Orthography vs. Liberty

An Unmisspelt Prophet of Hugi

A Careless and Inconsistent Reform

You may have heard that government institutions of the three largest German-speaking countries in Europe agreed on an overhaul of German orthography rules some years ago. These rules mostly concerned what words to write with starting capital letters, which terms to write as one word, which as several worlds and which connected with hyphens, when to use two s and the sharp s (ß) character, when to use umlauts or their correponding standard characters, and how to spell foreign words widely used in German. The previous orthographical rules had contained a lot of irregularities and exceptions in these matters, thus they confused a lot of people and led to many spelling mistakes. Besides, more freedom regarding when and where to set commas was introduced. The comma rules had been very strict in the past, and most mistakes had been made here.

The reform was to help make orthography more logical and make society more egalitarian, as it would be harder to estimate what class of education persons belonged to based on the number of spelling errors in their manuscripts. It was also supposed to create a uniform written language for the whole German-speaking world, as there still existed some differences between national conventions.

Surprisingly, the population accepted the reform imposed on them by their governments only reluctantly, although it had been meant to make their lives easier. Instead, the new rules caused a lot of confusion. What teachers used to mark as severe mistakes, was now regarded as correct, while what used to be correct spelling was partly no more allowed. I remember the broad discussion made the narrow-minded authorities revise their reform. In some cases now both the old and new ways of spelling were allowed. The result of this? Chaos! There were even more irregularities. Not at all did the reform live up to its own standards! The authorities neglected their own principles, like that the spelling of words should be derived from their origin. For example they enforcing to write aufwändig due to Aufwand, but in reality the ethmylogical source is aufwenden, so aufwendig would be correct strictly following their principles. Instead of logics, arbitrariness ruled.

One of the most delicate new rules was that verbs consisting of two words always had to be written as two words. Now instead of wiedersehen (to meet again), you had to write wieder sehen. But "wieder sehen" could also mean "to see again". This was by far not the only case in which it was suddenly no longer clear what exactly was meant.

Among the greatest critics of the reform was the press. But as the authorities did not give in, it was them who surrendered. Reluctantly the majority of newspapers and magazines accepted the new orthography last summer, not without announcing that they would stick to the old ways of spelling and putting commas whenever there were two possible choices for better legibility.

Since then, the spelling error quota has increased in new German-language publications, including dictionaries! Journalists kept finding words spelt differently in two dictionaries they compared. Many revised editions had to be published, thus a lot of expenses were created. In the end it seemed as if every publisher had its own orthographical rules. Plus, Switzerland and Austria kept some of their quirks, like the Swiss' always writing ss instead of ß or the Austrians' writing Zwetschke instead of Zwetschge, Geschoß instead of Geschoss etc. due to different pronunciation. The reform had brought more diversity instead of the uniformity that had been intended.

Spelling lessons for Internet journalists

But isn't this a good thing, diversity in orthography? In fact Wired Style, a manual for Internet journalists published by the people behind the computer industry's web magazine Wired, not only advocates a colloquial writing style but also more tolerance regarding spelling.

Postings and mails, they say, should be quoted as they are, without fixing any typos or inserting sic!s. They are strong supporters of inventing new words for the new things in the Net era by joining them together, like email instead of E-mail or mailinglist instead of mailing-list. Brand names should not necessarily be copied exactly but written reasonably, for example they recommend writing USA Today instead of USA TODAY as the correct brand name is.

If you, as an editor, encounter the same world appearing in the same article several times, each time differently spelt, don't change anything - it's okay, they say. For example 3D and 3-d are both valid according to the rule, and the two ways to write this term can be mixed in the same text.

I was very surprised that respected commercial US magazines gave such advice, even if it was just meant for online publications. Obviously the Americans have a much more liberal attitude to spelling. As far as I know, the English language isn't regulated by law anyway, it's just that most of the people who do not want to be taken for uneducated try to stick to the Oxford way of spelling.

In fact certain spelling rules do make sense, otherwise, in extreme cases, reading may be real pain. After all, the purpose of journals and news magazines is not to make the reader puzzled. It is to provide him with a lot of detailed information that can be quickly stored in his brain cells. Extremely strange spelling may only make sense in the category art. Even for text encryption it wouldn't be too great - here, it would be too easy to crack!

Revolution vs. Reaction

Now one of the leading newspapers in Germany, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, has announced their return to the old orthography to put an end to the chaos in the staff rooms and the limitations of linguistic expression. Wide approval has this decision elicited, among the common population as well as scientists and politicians. The conservative newspaper on the forefront of an open rebellion against the state - incredible!

But, if this respected paper really manages to take back the authoritarian reform imposed by federal and regional governments, then the diversity in spelling will probably persist for the next fifty years. Many people have already learned the new way to spell at school - we shall assume that at least some teachers were flexible enough to adapt themselves to the new orthography, after all - and will probably stick to some of the more sensible rules for the rest of their lives.

Long live the freedom of language...?

Adok/Hugi - 28 Jul 2000