FRANKFURT — Mark Twain found its rules - and exceptions - so complicated, he dubbed it "The Awful German Language." Indeed, experts have struggled to streamline Germany's notoriously difficult spelling rules. Then six years ago, German culture ministers and other German-speaking countries forged a controversial agreement.
Among other things, it replaced the idiosyncratic ß, called Esszet, with a double "s" at times. It loosened the use of commas, Germanized foreign words - so that "spaghetti" became "spagetti" and "ketchup" "ketschup" - and broke up interminable compound nouns.
The new spelling was sold in schools as a breakthrough reform. But it was detested by many intellectuals.
Still, millions of children learned the new rules, publishers reprinted all their schoolbooks and dictionaries, and most newspapers switched to the new writing style. Now, one year before it becomes irreversibly binding in the schools, the reform effort is in jeopardy.
A televised spelling blunder by Lower Saxony premier Christian Wulff revived deep resentment over the issue. After blaming his poor performance on confusing rule changes, he led an initiative to dump the reform. The ensuing debate has aroused emotional questions of money, politics, and national identity.
"It cannot be that, as a result, everyone writes as they want and that there is no accepted order any more," said Edmund Stoiber, the conservative state premier of Bavaria, one in five state premiers who wants the reform scratched. "Clarity in the German language is the core of our cultural identity. The spelling reform has brought in considerable insecurity."
The pressure to go back to the old rules intensified last week after Germany's leading publishers, Spiegel and Axel Springer, which publishes the Bild tabloid, said they'd switch to the old rules.
"We support necessary and sensible reforms in our society very strongly," Der Spiegel editor Stefan Aust and Axel Springer chief Mathias Doepfner said in a statement. "But the spelling reform isn't a reform, it's a step back. We want to help correct this mistake."
Critics argue the spelling reform was undemocratic and see it as an attack on the integrity of the German language. Recent surveys show that a majority of adults over 30 demand a reversal. "This reform has brought chaos: Nobody knows exactly how to write anymore," says Karin Pfeiffer, an author in Dueren. "People write as they want.... Children are insecure and disoriented."
But its supporters accuse intellectuals of stirring emotions because of their reluctant to adapt to new spelling rules. They say the changes make the language easier to learn and more logical. For instance, the new rules make it clear when the ß should be used. Real chaos looms, they argue, if children who've grown up learning the new rules must switch back to the old rules. Most teachers have supported the reform.
Money is at stake, too. Even though educators and school publishers have spent hundreds of millions of euros to implement the spelling changes, many have agreed to revert to the old rules.
Beyond the emotions stirred by whether kids end up writing "dass" or "daß," the debate has had another result.
"The real impact of this whole discussion is that people's interest in their language has become stronger," says Rudolf Hober, president of the Society for the German Language. "At a time when there's a feeling English is encroaching upon German more and more, the Germans have been thinking about their language more and more, and the spelling reform has played a key role in that."
German language reform isn't new. In the 1870s, Konrad Duden, the inventor of the German dictionary, wanted to democratize spelling by making written words match their pronunciation more closely. After enduring threats from Chancellor Otto Bismarck, Duden's recommendations were finally accepted in 1901 as Germany's first set of spelling rules, which reformers sought to iron out six years ago.
If the reform survives the massive protest, experts predict that Germans will slowly adjust, just as other countries have overcome spelling-reform reluctance.
The Netherlands and Spain altered their written languages to follow changing patterns of speech. Other countries were politically motivated. In Turkey, for example, President Kemal Ataturk imposed a spelling reform in 1928 as part of sweeping social and economic change to separate modern Turkey from Muslim traditions. Spelling reforms in Russia were part of a cultural reform of 1917. In 1945, the Danes got rid of capitalized nouns and introduced new characters to make Danish look less like German.
"Many writers are artists - they don't have a rational view of language," says Martin Haspelmath, a language researcher at the Max-Planck Institute in Leipzig. "They think that their words have to appear in specific forms.... They have an archaic, quasi-religious view of language, like in Islam, the Koran has to be written in Arabic."
"Linguistic rules weren't created by God," says Haspelmath. "They were created by humans, and humans have different views.