on spelling reforms in 1903 that were also energetically resisted, are not binding for ordinary citizens, but news media practice is seen as crucial in making them widely accepted.

Austria and Switzerland were caught off guard by an announcement this month by Germany's Springer group as well as the news magazine Der Spiegel and the national daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung that they would revert to spellings used for most of the 20th century.

Springer, whose stable includes the leading dailies Bild and Die Welt, is Germany's biggest news publisher. Industry observers estimate that about half of Germany's newspapers by circulation now follow the 1903-1998 style that most of today's adults learned in school.

In the other countries where German is spoken, the reformed spelling has remained in use in the bulk of the press.

Feelings have run high about change ever since the 16 German states agreed in 1995 to simplified spelling rules for schools and officials writing on government stationery. Critics contended the new spelling was not more logical, but less logical.

Literary greats such as Nobel Literature laureate Guenter Grass insisted on being published in the old spelling. One opponent vainly sought an injunction against the changes in Germany's highest court, and voters in one state, Schleswig-Holstein, rejected the changes.

*quote2*After criticism, many of the early alterations were abandoned, or were made optional to accommodate traditionalists.

That in turn led to an outcry against the lack of strictness.

Springer and Spiegel said they rejected the reform because Germans had not learned the new spellings: "Someone who spelled well before makes mistakes today. Parents spell differently from their children."

Many critics have been appalled that the changes prise apart some long German words into two separate words. Others dislike the fact that extra consonants must no longer be pruned when two words like "stress" and "situation" are merged like this: "stresssituation".

Karl Blueml, chairman of the international commission on German spelling, which oversees the reform, said he was surprised Germans were so excited about the issue: "There has been criticism in Switzerland and Austria too, but it has been moderate in tone."

"There have been no fundamental changes in spelling. We only tried to eliminate some of the exceptions to the rules," he said.

Austrian and Swiss media coverage of the crisis has been bemused.

The Baseler Zeitung wrote Monday in an editorial that opposition was being led by a group of elderly literary authors.

"Their success derives from an unholy alliance between musty hatred of reform and diffuse suspicion of the state.

"It suggests that most German-speaking intellectuals can think of nothing to say about more burning contemporary issues like Third World poverty, the crisis of the welfare state or the ethical problems behind medical progress."

August 2004

[Copyright Expatica 2004]

Subject: German news, spelling reform

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