Ger.: Writing rules, n. See also: farce.


In 1901, Duden (whose name graces THE German dictionary) introduced the first "Rechtschreibungreform" (reform of the writing rules) after Bismarckian unification. Perhaps I should point out that because of Germany's history which was largely characterized by many separate princedoms which really weren't brought together until the 19th Century, the language is highly diversified. There are many different dialects, almost to the point of one per city. (There are, of course, groupings of the dialects but in general the language is highly differentiated. I think I know 6 or more words for "bread roll", all of which are exclusively use in different areas.)

Dispite the differentiation, there has always (meaning since the time of Martin Luther) existed a Hochdeutsch ("proper German") (I'm refering to Neuhochdeutsch for you philologues out there. I'm only going to go so far back...). When Luther wrote his translation of the Bible, one of the first largely distributed printed texts, it became the measuring stick for the entire language.

Duden, then, wanted to update and improve what Luther had begun. As far as I can tell, his reform worked - all dictionaries contained his rules and they became standard. Since, then, there have been two other attempts (these are the 3 major and, as far as I know, only Rechtschreibungreforme that have taken place.)

One in the 70s with not all too much pomp and circumstance. And, the current reform of the 90s, this last one giving being the prime example of "farce".

In Mannheim there exists the Institut für Deutsche Sprache (Institute for the German Language) which researches the language and with the backing of the politicians began in the late 90s a reform.

In 1997, the laws (note: laws!) were carried through and the reform became first optional until August 1, 1998 when it became mandatory. School books were reprinted, the newspapers switched, all official documents were converted.

And, as of August 1, 2000, the major newspaper of Germany, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is returning to the old writing rules. Why?

Because it just didn't work. Polls show that maybe 10 or 20% of the people even attempted to follow the law. The rest were just annoyed that the newspapers now spelled in a very weird way.

The laws, however, are still in place though the public debate on the issue is returning. When the laws were first being discussed in the early 90s, there was a good deal of opposition, but it didn't matter much. The politicians did what they wanted to.

Maybe this time, they'll listen: language cannot be regulated.

The most recent German writing reform, or "Rechtschreibreform", has been constantly debated since before its imposition by law in 1998. The main reason, besides the fact that few people enjoy change, is that the changes seem arbitrary. One change considered was the spelling of compound words as one or two words. The following list demostrates the nonsensical, seemingly random alterations:

  • dünnmachen is still dünnmachen
  • bereitmachen is still bereitmachen
  • lockermachen is still lockermachen
  • schönmachen is still schönmachen
  • gutmachen is still gutmachen
  • daranmachen is still daranmachen

but...

  • breitmachen is now breit machen
  • darübermachen is now darüber machen
  • flüssigmachen is now flüssig machen
  • fertigmachen is now fertig machen
  • feinmachen is now fein machen
  • schlechtmachen is now schlecht machen

In this case, one set of verbs has a reflexive sense to them, while the other does not. At any rate, to a learner of German, that sense is difficult to detect. Also, Germans themselves still debate the changing of such compound verbs.

Another comical consideration by the German government for reform was that the Esszett (ß). The Esszett in German stands for 'ss' in a word. The reform laws changed the uniquely German Esszett to 'ss' in many words. Yes, you are permitted to laugh:

  • Imbißstand becomes Imbissstand
  • Delikateßsenf becomes Delikatesssenf
  • Freßsack becomes Fresssack

Even more laughably...

  • 'Schiff' ("ship") + 'Fahrt'("journey") = Schiffahrt is now Schifffahrt
  • 'Fluß' ("river") is now Fluss, so the good old 'Flußschiffahrt' is now Flussschifffahrt

The only consolation I've found for the atrocity of having two instances of triple letters in a single word is the possibility of clarity the reform opens up for pronunciation. Words like 'Fuß' and 'Fluss', formerly each written with Esszetts, had nothing to distinguish their pronunciations. The words have long and short vowels, respectively (the 'u' in 'Fuß' should be pronounced like the 'oo' in 'food', whereas the 'u' in 'Fluss' should be pronounced like the 'oo' in 'good'). With the alteration of 'Fluß' to 'Fluss', there now exists a difference between words of long and short vowels. The Esszett indicates the previous vowel as long, while a double 's' indicates the preceding vowel as short.

Overall, I find this pronunciation indicator quite a small consolation for such an absurd amount of added effort to an already overly technical language, beautiful nonetheless.

Citations:

http://www.rechtschreibreform.com/

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