[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J23, 1998-1, pp20-23]
[See articles on German, and articles by Gerhard Augst.]

Answering the Critics of German Spelling Reform
Rechtschreibreform - eine Antwort an die Kritiker

Gerhard Augst & Burkhard Schaeder.

Christopher Upward here summarizes (see Editorial for comments) a recent pamphlet replying to criticisms made of the current German spelling reform: Gerhard Augst & Burkhard Schaeder Rechtschreibreform - eine Antwort an die Kritiker 'Spelling Reform - an answer to the critics', Stuttgart: Ernst Klett Verlag, 1997, ISBN 3-12-320690-4, 49pp. Professor Augst (University of Siegen) is an editorial adviser to JSSS.


Konrad Duden's Orthographic Dictionary of 1902, stated that the aim of the spelling reform that had just been introduced was to provide a uniform standard for written German everywhere (replacing separate conventions for Prussia, Bavaria, etc). It was emphatically not intended that the new spellings should remain unchanged for all time.

Today's reform, which was agreed in July 1996, had been in preparation since 1974, so it was surprising that fresh opposition to it should arise in September 1996 and generate so much controversy in the press. The aim of the present pamphlet was to respond to substantive objections. Polemical attacks would be ignored.


The pamphlet is structured as follows:
  I. General Arguments for and against the reform.
  1. Reasons for reform.
2. Writing versus reading.
3. The reform as compromise.
4. The new 'Spelling Commission'.
5. How dictionaries will apply the new rules.
6. Writers and the new spelling.
  II. Specific aspects of German spelling
 1. General remarks.
2. Preserving base-word forms.
3. Word division.
4. Capitalization.
5. Punctuation.
6. Line-end hyphenation.
 III. Concluding remarks followed by Bibliography.

I. General arguments for & against reform.

I/1. Reasons for reform.
Duden had always said that the rules for spelling must be simple enough for everyone to master. Back in 1872 he had written, "Writing is not just for scholars, but for the masses, who demand no less than that it be easy to handle correctly." However, after 1902 the publishing industry asked him to provide a more sophisticated set of rules for its own guidance. In 1915 these far more complex 'publishing' rules effectively superseded the simpler 'school' version, and in the 1950s the West German Ministers of Education confirmed the resulting 'Duden' orthography, with all its complexities, as the standard.

What is needed is a set of clear rules with as few exceptions (let alone exceptions to exceptions) as possible. Orthography in the modern age should be a workaday tool, like speech, and not involve fancy elaborations. But unlike speech, spelling requires unambiguous rules, which must be laid down by the state.

I/2. Writing versus reading.
The needs of both readers and writers must be considered, not of writers alone. The rule for capitalizing German nouns was designed to help readers, despite the problems it causes writers. Yet historically some distinctions designed to help the reader proved unnecessary; thus the 18th century distinguished seyn 'to be' from sein 'his', though 20th century readers happily accept the form sein for both meanings. So today we must ask of every spelling distinction: do the benefits for readers outweigh the difficulties entailed for writers? We must further remember the psychology of fluent reading, which depends less on subtle differences of spelling than on a broader understanding of the context.

I/3. The reform as compromise.
Many critics complain that the reform was imposed without warning or consultation. Yet discussions have been in train for over 20 years (indeed in Austria and Switzerland since the 1950s), proposals were in the public domain in 1988, and most details of the reform were agreed and published in 1992. In 1993 reactions were invited from dozens of interested organizations in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and there was intensive consultation involving German-speakers elsewhere too. Over 2,000,000 copies of the outline proposals were published, and education officials and government representatives of all the relevant countries participated in the decision-making at every critical stage from 1986 onward. The reform represents a compromise between different interests, and no one can expect it to incorporate all their personal preferences or theories. (The pamphlet then lists 30 steps - meetings, conferences, publications, discussions, etc, etc - taken from 1974 to 1996 in the preparation of the reform.)

I/4. The new 'Spelling Commission'.
The new Commission, based in Mannheim, takes over the role of German spelling authority tacitly played by the Duden Spelling Dictionaries from the beginning of the 20th century. Initially the Commission will consist of members of the bodies that prepared the present reform, to which they will put the finishing touches. In due course the Commission will turn its attention to the future development of German spelling and will acquire new members, including linguists and specialists in literacy teaching.

I/5. How dictionaries apply the new rules.
Two dictionaries, Duden and Berthelsmann, have immediately incorporated the new spellings, but critics have estimated that the new editions contain 10,000 inconsistencies. These are, however, inevitable, being partly a matter of time (Duden himself took until 1910 to apply the 1902 rules in full) and partly due to varying treatment of alternative spellings allowed by the reform. But the critics have also discovered some unresolved problems, such as whether S/spinnefeind 'bitterly hostile to each other' should be capitalized, as Spinne 'spider' is a noun, though the whole compound is an adjective. It will be the Commission's task to resolve such matters. Other worries concern the uncertainty of competing dictionaries replacing Duden as the sole authority, and the lack (so far) of a comprehensive word list.

I/6. Writers and the new spelling.
Writers are especially vociferous among opponents of the reform - as they always were in the past. It seems they have a stronger attachment than most people to the spellings they use in their work. A more general concern is that the coexistence of school texts printed before and after the reform will produce 'chaos'. But everyone will face reformed and unreformed reading matter over the next 20 years, we know that pupils will not be confused, and they will learn that spellings do not stay unchanged for ever. The literary classics, present no problem either: new editions of works from past centuries have often been silently respelt, though specialist editions, or writers with a particular orthographic point to make, can always be printed using whatever spelling is desired. Small spelling changes of the kind proposed by the reform do not of course affect the meaning of the works in question (the pamphlet demonstrates this with three differently spelt versions of a poem by Goethe, one from 1814, one from 1972, and one in the new orthography).

II. Specific aspects of German spelling.

II/1. General.
The German writing system uses an adapted form of the Roman alphabet, and its rules tell us a lot about the meaning and structure of text as well as how words are pronounced. It is not purely phonetic.

II/2. Preserving base-word forms.
The reform changes none of the traditional sound-symbol correspondences of German - in fact, a 1988 proposal that AI be regularized to EI was rejected as unacceptable (eg, Kaiser not changed to *Keiser). But some individual spellings are changed to align derived words more closely with their base forms. This too has aroused controversy.

• SS or ß?
This feature of written German was notoriously troublesome. The rules for choosing between SS and ß (eg, Fluß/Flüsse 'river/rivers', but Fuß/Füße 'foot/ feet') were too complicated for many users (not least foreign learners). The reform introduces a simple rule "SS after a short vowel, ß after a long vowel or diphthong" (so now Fluss/Flüsse, but Fuß/Füße), thus taking the pronunciation as a guide, and not varying the spelling of a base word depending on what inflection it may have. Some critics found this change excessive, but others wanted it go farther and follow Swiss practice by abolishing ß altogether. This more radical solution was rejected for the sake of historical continuity (ie, backwards compatibility). The commonest word affected is daß 'that' (conjunction) which now becomes dass. In 1992 it was proposed this word be merged with its homophone das 'that' (pronoun), but this failed to gain approval.

• Related words.
The basic rule should be that words perceived to be related should spell common syllables alike, thus behende 'nifty' is respelt behände because it is perceived to derive from Hand. Some critics disputed this derivation and objected to the change for that reason. However, it has been generally accepted since the 19th century that etymology should not override transparent sound-symbol correspondence in deciding how words are spelt in German. Other changes based on the same principle include belemmert>belämmert, plazieren> platzieren, numerieren>nummerieren.

• Triple letters.
Compound words in German occasionally place a word ending in a double letter before another word beginning with the same letter. Prior to the reform, a set of 10 rules was needed to decide that the three repeated letters should sometimes be reduced to two, and sometimes not. Henceforth three will always be written, thus former Schiffahrt 'shipping' from Schiff + Fahrt now becomes Schifffahrt. Critics find this 'ugly', but the pamphlet justifies the tripling by the principle of consistent base-word spelling. Critics may be reassured that tripled letters are relatively rare anyway, and hyphenation is allowed as an alternative (Schiff-Fahrt) for writers whose visual sense is offended.

• Foreign words.
Every language faces a dilemma as to whether to naturalize the spelling of foreign words: use the foreign spelling, and the word may be indecipherable to readers ignorant of the source-language; but naturalize the spelling, and foreign learners may be perplexed and international spelling patterns are undermined. At different times in the past German has been more, or less, inclined to naturalize. The forms Accent, Boomerang, Bureau, Carrousel, Elephant, Shawl, Strike, Typhoon (as in English and sometimes French) were normal in the 19th century, but are today written Akzent, Bumerang, Büro, Karussell, Elefant, Schal, Streik, Taifun. The present reform has been cautious on this point, merely suggesting some current trends be taken further. Thus, because the forms Fotograf, Telefon are already current, it is recommended that other words containing the strings GRAPH, PHON, PHOT be allowed spelt with F too.

II/3. Word division.
Nearly a quarter of the pamphlet is devoted to this topic. The question of what constitutes a word, ie, how words should be juxtaposed - with a space between, or else a hyphen, or by actual joining together - inevitably produces uncertainty. German has a tradition of joining words together as solid compounds, but there have been many inconsistencies and complications in practice. Critics have gleefully pounced on inconsistencies in the reform proposals in this area, but many involve rare words, and in practice 'mistakes' are rarely obtrusive. Many arise by false analogy, as when two parallel idioms have traditionally been written one as a single word, the other as separate words; yet with other idioms alternative spellings as one or two words have always been tolerated.

Even among the critics of reform, few disagree that the traditional rules and practice were far more complicated than necessary. The experts accept there can be no straightforward, watertight rule covering every possible instance. The best that can be done is to provide general guidelines with key examples, and then list all common occurrences in the dictionary. Despite the predilection for forming solid compounds in German, both past recommendations and the present reform urge "If in doubt, split words up". This principle does not seriously disturb readers but it helps writers. It also implies rules are needed more to decide when to join words together than when to split them.

The pamphlet goes on to define various common patterns of compounding (eg, with prefixes) which will remain unchanged. For other patterns that have always caused uncertainty, writing as separate words is henceforth to be considered the default procedure. This means that certain expressions previously written solid will in future be split (eg, gefangennehmen 'to take prisoner' to be written gefangen nehmen). In general, if the expression can ever be split, it should always be so (thus, the above expression was always split in a structure such as ich nehme ihn gefangen 'I take him prisoner'). Elsewhere, splitting will be optional. The famous anomaly of split Auto fahren 'to drive a car' beside solid radfahren 'to ride a bicycle' will be resolved, giving Auto fahren, Rad fahren. Many critics of this aspect of the reform revealed an erratic grasp of the old rules on this point.

The pamphlet reprints an announcement made by the weekly newspaper Die Woche in December 1996, that after some debate it was going to implement the reform forthwith: it had concluded that in practice the reform made less difference to the familiar appearance of written German than some critics had alleged.

II/4. Capitalization.
The uniquely German practice of capitalizing the initial letters of nouns has long been controversial. Most Germans observe most of the rules most of the time, but learners and adults who lack practice in writing often flounder. Difficulties arise above all with the 5% of words in non-sentence-initial position whose noun-status may be ambiguous. The pamphlet illustrates the dilemma with a leaflet from the Federal German Railways in which some nominalized adjectives are wrongly capitalized. The reform clarifies some doubtful cases by further capitalization of potential nouns and decapitalization of some fixed expressions. The critics of these changes again frequently revealed in their arguments their own shaky grasp of the old conventions.

II/5. Punctuation.
Error analysis has shown that the former complex but rigid syntactical rules for use of the comma in German were subject to frequent misapplication. The reform tries gently to shift the criteria away from syntax and toward clarity of expression: the comma should not serve primarily to point up clauses and phrases as constituents of sentence structures, but to guide the reader toward correct understanding. Previously rigid rules will now be somewhat relaxed and greater discretion allowed to the writer.

II/6. Line-end hyphenation.
German has traditionally had rigid and complex rules for determining where hyphens may be inserted when a word is too long to fit at the end of a line. These rules were originally designed for printers in the days of letterpress, but have been imposed on schoolchildren (ie, everyone) through most of the 20th century. Yet most people do not need rigid rules, other than that di- and tri-graphs (eg, CH, SCH) should not be split. A complication has traditionally been that one set of hyphenation rules (based on syllables) applied to native German words, and another set (based on original morphemes) applied to learned foreign words. The reform introduces a single, syllable-based rule for all words, regardless of origin. Critics have opposed this, believing for instance that 'everyone' recognizes SYN- in synonym 'synonymous' as a prefix that should not be split. The reform rejects any implied distinction between 'learned' words and the rest, and recommends a free choice of syllabic hyphenation as sy-nonym or etymological hyphenation as syn-onym.

III. Conclusion.

Whereas the above represents a summary of the first 47 pages of the pamphlet, we here translate its one-page conclusion in full.

To be accepted as legitimate, political decisions have to be made via agreed procedures, and contro-versies have to be settled by compromise. The two are interdependent. Once a compromise has been sanctioned by the approved procedures, then for it to be effectively implemented we must be confident that the terms of the compromise will not be reneged upon.

The procedures through which the spelling reform has passed were long and difficult, lasting, on the political level, from 1988 to 1996. The compromises were often painful, indeed the intervention by Mr Zehetmair (Bavarian Minister of Education) triggered a final battle in 1995. Once the Conference of Education Ministers had made its decision and the 'Declaration of Intent' was published in Vienna, the procedures were effectively complete, and there was now a basis for a whole series of concrete decisions. The populations of the German-speaking countries accepted that the spelling reform was going to happen; governments, publishers, schools, computer firms and many millions of citizens drew the practical consequences, confident that those decisions were binding and could be depended on.

Everything we do both in our private lives and in the public and political arena is based on expectations of dependability. For this reason, the scope for changing the decisions already made must be kept to a minimum.

We acknowledge that skilled writers in particular will find it (more) difficult to adapt the spellings they have learnt and mastered. This will be so especially when in certain cases the reasoning behind the old rules - for example visual distinctions that illuminated difficult points for the learner - itself no longer applies. That is the reason why many accomplished writers in particular feel uncomfortable with the new spellings and rules, and even find them repugnant. But aesthetic discomfort is not by itself sufficient reason for making changes now that the reform has passed through such a long process of preparation. For instance, there was disagreement to the very end over whether a single vowel should be allowed to be hyphened off from the rest of a word. But the decision has now been taken. People who don't like it can easily avoid separating vowels off in this way; but so as not to cast doubt on the dependability of the whole reform process, such people should at least be tolerant enough to 'suffer in silence' when others apply this hyphenation rule.

Another aspect of this dependability is that people should abide by the compromises that have been reached. If everyone who had been involved in the reform were to use the present debates as an excuse to bring up again all their old arguments which had previously been outvoted, no reform would ever get off the ground.

As for other critics of the reform, our experience enables us to say that criticizing the old orthography is comparatively easy, and that the real challenge is to draw up a completely new set of rules. We have travelled a long way from pure linguistic theory to a proposal capable of gaining general support, including that of the politicians!

If, for all that, the new rules produce occasional spellings which future work on the dictionary shows to be untenable, then they should be changed, though as discreetly as possible, so as not to call the overall dependability of the reform into question. We have indicated a few instances of this in Section II above.

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