Spell Of Trouble In Germany


Spelling rules may sound like an unlikely subject for people to get riled up over, especially in the depths of August. But riled up they are in Germany.

Over the past few years, Germans have been continually hearing about the need for one reform of their society after another: tax reform, pension reform, as well as the plan to make them trade in their beloved deutsche mark for a common European currency. It's enough to make a citizen's head swim.

And so the modest changes in spelling and grammar agreed to last summer, set to take effect next Aug. 1, have emerged as the reform the man and woman in the street love to hate.

In state after state, parents who want their children to grow up with the same rules they learned have gone to court to prevent exposure of their little ones to such horrors as Geografie instead of Geographie.

The court cases have yielded a mixed bag of verdicts. So far, 22 complaints against the reform have been filed in administrative courts across Germany. Of the eight cases decided, four have been in favor of the reform and four against.

But the Constitutional High Court may decide the issue. It is a prospect that opponents of reform relish. After their case was turned down on appeal, a Lbeck couple who want to protect their twin sons from the new rules mailed their complaint to the High Court Tuesday, the parents' lawyer said.

The constitutional issue involves not the substance of the reforms, but whether they are fundamental enough that an act of parliament is required to introduce them. Because education is a state responsibility, if legislation is required, it will have to be approved by all 16 state parliaments, plus the federal one. And the likelihood of that happening, the weekly Die Zeit observes, is "exactly zero." Thus, a call for new legislation is seen as a call to preserve the status quo.

The whole controversy illustrates both how highly regulated and how decentralized Germany is.

The changes, in the works for decades, were agreed upon last summer by an international commission including both linguists and culture ministers of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and other countries with German-speaking minorities: Italy, Denmark, Romania, and Hungary.

Suddenly newspapers were full of special supplements explaining the new rules, and new dictionaries and grammar books were being advertised with a zeal usually reserved for hit movies. In most states, schools introduced the new rules last fall, at least to their first-graders.

But as this year's crop of six-year-olds head off for their first day of school, toting the traditional paper cones full of sweets and school supplies, reaction against the reforms continues.

The international aspect of the reforms has been emphasized by the publishers' and booksellers' guilds, which warn against Germany "going it alone" by dropping the reforms. The phrase used in warning, nationale Alleingnge, usually comes up in serious foreign policy issues.

Klaus Heller of the Institute for the German Language in Mannheim, executive director of the international commission that worked out the changes, prefers to call them "developments in the language." And during a Monitor interview, the first words out of his mouth were a reminder: "Nobody is forced to use the new rules; it's a matter for each to decide for himself."

Indeed, the new reforms do apply only to schools and the civil service - which means that some of the celebrity critics of the new rules, such as the writer Gnter Grass, should have nothing to fear. Also, the old usage will not be officially wrong until 2005.

Heinz-Gnther Morell, spokesman for the cultural affairs ministry in Lower Saxony, chuckles philosophically as he considers the popular response to the reforms. Then he observes, "People with their doctorates, with responsible positions in government or business, are suddenly afraid that they are going to be unable to help their kids with their homework."

The spelling controversy also illustrates a tendency to refer to the High Court prickly issues that arguably should be settled in the political arena. Chancellor Helmut Kohl has called for culture ministers to settle the issue, but no action has been taken. Controversy over a possible Cabinet shuffle is absorbing the attention of the political class at the moment.

As Simple as A, B, C?

Just what are these reforms, anyway?

By far the most common changes involve replacement of the Eszett (), with a pair of lower-case "s's." Eszett changes aside, the reforms affect 0.5 percent of the general vocabulary, according to government estimates.

The reforms also provide for:

* Spellings truer to etymology: Numerieren, meaning to number, becomes nummerieren.

* Germanizing foreign words: Thus Ketchup acquires a new variant, Ketschup.

* More consistent capitalization: The nouns in prepositional phrases, for instance, will be uppercased: in bezug auf, with regard to, becomes in Bezug auf.

And some of the unwieldy compounds that rumble through the language like dangerously overloaded freight trains will be broken up and reconnected with hyphens, rather than printed as one word thatseeminglygoesonforeverlikethis. Other changes involve punctuation. For example, the 58 rules for the use of commas have been cut to nine.

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