Oh, for a computer that speaks German fluently

Computers abhor exceptions. They are thrown off by deviations and idiosyncrasies. They prefer standard operating procedures, doing things by rote. No wonder then, that they don't take kindly to peculiarities of foreign languages, such as the accents and the cedilla in French or the tilde in Spanish and Portuguese - the diacritical marks. Or the German umlauts, for that matter, the ä, ö and ü. And then there is the ß (s-zee), that strange 30th letter of the German alphabet that often stands in for ss.

A German news service in New York e-mails weekly summaries of news to me in German, but look how the computer makes a mockery of these curious Teutonic characters: The ä has been replaced by a string of nonsense characters - ä the ö has similarly morphed into ö the ü is ü and the ß is dressed as ß.

Once the computer has worked its dubious magic, common German words look hideously disfigured. The word groß (meaning big, great) looks like this: groß. The simple prepositions für (for) and über (over, above) are bloated beyond recognition: für and über. German Chancellor Schröder's name is now Schröder. (Talk about name recognition for politicians.)

It took me some time to get used to the digital stand-ins for the umlauts. I must maneuver through news about, say, the smooth ride of Volkswagen's new luxury car in stop-and-go fashion. My progress slows to a crawl when an umlaut sidles up to the infamous ß, as in größer (bigger, greater). Then the software gives me this: größer. I have to muster all my detective skills to make out the original word in that alphabet soup.

Umlauts occur about once or twice in every line of German text. Not only do these linguistic speed bumps slow me down, they may even land me in a ditch, because things can get still worse.

Enter German compounds - two or even three words strung together into one. German is famous for this quirk. (Mark Twain quipped that some German words are so long, they have a perspective.) What would he have said of this accumulation: größtmöglich? It may look like gobbledegook, but it's computerese for a perfectly legitimate word, namely größtmöglich (greatest possible).

If the digital versions of für, über, größer and so on represent an obstacle course, then größtmöglich is a virtual brick wall topped with a mass of razor wire.

We read of ever more astounding tasks computers are able to perform. We learn that computer modeling can even simulate the Big Bang of countless ages ago - without the decibels, of course - and tell us how it evolved into what's in space today. If computers are indeed capable of such feats, isn't there some way for them to render an ö for an ö?

If this is beyond the computer's powers of prestidigitization, students of German will just have to get used to deciphering such e-mailed words as süß (süß, sweet) or verhältnism äßig (verhältnismäßig, proportional, relatively). While these may be hässlich (hässlich, ugly) contraptions, the greater challenge will lie in pronouncing such Wörter (Wörter, words).

How do you voice an ampersand and semicolon embedded in a word? Since it was the computer that came up with these innovative spellings, let it tell us how we are supposed to turn them into sound.

You're on, Hal.

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