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Spelin reformz 'n Germinnee

Scott Martens at A Fistful of Euros gives us the lowdown on the controversy in Germany over spelling reforms:

...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...

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 AcadÚmie Franšaise 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 elesewhere. This reform touches on a few minor inconsistencies in German spelling, to wit, the “ess-tset” (▀) 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 [sic] letters (Stemmmei▀el with three “m”’s instead of Stemmei▀el with only two), and a few loan words will have more regularised forms...

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.

So much for the background. Some German newspapers are boycotting the reform arguing that it creates a generation gap in spelling, and pressure groups argue that

... 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.” ...

Martens counters:

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.

The German language will probably survive the spelling reform, and the boycott is doomed to fail (but if it isn't, the German language will survive that too).
I can't stop myself from guessing which spelling reform Scott is referring to in that last paragraph. I think he means the abolition of the eth and the thorn in English, resulting in the "ye olde" misreading of older texts... but I'm not sure that that was even a formal reform.

Comments (3)


Much as I love the English language, and proud as I am of my nigh-flawless ability to spell, I have to admit that English orthography is one of its worst features. That said, I'm not sure I can envision a set of reforms that would be easily adoptable yet still permit access to the vast existing body of English text. We see little things, like "thru" for "through", and (heaven forbid) chat-mode abbreviations, but I can't see those replacing standard spelling.

Laying the blame for the archaic twists of English spelling at the feet of Microsoft, though, is absurd. It isn't stagnant spellchecking software that keeps the words spelled the way they are. If it were, conflations of 'to' and 'too' and 'there' and 'their' would now be considered acceptable!

Yeah, that bit was a bit silly; after all, Microsoft has only been around for a quarter-century. However, in the long run, they might become the de-facto rule-makers for English spelling.

The "abolition" of eth and thorn wasn't really an across-the-board abolition. It was adapting English spelling to printing (presses, at the time, were built in mainland Europe, and fonts did not contain the eth and thorn, since the languages they were built for did not use those letters). It had precedent, too, since in many styles the thorn looked very much like a "y", and in some cases was already identical.

The mispronunciation of "ye" the way it seems to be spelled is actually a *modern* misunderstanding; nobody at the time was confused, or started saying /ji/ for the definite article.

I've played around with an English spelling "reform". It's based on the fact that, most of the time, the most salient parts of an English word are the consonants and the stressed vowel(s), while the unstressed vowels tend to collapse into
schwas and are mainly just epenthetic. So it makes sense to write English with an abjad, like Arabic, where only the consonants and long/stressed vowels are mandatory, and short/unstressed vowels are marked with optional diacritics. My system uses the Latin alphabet as the source of symbolsŚextended with some extras, like Gothic hwair (Ƕ ƕ), eth and thorn, esh (Ʃ ʃ), ezh (Ʒ ʒ), and eng (Ŋ ŋ). Short vowels are written with diacritics above the consonants they follow: acute for "ih", circumflex for "ah", etc. Schwa isn't written at all; you just insert them wherever English phonology prohibits a consonant cluster.

Sm■ŋ lik ­s. Ƕ̂t du yu ■ŋk?


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