Sprach und Sommertheater – German spelling reform and linguistic ignorance

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:

SPIEGEL-Verlag und Axel Springer AG kehren zur klassischen Rechtschreibung zur?ck

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.

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Political issues by Scott Martens. Bookmark the permalink.

About Scott Martens

Scott is a US-raised Canadian living in Brussels with his American wife. His political background is well to the left of centre, even for Europe, and is very interested in immigration, cultural integration and language policy issues. He is presently working against a deadline on his doctorate in computational linguistics and is on hiatus. Wrote Pedantry, also on hiatus.

43 thoughts on “Sprach und Sommertheater – German spelling reform and linguistic ignorance

  1. 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.

    Except that this minion surely doesn’t have a completely free hand. He/she will be getting feedback from Microsoft’s German subsidiary as to what German customers want, and if the company senses a general backlash against the spelling reform it will go with the flow.

  2. You may be right, but I suspect that it’s far easier for Microsoft to offer a choice, set the default to the government’s standard and say that if you don’t like the government’s standard, you’re free to change it. That way, Microsoft can simply declaim any responsibility.

    One of the reasons that state language management is able to work is because few of the entities that actually promulgate changes are interested in taking a stand on any language management issue. Microsoft doesn’t want to have to make these decisions. They want someone to tell them what to do. Then, they can blame someone else when the public doesn’t like it.

    Trust me, the default setting in Word will be enough to tip the balance. There would have to be a genuinely massive rebellion to force Microsoft to take a stand and I don’t see that in the works. By the time school starts again, this issue will be drowned in more immediate concerns. Some papers may use the old spellings for a while while others use the new. Unless the government actually retreats, like the French government did last time, the deed is done.

    There are real issues in who should manage a language and what principles ought to be used in managing it. But the fundamental notion of whether this sort of management ought to take place is not a real issue. English is proof of what can go wrong when you don’t do this sort of thing regularly. It doesn’t take much more than an authoritative sounding voice to make these kinds of changes happen. Barring radical change, all you really need is an official label and the willpower to put up with ignorance.

  3. Hi Scott,

    actually the Dutch spelling reforms of 1954 and 1996 were also an example of government failure. (Btw, they didn’t abolish a grammatical gender; if you look at a dictionary, you still see there are words that are only masculine or feminine, but a lot a words can be both nowadays – the utrum – which actually means they are masculine in the North and feminine in the South.) The 1954 spelling reform even created three orthographies: the official one (voorkeurspelling), the progressive one (which substituted c [k] -> k, qu -> kw, s [z] -> z, th -> t in all not obvious foreign words) and an archaic (but still allowed) spellign (keeping forms like vacantie [vakantie] and aether [ether]). Actually the official spelling was an inconsistent choice between the archaic and the progressive spellings (‘conflict’, ‘kwantiteit’, but ‘oktober’, ‘insekt’, ‘produkt’ en ‘quantum’). The 1996 reform abolished the archaic and progressive spellings and “corrected” a few ‘inconsistenties’ in the spelling of loan words. It also created other rules for spelling the schwa sound -e(n)- in compounds. It doesn’t seem a big linguistics success. The spelling commission actually proposed a much more phonetic spelling than the progressive one (‘sitroen’ for ‘citroen’, ‘sistematies’ for ‘systematisch’) and even wanted to get rid of the ‘principle of analogy’ that rules Dutch spellings since the first official orthographies of the 1860s. They were demolished in the Dutch-speaking press and the government chose the easiest solution: (mostly) keep the inconsistent official spelling. I think there are different reasons to prefer an etymological or a phonetic spelling, but one should be consistent.

    As for the German spelling reform, the German-speaking (computational) linguists I know, actually favour a lot of the new rules (the not getting rid of the 3 similar consonants, the new punctuation rules; about the ? they are actually indifferent), but they don’t like ‘Rad fahren’ at all. They think the commission should have gone further and abolish the initial capital for nouns. Introducing two allowed spellings, like ‘Fotografie’ and ‘Photographie’ is certainly not a good idea. One should consistently have to write ‘f’ or ‘ph’ in all Greek-derived words.

  4. I have an online acquaintance who opposes the reform on the grounds that it’s not radical enough to make spelling any simpler.

  5. Peter, as far as I can tell a great many Dutch speakers seem to make a novel and anomalous gender distinction: Abstractions are feminine and everything else is masculine. Grammatical masculine and feminine are not used consistently in modern Dutch, but they were used in consistently before the reform too. As for the s/c inconsistencies, I’m inclined to prefer a liberal reform that doesn’t worry too much about small issues of etymological spelling, tolerating both the familiar etymology and allowing a more phonetic interpretation.

    David, I might well agree that the German reform doesn’t go far enough to be helpful, although this Stammrecht business certainly makes my life easier. The most substantial spelling failures in German are with regard to frequently used foriegn words. This is often a problem in languages that use the Latin alphabet. On this one issue, I think the Japanese have the right approach: they use a different syllabary for borrowed words that are not expected to fit Japanese perfectly.

  6. Hi Scott,

    This German spelling reform applies to Austria and Switzerland too (except that Switzerland doesn’t use the sz character at all), so it is not a German national thing.
    It has been around for a few years now.
    One paper dropped it after a year. Others use a mixture.
    As Peter says, not all the elements of the reform are uniformly criticized, but Rad fahren as opposed to radfahren is – not a question of cutting down on compound nouns, by any means, just making the rules more uniform for some portmanteau verbs, but in a rather stupid way. Another peculiarity is both germanizing foreign words (Spagetti is now allowed alongside Spaghetti) and returning to the roots of German ones (aufwendig is still allowed, but aufw?ndig is too, reflecting the relation to Aufwand). Aufw?ndig is probably what was meant by ‘primitive’, but you must have got your other two criticisms – about pronunciation and impossibility of expressing some ideas from the lunatic fringe.

  7. This is something I’ve been wondering about lately WRT English — what’s up with “ough” and “augh”? They are present in many commmon words and are pronounced in a number of different ways, generally the “gh” is either pronounced as “f” or is silent. At some time these words were pronounced phonetically — my question for you is, How long ago? and, What did they sound like? Sort of like a gutteral “ch” in German but voiced? This seems to me like the single most widespread confusing spelling pattern in English. Well OK, silent “e” is more widespread and perhaps it is as confusing, I’m not sure.

  8. I’ve never been accused of being a hidebound German grammarian, but did anyone else find it ironic that Martens referred to the German news magazine as Die Spiegel not once but twice?

  9. Scott, you left out that other great example of this genre, metric reform in the US. That went nowhere, thanks to standard human stupidity, and so, apart from everyday time wasting we have NASA missions to Mars going wrong.

    As for China, well the PRC did at least try to introduce simplified characters after the revolution, and they succeeded in that the characters at least look simpler. I’d like to hear the opinion of someone who knows something of Chinese as to whether the system is actually any easier to learn than what persists in Taiwan.

  10. Well Eric, I think I have pretty damn good German for a French translator who studied the language formally for all of one semester. (Although it is, sort of, the traditional language of my clan and occasionally spoken outside the classroom.) Frankly, I blame the Dutch. Learning Dutch has killed my sense for correct German. :^)

    I corrected the gender, along with a few English spelling mistakes that either demonstrate my point or prove that I need a proofreader.

  11. To the best of my knowledge Microsoft hasn’t changed the spelling of any
    english word. At least I’ve never heard of any such thing. There’s little
    doubt that written english is full of irregularities but the well-educated
    are in agreement about how things should be spelled. A good example of that
    is the post by Jerome where he tries to think of irregularities and can
    only come up with two. One of which isn’t even an irregularity. The point
    is that Jerome has learned written english so well that he has trouble
    even seeing the inconsistencies.

    The only spelling confusion in the U.S. that I am aware of is on those
    words where the british and american spellings differ (and most people
    are comfortable with either) and how to indicate the possessive. The Modern
    Language Association has advocated simplifying the possessive by making
    it in most cases simply ‘s. People that have learned the older more difficult
    rules still use them but since the schools are now teaching ‘s I imagine that
    will eventually become the norm.

    Naming Microsoft’s spelling standards “market failure” when it more or less exactly
    corresponds to what people expect doesn’t seem quite right.

    What I think Scott really means when he says “market failure” is that he
    things the english-speaking world should radically simplify spelling and
    make the spelling perfectly or near-perfectly phonetic and that we aren’t doing
    so. As it happens I agree we should rationalize spelling even though it would
    extraordinarily difficult to actually carry this out.

  12. Maynard, I can’t speak for native Chinese speakers or Taiwanese (who are not the same thing, as Wi-vun “Taiffalo” Chiung repeatedly points out) but, I have had a much easier time with simplified characters.

    Mao wanted to go all the way to an alphabetic scheme, but the story is that Stalin talked him out of it. Every major communist figure had a hobby – art critic, poet, something – and the one who actually shows some interest and knowledge in linguistics has to be Stalin. Anyway, this line of criticism of Chinese characters dates back at least to Lu Xun. I think I remember hearing that someone in the early Qing dynasty proposed alphabetic writing on the same grounds.

    There are a surprising number of anti-hanzi activists in the sinology community. Chinese beliefs about Chinese characters beggar the imagination sometimes. There’s a number of essays on the subject at pinyin.info. Victor Meir talking about Cyrillic Dungan is the one I most remember.

    Yes, the so-called “freedom to measure” movement strikes me as just as inane as orthographic reactionaries. Actually, since we’re on the subject, China went about it in an intersting way. They redefined the pound to be 500 grams.

  13. It’s my understanding that children in Taiwan spend an inordinate amount
    of time learning to write chinese and despite that they still end up with
    adults that can’t recognize many written words.

    It’s also interesting that although some Hong Kong newspapers use the
    same traditional written form, well-educated people from Taiwan will
    still sometimes have trouble deciphering the Cantonese papers.

    Maybe even more interesting is that when children in Taiwan are first
    taught to read they are not taught the traditional written form but
    rather a special phonetic form. A few years later they are taught the
    traditional and thereafter the phonetic is used only rarely.

  14. No Mark, I think the English should just get rid of the most inconsistent and inane elements of English spelling. Genuinely introducing a properly phonetic alphabet would actually make old books unreadable and would be impossible in light of the dialect differences.

    No, I would get rid of some of the “-ance” versus “-ence” distinctions, double letters where they have no phonetic or etymological significance, and get rid of those useless damn “gh”‘s that haven’t had any use since the dark ages, maybe regularise the phonology of some old French borrowings. Probably a few other things if I thought about it long enough.

    No, Microsoft has not changed any English spellings. That’s the problem. No only do they alone have the power, but they won’t even exercise it. Sometimes even a dictatorship is better than indifference. Microsoft has nothing to gain from actively managing the language. It is outside of their core competency. Before Microsoft, it was dictionary publishers – a group with just as conservative a bent. Occasionally newspapers have actually managed to make these changes happen. And Noah Webster – as an element of anti-British sentiment after the Revolutionary War, managed to effect some real changes. If government – or something similar in mandate – doesn’t exercise power in this domain, the language just grows more and difficult to actually use. But mostly, private players haven’t the authoritative voice to manage.

    It doesn’t take much. It doesn’t even take much real authority. The people who are most important in propagating language change are the ones most willing to take direction from any authoritative source.

  15. Ah, Bopomofo. I actually prefer it to pinyin. Unfortunately, just like Pinyin, it doesn’t take tones seriously enough. I’m trying to see if anyone ever considered formalising the fanqie system well enough to make it usable as a phono-syllabic writing scheme. It fits tradtional Chinese writing methods better and is better suited to the very limited freedom of syllable structure in Chinese than a roman alphabet based scheme that marks tones as diacritics.

  16. Scott, thanks for this wonderfully informative post. I’ve no particular comment to make, except to say that it’s always nice to hear from an unapologetic defender of the appropriate use of state power. And if it isn’t appropriate in an as amorphous and general a field as updating spelling, I don’t know where it would be. (Also, very nice point about the minor but still real “progressive” aspect of spelling reform–empowering non-elites and all that.)

  17. Scott, great article. Just sent it to my mum… she’s a teacher, and old(er), of course. So she fits the description.

    Of course, the reform is not just loathed for itself by elders, it’s a scapegoat for everything that doesn’t quite work in Germany as it should these days…

    And, politically, if I were the government, I’d keep this story as big as possible for as much time as possible, especially since currently the two most important national issues are Hartz IV and spelling reform. I’d even couple it to the federalism reform commission in order to keep it alive…

  18. Russell, it is a state power and its an appropriate area of state competence. However, is that it is a state power because it requires some element of authority – even if only very little authority. The real problems have to with the exrecise the responsible exercise of state power in this domain. While most state language authorities have been reasonable, and even the worst thing I can say about the French is that they are almost as conservative on this subject as anglophones, there is one unmitigated disaster in the history of language planning: modern Greek. Originally, when Greece became independent, it restored what was essentially unmodified Byzantine Greek as the state language. That mess wasn’t properly repaired until the restoration of democracy in Greece in the 70’s.

    There are genuine differences about how state language planning authority should be exercised, and by what mechanisms it can be made responsible. Few language authorities could genuinely be called democratic. It’s just that most planned language changes are of a sufficiently simple and minor nature – or when they are radical, they are almost always a movement towards more common and more phonetic language – that there is little to mess up.

  19. Tobias, I hadn’t thought of the “sacrificial reform” possibilities. The other problem with language reform is that it’s rarerly worth much political capital, no matter how cryingly necessary. A language reform program is an easy concession to make, and it’s always a big noisemaker.

  20. As for the “gh” in English, you are right, it used to be a voiced (or in some cases unvoiced) velar fricative.

    The real problem in standardizing English spelling is the same one as the Chinese have. There are many Chinese dialects which are as mutually incomprehensible in spoken form as Italian and French. However, they all use the same writing system, so written language is mutually comprehensible. Because the dialects are different languages, though, you can’t go to a phonetic spelling, because in different dialects, different symbols have completely different pronunciations.

    Now, with English you have a similar problem, though much less severe. American English and British English disagree on a lot of pronunciations. Which do you use in the spelling?

    Or, an even better question would be: do you go back to the original Latin/Old English vowel spellings? That is, do you start writing “see” for “say” and “si” for “see”? How about “aut” for “out”, and “soa” for “saw”? “Boot” for “boat” (and “bout” for “boot”)? Eliminate the “silent e”? Without these changes, a standard phonetic orthography for English would still be very confusing for non-English-speakers.

    Also, do you standardize the spellings of loan-words (which make up between one and two thirds of our vocabulary, depending on whether you want to counts words that were absorbed so long ago they’ve been completely Anglicized)? That is, do we spell “phonetic” “fənettik”, thus losing the word’s Greek heritage? Do you want to order a “filee miñnõ” instead of a “filet mignon”? Or how about watching “keebl” or “saddllayt” (“sattllayt” for all you Brits) programming on your new “tell&#601vizhn”?

    If you’re going to go to a phonetic spelling system for English, actually, I would recommend abandoning the standard Roman alphabet and going to something more like IPA. Most of the symbols would be the same, but you could throw in the occasional “ʃ” or “ɔː” for clarity.

  21. Oops – the entity codes showed up on the preview but not in the final product!

    ə is a schwa, if you hadn’t guessed.

  22. Learning Dutch has killed my sense for correct German.

    That makes sense; hearing spoken Dutch always reminds me of American high schoolers in first-year German.

  23. A few thoughts.

    First, I’d like to correct a (rather unfortunate) mistake that every poster so far has made. Kids if you want a phonetic alphabet, go look at the IPA: that’s what it’s there for. Now, phonemic is rather a different beast and this is a good property of a spelling system. Go look the two words up in a dictionary, and phoneme too while you’re at it. You can’t talk about spelling reform without knowing the critical difference between these two.

    For reference, Irish (despite apprearences)and Spanish have fairly phonemic spelling systems. French and English do not. None are phonetic, and thank goodness for that.

    Also, there are very few ‘silent e’s in English. The ‘e’ in question acts as a visible umlaut of sorts, cf. man, mane; mat, mate; sin, sine; etc. And this is one of those cases where doubled letters are of use: back (‘ck’ is essentially two doubled ‘k’s), bake; call, cale; etc.

    Also, people should read Mark Rosenfelder’s Hou tu pranownse Inglish. It’s nothing if not enlightening.

  24. Scott, didn’t mention it in my first comment… but there is a tiny spelling mistake in the headline. The German part should probably read “Sprach- und Sommertheater”. A hyphen after “Sprach” is needed to indicate that the last part of the following compound word is to be implied… but of course, no I somehow managed to understand it anyway ;).

    With respect to the reform, personally, I have an aesthetic issue with the letter triplets. It just looks bad to me. And I think it’s decreasing the words’ legibility: Stemmmeissel always makes me hum that old song by the Crash Test Dummies …

    http://www.lyricsfreak.com/c/crash-test-dummies/34093.html (Careful, possible pop-ups)

  25. Tobias, I think you overestimate my German. I wasn’t saying Sprach[theater] und Sommertheater. I was thinking in English: Language and the Silly Season.

    Keith, yes on the matter of correct linguistic terminology, it is indeed phonemic spelling that is intended. But most people are used to calling it phonetic, and because there are an indeterminate number of possible phoneme systems for any language, making the link between cognitively distinct sounds and letters – instead of phonemes to letters – may well be just as valid and is certainly easier to explain.

    Those e’s in English are silent in the sense that they are not pronounced in moder times, although they have an effect on other sounds. Nor can I think of any person who pronounces the word “bac” different from “back.” The Roman alphabet only has six vowels. The Welsh managed to get a seventh by using “w” as a vowel. But English – like most languages – makes more than six vowel distinctions. Some languages resolve the problem by creating new letters, some add diacritics to existing letters, and some use multiletter combinations. The “-an” vs. “-ane” distinction in English is one of the latter, English makes heavy use of complicated spelling strategies to show the way vowel sounds are modified.

  26. It will be interesting to see if the increasing use of technology influences the language-specific character and alternative spelling issues everywhere. As examples:
    Fonts. Tens of thousands of fonts are available however relatively few have all of ‘special’ characters in use even just for European languages.
    URLs etc. & keyboards. Providing for the full character set in internet URLs and so forth is a relatively simple matter provided you expect all users to be using the same language. Registering a website name with a German s-z is great, as long as you don’t want visitors from non-German speaking countries (or even Switzerland 🙂 Yes, I know how to do it, but how many ‘normal users’ do?
    Searching. A serious problem that can only get worse as more and more features become available relying on fast searching of large amounts of information. Even spelling differences in English can have serious effects on a search result. Try looking in Google for recipes for “Chilisosse”. Using the s-z spelling gets three times as many hits as the ss version and includes all of the ss-versions because Google can translate from s-z to ss but not the reverse. The lesson here is: if you want to be found then write using ss but search using s-z.
    My feeling is that technology will increasingly pressure national languages to rationalise and standardise or risk an even faster defection to American English for everything not produced in the name of art.

  27. And Noah Webster – as an element of anti-British sentiment after the Revolutionary War, managed to effect some real changes. If you point to _those_ specific changes as a positive change in any argument for spelling reform, you’ve lost me, I’m afraid 🙂 The best proposal for respelling English I’ve seen is here, , and thankfully its author admits it’s not ever going to happen.

  28. Aidan, no, I would not hold Noah Webster up as an example of good language management. He is the forerunner of a lot of trends in language managment that I think are wrong, like this notion that one state = one language. However, he made changes and made them stick, and he did so without any public mandate. That is genuinely exceptional, especially in English.

  29. I’m reminded of how orthographical reform and the whole project of saving the Rhaeto-Romance language in Switzerland seems to have been held up for years by a debate over the preposition “da”: was there one form for both genitive and ablative meanings, or should “da” and “de” be distinguished (in a spoken language where both, as far as I can tell, were routinely shortened to d’…

    Then someone (a professor, but not the cantonal or national goverment, to be sure) simply went out and _invented_ a standard written dialect, Romansh Grischun, which has taken off because both advertisers and governments find it easier to use one, not five, orthographies. (I don’t think Microsoft produces a Romansh dictionary and proofing tools, though…)

    On German reform and the Swiss: I was in Switzerland when the new German rules were announced, and though there was some desultory debate in the papers, as far as I can tell the Swiss simply ignored most of the arguments..AND the new rules. Swiss orthography has always allowed triple consonants (a result of never using the ?), and they have on the whoel left loan words “ungermanized” and don’t plan to rewrite them now, so the remaining rules came down to trivialities from their perspective (I don’t know how they came down on “Rad fahren”…but then, it would be “Velo fahren” or “Velofahren” down south, anyway.

  30. Learning Dutch has killed my sense for correct German.

    In his travels, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver came across a species of intelligent horse, the Houyhnhnm:

    “In speaking, they pronounced through the nose and throat, and their language approaches nearest to the High-Dutch, or German, of any I know in Europe; but is much more graceful and significant.

    “The emperor Charles V. made almost the same observation, when he said ‘that if he were to speak to his horse, it should be in High-Dutch.'”

  31. I am impressed. This article manages to be several years behind the times, seeing as the spelling reform furore started years ago. Also, the author has a tenuous grasp of linguistic. As a younger person (early twenties) who has learnt German as a second language I can definitely assure you that the spelling reform does not make it easier to learn, spell or read. Having ‘sss’ in the middle of a word looks stupid and the extra ‘s’ is not reflected in how you pronounce it. In fact, having the ‘ess-tset’ makes it clearer to see how a word is formed as an extra ‘s’ may used when compounding two words together.
    Also, German can hardly be accused of the conservative attitude that French is preserved with. Modern German is abundant with loanwords from other langauges, quite noticably loan words from English describing computer technology. The spelling reform does not have any effect positive or otherwise for the acquisition of new words. How these new words are used have not been officially decided by any governing body and their use is still changable. Their final forms will emerge after much use among people in everyday life, and this is where language change truly happens (when not officially decreed). The spelling reform in German can hardly be considered to be a true reflection of the German that is commonly used. Before the spelling reform nobody in any community was using these spellings. I think the newspapers have every right to object to something that only benefits dictionary companies.

  32. “Several major German newspapers (mostly conservative ones)”
    Then you quote Spiegel. Cute.

    “Thanks to the effectively universal use of a single word processing suite, English spelling is what Bill Gates says that it is.”
    Wouldn’t be complete without pointing at corporate America would it?

    It’s amusing how much your politics has infiltrated this post. English spelling is difficult because a polyglot of other languages have been incorporated. Do you really think Microsoft has generated anywhere near the influence as the aftermath of 1066? Right.

    “prolly” isn’t a word in English. Probably is. Prolly is starting to displace probably (google prolly). Type prolly in MS Word and see what happens.

    Intellectual corruption is a terrible thing.

  33. May I chime in? I’m German 🙂

    There’s more to why the spellig reform is so frowned upon by half of the population: Namely the fact that it had been frowned upon by almost EVERYONE when it was first introduced a few years back by a small clique of people – even Germany’s greatest poets detested it. Most people felt that it’s just the government bullying the people without asking them. There was no referendum or whatever except for one state (Schleswig-Holstein): the reform didn’t get through. However, this didn’t stop the presses and people where quite understandibly annoyed by the government’s authoritarian behaviour.

    Nowadays, half of the people have gotten used to the reform (well, to be honest: as long as they’re no journalist they write whatever they want which usually is correct or at least a legal option). But since Spiegel and Bild made all that stir now they remember the controversy from a few years back and that’s why the reform is discussed this fiercly once again. It also doesn’t help that Germans hate their government anyways (currently it has a rock bottom approval rating of 20%!)

    And another bit of personal opinion about the reform: It really is stupid. The old way of writing German had many difficult spellings and illogical forms. The new way of writing abolishes some of them but in an attempt to be logical it introduces heaps of new irregularities and forms nobody has ever seen before. So it’s no improvement at all.

    English doesn’t connect words. It’s “bicycle riding”. In German, however, connecting words is part of the language. The reform changed that in many cases. To be honest, although German is my mother tongue I don’t know the rules well enough to give you proper examples (I’m one of those guys who writes whatever Word says is right and I don’t write texts for public consumption anyways). But to help a speaker of English understand the controversy: Just imagine someone made you write “on going” instead of “ongoing” for reasons you don’t understand without having read 10 pages of rules 🙂

    well, that’s my 2 cents.

  34. The Chinese reforms made reproducing the language easier (handy for computerisation and so forth), but I’m not convinced that they actually made it easier to learn. The issue is not that the characters or even the radicals are difficult to write or read individually, it’s that there are thousands of combinations of them and they must be memorised. (Few character meanings can be reliably derived from the radicals alone, although most can be satisfactorily explained once the meaning is known.)

    I too am curious about the time that a whole bunch of peasants changed their pronunciation of something because of a spelling reform.

  35. Very interesting entry. As a beginning student of German, who started with a one-year reading course in college in 1995 (in my early 30’s), supplemented by a couple of Goethe Institut courses in 2002, I find the spelling reforms very confusing. My German isn’t good enough for my reading to be disrupted by the new spellings, but my writing has been strongly impacted by uncertainty as to how I should be spelling simple words like dass. (As an American, I love the ess-tset almost as much as I love umlauts, and try to use as many as possible.) And please don’t even think about taking my capitalized nouns away.

    I consider myself an above-average speller of English, although I remain a mediocre but speedy typist. I think that English spelling has drifted too far from the spoken word to ever be reformed. Besides, we have something like four versions of Standard English, each of which would suffer more from spelling reform than the language as a whole would benefit. And don’t even get me started about phonics!

    Shorter comment – spelling reform in English or German, if it doesn’t materially improve the language or literacy rates, why bother?

  36. “China went about it in an intersting way. They redefined the pound to be 500 grams.”

    So did the French. In 1792 I think..

    One argument for spelling reform is that more “rational” spelling reduces the level of dyslexia. Is this just a legend?

  37. On the one hand Microsoft Word Spell Checker allows the user to define their own dictionary(s) for words that MSWSC doesn’t know.

    On the other hand MSWSC sometimes comes up with some completely bizarre spelling.

    Speaking about English spelling in general, it is important to tolerate variation, while giving every occurance to reduce variation from the Standard Spelling, such as it exists. If too much variation is allowed, then meaning will suffer, such as the manufactured word “ghoti” supposed to be pronounced “fish”.

    As to “Same Sound Same Spelling” promoted by local advocates Doug Everingham, Ivor F and Tom Hardwyck, SSSS can reduce or destroy meaning.

    Consider SSDifferentS: “Fair Ferry Fare” as a newpaper headline.

    Consider SSSS version: “FAAR FAARI FAAR”.

    The problem with the words “Fair”, “Ferry”, and “Fare” is that there aren’t enough phonemes to pronounce all different words differently. At least different words with different meanings which happen to be pronounced the same can be spelled differently.

    Spelling reform advocates Doug Everingham, Ivor F and Tom Hardwyck, fail to acknowledge the loss of meaning or ambiguity problem that comes with SSSS. Hardwyck gave an sample sentence of his new spelling system, which was understandable enough until it to a key word that was long and difficult … I was not able to figure out what that word was, and therefore the whole message was lost.

    A episode of the TV series “Flipper”, starring the talking dolphin, had as its crux a mishandled urgent message. The 10 year old boy whose pet the dolphin was, mispronounce the word “urgent” as “UR-GENT” instead of “URGE-ENT”, so that the adults did not realise that the message was important and had to be dealt with quickly.

    English has millions of words, and it is not possible to say in advance which word, like the Hardwyck word, or the URG-ENT word may be misunderstood if misspelled or mispronounced.

    Everingham, Ivor F and Hardwyck are to be praised for their efforts in keeping the issue of spelling reform alive, but they are mostly misguided.


  38. I fail to perceive the difficulties that you see in learning a teensy bit of orthography; in their place I note a considerable degree of egotism. That you, Scott, misspell “foreign” (cf. one of your comments above) is not enough of a reason to mutilate a language by ukase.

    Why not concentrate your energy on the education system which nowadays is stressing what it chooses to call “self-esteem” over the kind that one acquires through one’s achievements? I am living proof that it is possible to acquire a working knowledge of English and French spelling even as a native speaker of German. It wasn’t even hard.

    Best regards,

  39. I found this article by chance and despite it’s age, I couldn’t help but comment, sorry.

    The way you wrote your article, I feel you want to _simplify_ things, to help people who are too ignorant to learn their language correctly, sorry, to help more people know spell their language correctly.
    If you push this logic to its extreme, why not use SMS spelling, while you are at it! Evrbdy can rd SMS, cn’t they? (well, I can’t, sorry).

    I find this type of thinking rather horrifying, really. Let’s just do like the Americans: if people are stupid, then let’s all lower the level of education! That way everybody can feel good about themselves…
    I hate this with a passion: simplify things so we get better statistics. Since when should a language be modified so that we can get better statistics! *shudder*
    Wouldn’t it be more logical to actually change the teaching methods, so that people learn better?
    The only way you can learn Maths is if they are taught properly. You can’t make the subject simpler, you just learn it, or you don’t. Why would languages be different, then?

    Besides I like the oddities of my languages (I am a native French, but I learnt German, Latin and English, in that order). It’s nice to know that there is some sort of history behind words, some reason behind the way they are spelled. Spelling isn’t about pronounciation, it’s about meaning, etymology, grammar, all that. I say “potato”, you say “potato”, but we both know what we are talking about, don’t we?
    When you simplify your language to allow analphabets to have an easier time, you lose all that. What’s the fun in that?

    My experience of dyslexia (and what I read about it) is that it doesn’t come from some mysterious brain damage at birth, but from stupid teaching methods…
    I have two sisters, who are 16 years apart. But they were taught with a different system, called the “global method” in French, where you learn words as a whole, rather than by spelling them out phoneme by phoneme. For my first sister, we didn’t realise this (that was 20 years ago) and since I hadn’t had any problem, we couldn’t see why she should and assumed that indeed, she was “born with dyslexia”.
    When my second sister entered primary school, she just completely lost it, and indeed started showing signs of dyslexia. As soon as we changed her to a private school (the Global method is the official one) she showed signs of improvement, although she is being treated by an orthophonist to fight off the bad habits she has already acquired.

    My point ? Wlel, tihnk auobt it tihs way: if you can raed tihs txet, as I am srue you can wiuohtt too mcuh plrbeom, it is buascee yuor bairn roiegncse the wdros goalllby, rahetr tahn by atlluacy raiendg every letter in words. That’s the underlying principle of that global method. And what works one way, works the other: read globally, and you end up writing globally. I.e. you got dyslexia.
    Or at least, that’s how I see it…

  40. Some six months after this post was put up I have a comment (What we for some call ‘mustard after the meal’ in Dutch). Is it me or did you make a mistake translating “Die zu beiden Verlagen geh?renden Titel,….”
    Isn’t it supposed to be ‘The titles belonging to both publishing houses…” instead of “The two publishing houses named in the title”?

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