August is traditionally a dead month for news. Government is on vacation. Lots of businesses slow down. And it’s too hot for political violence. Only heathen insurgents from warm countries actually stir in August. As the major journals turn increasingly to junior reporters and stringers while the A-team hits the beaches, the news grows ever more frivolous, and this summer’s big story in Germany is certainly silly enough.
Germany, as I have learned via Taccuino di traduzione, is implementing a spelling reform and it seems this reform is facing resistance.
Anglophone readers are probably somewhat unfamiliar with the concept of language reform, so let me introduce you to a few relevant elements of linguistics.
Languages change over time and they change in a number of different ways. Among linguists there remains a fair amount of division as to why, precisely, this happens, nor is there any clear way to quantify changes. New words can enter a language through social change, new technologies, fashions and media campaigns, but language change is more extensive than just the addition of a few new words for new gadgets from time to time. Morphology and syntax change too, as does pronunciation.
The generativist and nativist traditions tend to see language change as something motivated by incomplete acquisition of language rules by each new generation. Others look for sociological, and particularly demographic, reasons why languages change. Regardless of the disputes over the different causes of language change, no serious person thinks that language change doesn’t happen. Historical records are quite clear about this. Although a few people seem to have believed that this no longer happens in modern times – thanks to schools and media – there is no reason to think that language change has diminished and some clues that it might be speeding up.
Language change has certain inevitable consequences in a literate society. Written language, and formal languages that draw on older literary traditions, grow progressively harder to master. both for native speakers and second language learners.
In Europe, effectively all of the long established languages use either the Roman or Cyrillic alphabet. And each, at some time in the past, was spelled using rules that minimised ambiguity in transcribing speech into print to some degree. Some of them use or have used nearly unambiguous rules, but mostly they don’t. They diverge from the one sound = one letter rule for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it is a semi-political decision to the emphasise etymological roots of a language. Italian diverges from a truely phonetic writing system in ways that betray its Latin roots. Sometimes, it is because foreign words are written using foreign spellings that people are more familiar with. Sometimes – almost always in practice – a single written language will serve several dialects which make different sound distinctions and the written language will not be equally phonetic to all its users.
But, in the end, traditional writing systems always diverge from the spoken language they are intended to formalise. The failure to keep up with language change has very serious consequences. English and French speakers are rarely able to fully master spelling despite a huge investment of time at school learning to spell. Nowadays, they are generally incapable of correctly spelling their languages without electronic assistance. One of the more visible signs of education is the mastery of these excessively complicated spelling schemes. Because of the particularly obtuse spelling schemes of these two tongues, spelling has become a matter of social justice in the English and French speaking world, because poorer people with poor educations are less able to compensate for their poor mastery of these archaic systems. This phenomenon is even more acutely felt in China and Japan, where literacy is notoriously hard to acquire and writing skills even more difficult to learn without sizeable investments of time and money.
Most of the world’s languages are to some degree subject to state standardisation to ensure that the language is reasonably easy to spell. This state power has, in the main, had enormously positive effects by bringing literacy and the ability to express oneself in print into reach of vast numbers of people. English is somewhat unusual in allowing a private corporation – one which acts without any sort of public mandate – control over spelling standards. Thanks to the effectively universal use of a single word processing suite, English spelling is what Bill Gates says that it is.
The outcome is a hopelessly complicated spelling scheme which native speakers have difficulty learning in 12 years of school and second language users have virtually no hope of mastering. It remains one of the causes – and by no means the least important cause – of inequality of opportunity throughout the anglophone world.
And if English spelling is an example of market failure, then French spelling qualifies as an example of government failure. Weighed down by a near religious devotion to the intricacies and idiocies of French spelling and to the technocratic system of education which follows from the years spent learning its complexities, the Académie Française has traditionally been the second largest barrier to actually making French comprehensible, although in recent years it has begun to show much more substantial flexibility. The largest present-day barrier to language reform is the francophone public, motivated, as far as I can tell, by sheer linguistic ignorance.
This brings me to the German spelling reform, which shows that linguistic ignorance remains as widespread in Germany as elsewhere. This reform touches on a few minor inconsistencies in German spelling, to wit, the “ess-tset” (ß) will be replaced by a double “s” after short vowels, a few anomalous compounds will be spelled as separate words, derived words will generally retain the spellings of their roots, even when this results in tripple letters (Stemmmei?el with three “m”‘s instead of Stemmei?el with only two), and a few loan words will have more regularised forms. These reforms will make my job writing morphological analysis software for German somewhat easier, and will probably have some effect on easing the development of spellcheckers able to support the morphological creativity of Germans. Languages like German that allow writers to create new compound words have always posed problems for software engineers.
This is an insignificant reform when compared to the great Dutch reform of 1954 which abolished a grammatical gender and a declension, or the reform of Swedish and the whole-cloth invention of Norwegian in the 20th century, or the Russian spelling reform after the revolution, not to mention the all the languages that have changed their whole alphabets in order to raise literacy. Even the 1901 spelling reform that produced the current German spelling rules was far more radical than this.
And yet, to hear Germans talk about it, it’s a wholesale attack on the language fo Goethe. Here, for instance, I learn that the spelling reform makes German writing more “primitive”, that eliminating compounds means “some ideas can no longer be expressed in print anymore” and that the reform “suggests changes in pronunciation.”
Several major German newspapers (mostly conservative ones) have decided that they are not going to use the new spelling rules, and a number of German authors, including Günter Grass, are dead set against it. Much of the rest of the German media have accepted the rules without difficulty, and next year German schools are to use them exclusively.
Der Spiegel, one of newspapers that has decided not to follow the new rules, has printed its reasons on its website:
Die zu beiden Verlagen geh?renden Titel, die rund 60 Prozent der Bev?lkerung in Deutschland erreichen, werden ihre Schreibweise schnellstm?glich umstellen. SPIEGEL-Verlag und Axel Springer AG fordern andere Verlage auf, ebenfalls zur alten Rechtschreibung zur?ckzukehren und damit gemeinsam dem Beispiel der “Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung” zu folgen, die als einzige die Umstellung nach kurzer Zeit wieder r?ckg?ngig gemacht hatte. Ziel dieser Ma?nahme ist die Wiederherstellung einer einheitlichen deutschen Rechtschreibung.
Hintergrund der Initiative ist die mangelnde Akzeptanz und die zunehmende Verunsicherung bez?glich des vorgegebenen Regelwerks f?r die deutsche Schriftsprache. Nach f?nf Jahren praktischer Erprobung in den Druckmedien und sechs Jahren in den Schulen hat die Reform weder f?r professionell Schreibende noch f?r Sch?ler Erleichterung oder Vereinfachung gebracht. Im Gegenteil: Die Verunsicherung w?chst, Vermischungen von alter und neuer Rechtschreibung sind an der Tagesordnung. Wer vor der Reform sicher schreiben konnte, macht heute Fehler. Eltern benutzen eine andere Orthographie als Kinder. Lehrer sind zutiefst verunsichert.
SPIEGEL-Verlag and Axel Springer AG return to the classical spelling
The two publishing houses named in the title, whose publications reach roughly 60% of the German population, are to change their writing standards over as soon as possible. SPIEGEL-Verlag and Axel Springer AG are asking other publishing houses to likewise return to the old spelling rules and follow the example of the “Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung” which has made the transition back after only a very brief time [using the new rules]. The goal of this measure is the restablishment of a uniform German spelling.
Behind this initiative is the lack of acceptance and increasing uncertainty concerning the rules for German writing handed down [by the government.] After five years of practice in the print media and six years in the schools, the reform has not made students’ or professionals’ work easier or simpler. Quite the contrary: confusion grows and mixtures of old and new spellings are the order of the day. Those who wrote with confidence before will surely make mistakes now. Parents spell differently from their children. Teachers are confused.
To this, I can only respond, Oh please!
I don’t know what a “primitive” writing system is if not one that is unsystematic and ill-managed. The notion that any significant semantic distinction is being erased by this reform is ludicrous, and I can only think of one case in all of human history of a spelling reform directly affecting people’s pronunciation – and it involved an enormous nation of illiterate peasants just learning to read who didn’t understand that their language wasn’t perfectly phonetically spelled. Germany does not fit this category.
Is it really an enormous blow to the newspaper’s prestige if for a few years the odd mixed spelling article slips into print? It is not as if suddenly the mass of the German public will be unable to read correctly. Parents will not be certain what spelling advice to give their children. So what? Teachers are confused. Both my parents were school teachers, and I assure you that teachers are routinely confused over far more substantial issues than correct spelling.
Spiegel, and I imagine the rest of the refusenik press, is indulging in the single most common reason why spelling reforms are rejected: Old people don’t like them. Folks who learned the old way will whine and whine about how they changed the language and about how if the old way was good enough for them, it’s good enough for the next generation. It is precisely this sort of thinking that makes Chinese, Japanese, French and English such a mess.
Frankly. I think the odd spelling reform is good for any society that ties as much prestige to correct spelling as Der Spiegel seems to think Germans do. It disempowers the old and established and empowers the young and unestablished, even if only a little and only briefly. I wish the French would do it. I still have hope for them. It’ll never happen in the English speaking world, at least not in my lifetime.
As for the German reform, the major German newspapers don’t matter. There is only one person whose opinions count. Somewhere in the bowels of Microsoft is a middle level employee whose job title is something like “German localisation manager for Word.” Microsoft currently offers a choice of the two spelling dictionaries for Word, but he or she either will decide or has already decided which of the two is going to be the default setting. Once that has happened, the battle is over. And I’ll bet that whoever that person is, they’ve already decided that no one ever got fired for complying with the government spelling reform.