LINGUIST List 9.1517

Fri Oct 30 1998

Disc: German Spelling

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. John R. Rennison, Re: 9.1493, Disc: The Fight over German Spelling
  2. Ralf, Re: 9.1511, Disc: German Spelling Reform
  3. Natalia Neumann, 9.1504, Disc: German Spelling Reform
  4. Gerhard Leitner, German spelling reform

Message 1: Re: 9.1493, Disc: The Fight over German Spelling

Date: Thu, 29 Oct 1998 14:26:36 +0100
From: John R. Rennison <>
Subject: Re: 9.1493, Disc: The Fight over German Spelling

Alexis Manaster-Ramer, Martin Haspelmath and Gisbert Fanselow make
several interesting points, but given the international coverage of
the Linguist List and the claim of Linguistics to universality, much
of what they say is (forgive me -- I say it as a citizen of Austria,
where German is the official language) parochial.

Put pointedly: Not only were the people who "reformed" German
spelling not linguists; not a single linguistic criterion has
been used in the so-called reform.

If the international linguistic community wants to do something
sensible, then they should impress on the governments of countries
where German is spoken that they want to see linguistic criteria
used. Otherwise all of them will still have to go through the
pointless task of memorizing thousands of idiosyncratic spellings (as
I had to) if they ever want to learn the language. It has broken my
heart 4 times to see each of my daughters forced to suppress their
knowledge of pronunciation and pretend to be able to "hear" the
"silent h" in words. But that's what primary school teachers here

Some linguistic criteria that could be used are:

1. One-to-one correspondence between segments and graphemes. (It's
possible with the existing alphabet.) 

2. Compatibility with the spelling systems of other
(esp. neighbouring) languages.

And some pseudo-linguistic criteria that could be abandoned are:

1. Lexical morphemes should always be spelled the same way. (Untenable
for ablaut verbs anyway)

Finally, a more philosophical question:

Who is better equipped to reform the spelling of a language -- someone
who knows about linguistic structure and the pros and cons of the
spelling systems of several other languages, or someone who knows all
the idiosyncrasies of the present spelling of the language (and
perhaps its history)? Surely the first. So why is it only people of
the second type that are making all the decisions?

If we are to be blamed for this so-called reform, then NOW is the time
to stand up and say what we as linguists would recommend.

John Rennison

(Ao. Univ.-Prof. Dr.) John R. Rennison
Dept. of Linguistics, University of Vienna

Inst. f. Sprachwissenschaft e-mail:
Berggasse 11
A-1090 Wien Fax: +43 1 3155347
Austria / Europe Tel.: +43 1 3103886/32
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Message 2: Re: 9.1511, Disc: German Spelling Reform

Date: Thu, 29 Oct 1998 18:47:56 +0100
From: Ralf <>
Subject: Re: 9.1511, Disc: German Spelling Reform

Certainly, I would not follow "right-wing argumentations" for keeping
the German orthography as it was (since 1901). The 'hidden agenda' of
conservatives was made clear in what Haspelmath stated earlier in this
disc: social discrimination of those not knowing the rules.
Interregional understandability is certainly much less important than
this sociological function.

Thus, as for myself, an orthographic reform would be a factual
possibility. But let me play the advocatus diaboli here, stating:

- Interestingly, orthographic reforms are themselves very

I have heard that from now on exceptions such as "etwas anderes" may be
written "etwas Anderes", etc.. -- This is the posterior legalization of
what I find in many texts since I was made aware of the rule at school,
thus it is fine to find it now even in prescriptive grammar. _BUT_ there
is something else to mention here: These changes deal with the
EXCEPTIONS of a rule; and there is no discussion of the (ridiculous)
RULE itself, namely to write nouns with a capital letter at the
beginning (the argument for "better readability" being a claim, not a
fact): "Der Hund spielt mit dem Ball." -- This rule is a major
difficulty for L1 and L2 learners, and it has no plausible linguistic
background. The "Hauptwort" (noun) is not the "main" word of the
sentence, it is not "main" in any respect, and, additionally, there are
nouns which are less noun than other nouns, e.g. "anderes" in "etwas
anderes", or "bezug" in the phrase "in bezug auf" (which should perhaps
be written "inbezugauf"); or infinitives ("das Loben": *"Er ist ihn
Loben gegangen / lobengegangen" (?)); or single Demonstrative articles
(*"geht Der jetzt" (?)); etc.. It makes electronic processing of texts
more difficult, and it is not in line with the standards of ALL other
culturally proximate european languages using the same alphabet. [and it
was common among the Grimms, f.ex.]

Then, what I have understood from the media, the "ss" and "" (&szlig;)
should in future mark preceding vowel length. Although this quite
humourous rule of marking vowel length in the following consonants
already exists ("Kette" vs. "Grat" (what about "kete" / "graat"?)),
which means, there is some "orthographic-typological" motivation for
such a rule, it is still a very bad idea, because this will clearly
_discriminate_ southern German school kids who will not be able to grasp
the "logical" shortness of "a" in northern "standard" German "Spass",
since they correctly pronounce it [Spa:s] down there in the south. ----
And nobody seems to question the existence of the "German-only" symbol
// itself, which, historically, is the very last, still conserved
(conservative?) rest of the German writing system (and unused in Swiss
German!!!!). Needless to say that in unstressed "dass" or "da", the
decision will also be quite difficult (unstressed is short, but short is
not necessarily unstressed)... At least, with the old rules, its use
depended on syllable and word structure and was thus quite logical,
contrary to the dialectally variable vowel length notion.

Lastly, after what I have heard, incorporated nouns shall become
orthographically autonomous words again, such as: "bezugnehmen", which
shall become "Bezug nehmen". I personally find it very conservative to
express orthographically the result of a morphological reanalysis of
lexicalised material... Or, to avoid the orthographic expression of a
grammatical notion (incorporation, or polysynthesis) which is not
"traditional" from the point of view of latin-based grammar, and to
pretend an analytic formation. [And such nouns are transnumeral
(*"bezgenehmen"), etc. (*"denbezugnehmen"), thus they have not the
status of a "normal" noun (-- they are very clearly 'bound morphemes')
- or shall we say *"Ich esse Auf" (sic), in analogy to "Ich nehme
Bezug" and "Ich lese Zeitung"? If we proceed like that, then we should
avoid compounds altogether in orthography: *"Haus Meister" (And what
about *"Him Beere"?).

The same holds for the new "schnuzen" -- I never ever thought about the
fact that "schneuzen" comes from "Schnauz-"; what an anachronism to dig
up these etymologies! Reversing language history? [And: why is it
important for non-linguists to remember (some) etymologies?]

Thus, I would prefer orthography to be CONSEQUENTLY reformed by
linguists, driven by linguistic considerations instead of etymological,
historical, and sociopolitical ones, and I would prefer a REFORM instead
of the "let's allow a few more things which, btw, already
happen"-approach which is undertaken either as a conservative approach
by itself or as an anticipation of all possible illogical, conservative
oppositions to be expected. Under such circumstances, a reform is simply
not possible. And I would oppose to certain linguistically completely
'wrong' reformed or unreformed features in our orthography, e.g. capital
letters for (most) nouns, the (&szlig;) letter, the marking of
etymologies, the marking of (some of) the um- and ablauts (what for?),
the confusion about loan words (foto yes, filosofie no; why not ph?),
the earlier C>K reform ("Contor", "Consonant" etc.), the confusion about
vowel length (markers for long vowels: KaTer, SeE, ReH, niE, ...(SIC!)),

At least partly, the idea of having "less strict rules" has begun to
introduce itself into orthography. I agree with that, it's the best rule
of all possible rules. I, however, would extend this notion further
towards a new definition: "orthographic standards (PL) are conventions
more or less adopted by writers"... I mean, what about NOT asking an
institution whether one can write something or not? Usenet habits (4 U =
for you, etc.), "new words" (or semantics) in the youth culture, and so
on, usually enter the dictionary or the rule system (if ever) many many
many years after having been en vogue... so who cares for orthography?
Only (conservative) institutions deciding on the basis of the mastery of
orthographic (and other) rules whether a person can be considered --
'disciplined enough' (to have learned and accepted them), I suppose, in
order to become a member of their ingroup... And this is in constant
contradiction to -- life. So, IMHO, I am not entirely sure about the
necessity for a reform, but if confronted with the obvious "will" for a
reform, I would propose to make a REFORM and NOT THAT.

Finally, I would like to mention that the whole notion of "reform" as
such accepts that there is or should be a "standard", and I want to
remind the readers that a 150 years ago, orthography was more a personal
characteristics -- which is sometimes vital even today for philologists
when determining the authorship of manuscripts... At that time, I think,
there was simply not enough "problem consciousness"... The REAL
(sociolinguistic) problem lies "inside": nobody needs a standard, nobody
needs a reform. The real problem is just that in our culture orthography
is one of the features with which people are "measured", i.e.
discriminated. If we stop doing this, we need no longer get headaches
about a reform; orthography could well be a self-organizing system as in
the old times...

Ralf or Ralph or ralf or ralph

- ---------------------------------------------------------

Ralf Vollmann
Institute of Linguistics
University of Graz
Merangasse 70
A-8010 Graz

- --------------------------------------------------------


2. Es ist nicht richtig, da sich die Schreibung von 12.000 Wrtern
ndert. [...] Nur ein geringer Teil dieser Schreibungen ist von
nderungen betroffen. 
************* unfortunately; why then have so many troubles with
"reforming" anyway?

3. Es ist nicht richtig, da Fremdwrter in grerem Umfang
eingedeutscht werden. Eine Angleichung von th zu t soll z.B. nur in zwei
(!) Fllen zulssig sein. Die Schreibung f statt ph in den Wortstmmen
phon, phot und graph wird fr einige weitere Wrter erlaubt [...] Es war
zu keinem Zeitpunkt vorgesehen, Philosophie, Physik oder Chef
anzugleichen [...] 
************* unfortunately... instead of having RULES for the
orthography, we are having decisions over the spelling of single lexemes
or small lexeme groups... What's the advantage of such a reform, then?

4. Es ist nicht richtig, da nach den Korrekturen im Verlaufe des
bisherigen politischen Bewilligungsverfahrens der Neuregelungsvorschlag
nur noch ein "Skelett" darstelle. Vielmehr wurden lediglich 33
vernderte Einzelwortschreibungen zurckgenommen. Gegen das eigentliche
Regelwerk gab es keinen einzigen Einwand. 
************ the "don't hurt conservatives' feelings by being too
innovative" approach was successful -- securing the factual failure of
the reform...
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Message 3: 9.1504, Disc: German Spelling Reform

Date: Thu, 29 Oct 1998 17:33:11 +0000 (GMT)
From: Natalia Neumann <>
Subject: 9.1504, Disc: German Spelling Reform

Concerning Haspelmath/Fanselow:
I agree with Haspelmath that it is surprising there has not 
(yet) been a discussion of the German Spelling Reform issue 
on the list. Though I am sure there are linguists working 
on the topic, I know of at least one person, Sally Johnson. 
Especially as there is so much material available about the 
German spelling reform. It would be interesting to hear 
their view of it. 
I do not see however how linguists should have failed 
because they have not conducted a "broad public-relations 
offensive", as I understood it the role of the linguists in 
the spelling reform was one of experts giving advice.
For Fanselow I think the spelling reform does not only 
affect schools, via newspapers, books etc. it influences 
everyone who reads them as well.
"Nobody would have to care about it really" and ignoring 
the reform is not really a way out of the problematic. As 
the reactions show a lot of people cared and felt concerned 
by the proposed changes so the problem perhaps goes deeper 
than just saying "I will ignore the reform.". 
Natalia Neumann
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Message 4: German spelling reform

Date: Fri, 30 Oct 1998 07:30:52 +0100 (MET)
From: Gerhard Leitner <>
Subject: German spelling reform

Re: Gisbert Fanselow

I think Fanselow's contribution to the debate needs some comment. He writes
that only rightwing people argued vehemently against the reform.

Even a cursory observer of the discussions here cannot fail to notice that
the reform was opposed right across the political spectrum. Renowned
writers, particularly those who had preferences for the social democrats,
opposed it, Social Democratic governments, even the one in Schleswig
Holstein, and elsewhere opposed it. The latter only came round the bend when
it saw the disaster that would be, and now has been, created by opposing the

The reform itself is a different matter and it has been debated for at least
fifteen or so years in German-speaking countries. There are clear oddities,
such as writing "Schifffahrt" with three f's instead of two, etc. Learning
difficulty cannot be at issue here; it's clearly morphological identity and
the lack of a redundancy rule. Be that as it may, Fanselow's comments about
political affiliations is surely wrong.

Gerhard Leitner
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