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Review of  Spelling Trouble?

Reviewer: Geoffrey Sampson
Book Title: Spelling Trouble?
Book Author: Sally Johnson
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): German
Issue Number: 16.1737

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Date: Thu, 2 Jun 2005 20:57:00 +0100
From: Geoffrey Sampson
Subject: Spelling Trouble? Language, Ideology and the Reform of German

AUTHOR: Johnson, Sally
TITLE: Spelling Trouble?
SUBTITLE: Language, Ideology and the Reform of German Orthography
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2005

Geoffrey Sampson, Department of Informatics, Sussex University

In November 1995 the Standing Conference of the education and culture
ministers of the sixteen provinces (Länder) of the German Federal Republic
announced a set of reforms to the orthography of the German language. In
July 1996 the other German-speaking countries, having taken part in the
process from which the reform package emerged, agreed that they too would
adopt it. The announcement envisaged introduction of the new orthography
with the start of a new school year in August 1998, followed by a
transitional period during which the old orthography would be a tolerated
alternative; from 31 July 2005 the reformed usage alone would count as

This move proved hugely controversial. It led to dozens of court cases
brought by opponents of the reform; the cases often turned on fundamental
issues of the German Federal Constitution. In one province, Schleswig-
Holstein, the matter was taken to a referendum in 1998, after the schools
had already switched to teaching the new orthography; the reform was
defeated and Schleswig-Holstein schools were instructed to switch back to
the old norms from November 1998, but then (in a move whose constitutional
legality remains unclear) for the sake of consistency with other areas of
Germany, where the reform had gone ahead, the provincial government
overturned the referendum decision and required schools to switch for a
third time from November 1999. The German press adopted the reform from
August 1999; however, in August 2004 a number of influential newspapers
and magazines reverted to the traditional orthography. In June 2004 the
provincial presidents recommended modifications which tended to make the
new system less controversial.

Sally Johnson is Professor of Linguistics at Leeds University. Her book
describes this episode, its background, and its implications for our
understanding of the relationships between language, society, and
politics. The book is intended to be (and certainly is) accessible to
readers who lack knowledge of German.

After an introductory chapter, Johnson's second chapter discusses the
historical background to the reform. Following German unification in
1871, the perceived need to standardize variant written usages culminated
in acceptance of recommendations on spelling and punctuation drafted in
1901. These recommendations continued to define the orthographic norms of
the language throughout the twentieth century, though various interested
parties saw them as unsatisfactory; between 1901 and the 1990s the only
significant innovation was abandonment of Fraktur ("Gothic") script in
favour of roman, by order of Adolf Hitler in 1941. Within the
schoolteaching profession, there were worries from the late 1960s onwards
that the complexities of German orthography were hindering children's
education, and might be particularly disadvantaging working-class pupils.
A working party was set up in 1980, whose deliberations eventually led to
the reform package promulgated in 1995.

Chapter 3 outlines the specific nature of the changes. Some individual
words alter their spelling to reflect morphological relationships: for
instance "Bendel", 'shoelace', becomes "Bändel" (e and ä represent the
same sound in German) to show the relationship with "Band", 'ribbon',
while "Wächte", 'snow cornice', becomes "Wechte" because it is NOT related
to "Wacht", 'watch'. But many of the changes concern issues which are
subtler than the spellings of particular root words. Words no longer
modify their spelling within compounds, for instance, even if the result
is a sequence of three identical letters (e.g. "Flanelllappen", 'face
flannel', from "Flanell + Lappen" -- previously the three l's would have
been reduced to two). The traditional rule that nouns are capitalized is
extended to include cases such as (old spelling) "in bezug auf", 'in
regard to', where the noun status of "Bezug" was previously overshadowed
by the preposition status of the set phrase.

The declared aim of the reform is to reduce the number of exceptions to be
learned and to make German orthography more systematic. However, although
each individual change has a logical basis, some experts have argued that
the new orthography as a whole does not amount to a simplification, and
may even involve more to learn than the old orthography.

Chapter 4 examines the legal challenges that have been mounted against the
reform. These have repeatedly raised issues concerning relationships not
merely between individual German citizens and the State, but between
provinces and federation, and between executive, legislative, and
judiciary. Thus, Rolf Gröschner, a professor of law at Jena University,
together with his 14-year-old daughter Alena, challenged the reform before
the Federal Constitutional Court in 1996; he maintained (among other
objections) that the new orthography violated his constitutional right
to "the free development of his personality", because it infringed
his "linguistic integrity" and would force him to "out" himself as a
social conservative if he avoided using the new spellings, and also that
it violated his constitutional right to bring up his child, since Alena
would be taught spellings which conflicted with those he was used to;
Alena argued that her own right to free development of personality would
be violated by having to master spellings which interfered with those
already stored in her "mental lexicon". Such infringements could not be
authorized by ministerial decree, they contended, but only by legislation
(which had not occurred). This and other legal moves were not mere
quixotic, doomed gestures; the Gröschners lost their case on a
technicality, but for instance the Constitutional Court formally
acknowledged that the State had no a-priori authority to regulate
orthography even within schools or the civil service.

Chapter 5 analyses the ideological underpinnings of the struggle, drawing
out the different perspectives typically adopted by German academic
linguists, the judiciary, members of government at different levels,
writers (Günter Grass, later awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, was a
leading opponent of the reform), and other groups. Finally, chapter 6
suggests general lessons which the German orthographic-reform episode may
have for other societies concerning the "ownership" of language and the
nature of political, scientific, and pedagogical discourse more widely.

Sally Johnson's book is in most respects thorough and clear, and it will
be of considerable interest to linguists whether or not they specialize in
German language. For English-speakers, one surprising thing about the
episode she describes is that German orthography was already so regular
before 1995 that one might have imagined there was little scope for
improvement. Pronunciations were (and are) virtually always fully
predictable from spellings (except for some regional variations that no
orthography could reflect in a neutral fashion), and the ways in which
spellings are not always predictable from pronunciation are limited to a
relatively small range of alternatives, such as the choice of ä or e for
the same spoken vowel. Furthermore, although the reform package contains
numerous individual changes, many of them relate to rare words or phrases;
the overall effect of the changes on a typical passage of prose is not
large -- impressionistically it seems to be roughly on a par with the
differences between American and British orthographies for English. On a
family holiday in Saxony in April 2005, shortly before the end of the
transition period, I never once spotted a written form deviating from the
norms I learned in the pre-reform period. (The one change to a really
common word mentioned by Johnson is that the special German s-z symbol ß
is replaced by ss in the conjunction "dass", 'that' -- but then in
Switzerland, where much of my German was learned, the s-z symbol is not
used at all.) Why would a nation put itself through all the trouble which
Johnson documents, to achieve so little?

Part of the answer is that although the changes are in fact numerous, many
of them concern issues which, in English, are simply below the radar of
people who define and maintain usage norms. A number of the changes, for
instance, concern the points where it is permissible to use a hyphen to
break a word across lines. Previously, one could divide a word within
a "sp" or "sk" cluster but not within "st"; now, one is allowed to
write "Wes-te" (waistcoat) analogously to "Wes-pe" (wasp). (And the
pleasantly quaint rule whereby "ck" when broken across lines becomes "kk"
has been given up; "Zucker", 'sugar', is no longer broken as "Zuk-ker" but
as "Zu-cker".)

Admittedly, there are differences in this area even within the English-
speaking world. As a graduate student in the USA in the 1960s I was
surprised to find that American dictionaries often indicated where it was
appropriate to break words, and my American fellow-students expected to
use this information in drafting their own writing. (Nowadays,
presumably, they would no longer feel the need, because word-processing
software makes such decisions for the writer.) But in Britain to my
knowledge no dictionary has ever marked such things, and they have never
been taught in the school system. Common sense suggests that it might be
unwise to split, say, "raging" into "rag-ing", because "rag" suggests a
different pronunciation; and such matters may well be systematically
codified by publishing houses for their internal purposes. But the most
pedantic schoolteacher would never have docked marks from a pupil's work
for poor word-breaks; we have no public rules saying what breaks
are "correct" or "wrong". In Germany, apparently, mistakes of this order
can contribute to a child being made to repeat a year at school.

The German for repeating a year's schooling used to be "sitzenbleiben" (to
stay sitting), and is now written "sitzen bleiben". One of the most
controversial areas within the reform package concerns changes to rules
about which compounds are to be written solid and which as separate
words. Again, in Britain the equivalent issue is not perceived as a
matter of "correct/incorrect". We have norms for which compounds are
written solid, which are hyphenated, and which written as separate words,
but the norms function without being made explicit. That creates
difficulties for foreigners; now that, within the EU, we are accustomed to
reading authoritative documents which have been drafted in English but
with no native-speaker input, I find that one of the commonest hallmarks
of Euro-English is compounds written solid that ought not to be. But for
native speakers it works. I feel confident that no experienced native
writer of English would write, say, "towncentre" as one word, though I do
not know why: logically and phonetically it seems as much a unit as,
say, "loudspeaker" (which would look strange written as "loud-speaker"
or "loud speaker"). I do not know whether we tacitly follow some general
rules, or learn how to write compounds case by case, and if a schoolchild
wrote "towncentre", the teacher's response would be along the lines "We
usually write that as two words" rather than "Mistake, lose a mark". In
German there are complex explicit rules, and the rules have changed in
ways which many Germans find objectionable.

Johnson tells us that some (at least) of the concerned parties were aware
that a more laissez-faire attitude to such minutiae is possible; they
called it "der englische Weg". If the motive for the reform was to
alleviate the difficulties encountered by schoolchildren, one might feel
that "the English way" had something to be said for it. (No-one in the
21st century, after all, could claim with a straight face that the modest
degree of orthographic anarchy found in English renders a language
unsuitable for use by a developed modern society.) But although this kind
of liberalization of orthography was advocated in one 1997 book by
Elisabeth and Johann Leiss, it appears that on the whole such a solution
was not considered seriously.

Johnson's book might be faulted in two respects. It is perhaps a pity
that she focuses so exclusively on developments within the Federal
Republic. The political culture of Switzerland, in particular, contrasts
so strongly with that of Germany that it might have been instructive to
read about Swiss attitudes to the reform. And Johnson's later chapters,
on the social and political lessons of the episode, draw on a recently-
emerged vocabulary of social analysis which I find obscure. I question
whether terms like "ideological brokers", or "strategic
recontextualization", say things which cannot be said in plainer language
that any reader could understand.

But there is not too much of that kind of obscurity; one can work round
the sporadic passages where it occurs. In general, Sally Johnson has done
an excellent job of documenting a fascinating passage of linguistic
history. Many linguists will profit by reading her book.


Geoffrey Sampson is a corpus linguist, and an advocate of the idea that
human language is a cultural development rather than an "instinct"; his
recent books include "The 'Language Instinct' Debate", and (with Diana
McCarthy) "Corpus Linguistics". Apart from linguistics, he also teaches
and researches e-business.

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