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