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GERMAN-STUDIES  October 2002

GERMAN-STUDIES October 2002

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Subject:

To whom does the German language belong?

From:

Elke Philburn <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Elke Philburn <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 22 Oct 2002 00:30:01 +0100

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Reply

Reply

The following text, translated from German, is based on a publication by
Theodor Ickler, Professor of German as a Foreign Language at the University
of Erlangen. (The original text can be read under
http://www.korrekturen.de/docs/wemgehoert.pdf .)


TO WHOM DOES THE GERMAN LANGUAGE BELONG?

(In: IBW-Journal 4/2002, after a lecture held at the ‘4. Erlanger
Kunststofftage’ on 27. September 2001)


The so-called spelling reform has failed from day one.

It displays considerable flaws from a linguistic standpoint and by the
admission of its originators should have been corrected before its
inception. For this reason, in April 1998 around 600 professors of
linguistics and literature signed the following declaration:

“The so-called spelling reform ‘is not in line with linguistic research’
(according to the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sprachwissenschaft on 3. March
1998); even the orthography commission of the Kultusminister in their first
report of December 1997, foresaw fundamental corrections as inevitable. A
regulation with such shortcomings, which, for good reasons, has been
rejected by the most well-known authors and a large majority of the people
and which would destroy the uniformity of written language for decades,
must not be made obligatory for schools and authorities under any
circumstances.”

In terms of making spelling easier for pupils, the reform has failed to
achieve its goal on all fronts. Indeed, it can be shown that it has had the
opposite effect. The Bavarian Kultusminister (minister for education and
cultural affairs) Zehetmair, who early on had determinedly introduced the
reform in Bavaria, came to the conclusion that it did not result in greater
uniformity but rather in an orthographic mix-up (Stuttgarter Nachrichten,
24.3.2001). Because of the lacking uniformity between ‘reformed’
dictionaries, teachers were instructed quite early on to be more lenient
when assessing pupils’ spelling. The result is that at secondary level over
the last five years the teaching of orthography has largely not been
treated with the seriousness it might once have demanded.

It becomes apparent that the reform is of little use when one considers the
orthography in newspapers, even though they only partly apply the rules and
avoid the most nonsensical spellings.  After a decision by the news
agencies, essential parts of the new regulations have not been applied at
all, for example the use of small initial letters for established terms
such as ‘Erste Hilfe’ or for ‘Du’ as a form of address. The same applies to
the Germanisation of foreign words from living languages as well as the new
punctuation rules, none of which have been adopted by the press.

A large majority of Germans continue to reject the reform. Alongside this
general discontent, almost all well-known authors have also prohibited the
printing of their works in new spelling, even for excerpts meant to be
printed in school-books.

At the moment, behind closed doors, measures of backtracking are in
progress, which are making revised dictionaries, school-books, childrens’
books and spell-checking programmes obsolete and rendering costly re-
training courses meaningless. Even dictionaries that have already undergone
substantial revision according to the latest changes, will once again
become outdated as a result of the next steps of the spelling commission.
What should also not be underestimated is the effect of  spelling-software,
which at the moment adds to the impression that the reform has been fully
accepted.[...]

During the 20th century there must have been an around 100 drafts for a
spelling reform. The most widely developed of these was the reform of
Reichserziehungsminister Bernhard Rust, which shows a striking similarity
with our present reform - although it was not in itself specifically
national socialist. Only the conditions towards the end of World War Two
prevented the implementation of his reform.

After the war, new plans were initiated, in part by the same people. One of
the main proponents of today’s reform, the now retired culture secretary in
North-Rhine Westphalia, Friedrich Besch, said in 1995:

“The present reform has been worked on since 1952.” (Frankfurter Rundschau,
30.11.95) According to this, the preparatory work has lasted for no less
than 40 years! The long preparation time is often brought forward as a
warranty of quality. This is not only erroneous in itself but it is
entirely wrong for well-founded reasons.

In 1973 the preparations for a reform were given powerful momentum through
the congress ‘vernünftiger schreiben’ by the trade union ‘Gewerkschaft
Erziehung und Wissenschaft’. A central point of their programme was the so-
called ‘gemäßigte Kleinschreibung’ (the abandonment of capital letters in
nouns). The mood in those days was counter-revolutionary, which, among
other things, manifested itself in plans to boycott the grading of
spelling. The way in which the cultural practice of spelling was rated in
those days can be seen from the following quotation: “Schlechte noten in
rechtschreibung haben einen ähnlichen charakter wie z. b. schlechte
schulnoten wegen epilepsie, chronischem husten oder grippe.” (bad marks in
spelling have a similar character like bad marks because of epilepsy,
chronical cough, or flu) (Drewitz/Reuter (eds.): vernünftiger schreiben.
Frankfurt 1973, p. 62).

Twenty years later, the reformers presented a draft which was discussed at
a hearing in Bonn in 1993, and which was largely rejected by the
Kultusministerien.  When the reformers had to come to a completion in
Vienna one year later, they had hastily worked out a plan that was entirely
different from the main points that were originally intended over the
decades before, namely:

- the use of small initial letters for nouns
- the abandonment of signs for vowel length
- the ‘Germanicising’ of foreign words
- uniform spelling of ‘das’, also for the conjunction

None of the four points were eventually implemented in the reform. Even the
spelling of foreign words was not changed apart from minimal interventions
(e. g. Philosophie, Physik, Katastrophe, Theater, Apotheke - all these stay
as they were). In order to to eventually present an acceptable proposal
and to ensure that this enterprise with its ten or so international
meetings would not turn out to have been completely pointless, various
individual rules were decided upon. These rules, however, would soon emerge
to have been insufficiently thought-out and fraught with difficulties.
Consequently, as early as 1997, the reformers themselves under the pressure
of criticism, came to realise that changes of the reform would be
inevitably necessary. Surprisingly, the Kultusminister now categorically
rejected any correction. The Neuregelung thus came into operation with all
its flaws in 1998.

In the meantime, something had happened which had been particularly wisely
planned by the reformers but which now backfired. After their experience
with failed reform projects the reformers had come to the following
realisation:

“Eine Änderung geltender Konventionen und Normen über die Schüler zu
erreichen, ist zwar verlockend und wäre, wenn es gelänge, auch am
erfolgversprechendsten, aber sie setzt an am schwächsten Glied in der
Kette.”

[To achieve a change of existing conventions and norms through the pupil is
tempting and would be most promising, if it succeeded. But it also relies
on the weakest link in the chain.]

These were the words of the leading reformer Gerhard Augst in 1982. Yet,
the scruples soon disappeared and a determined decision was taken which in
effect would take the defenceless pupil hostage.[...]

As early as 1996, the Kultusministers of  most federal countries introduced
the spelling reform to schools. The Vienna Declaration had been signed by
the German-speaking countries on 1. July 1996. Only one day later, the new
Bertelsmann dictionary was on display in the bookshops and reformed school-
books were also already available.[...] The early implementation of the
reform at schools was meant to create a fait accompli. When Horst H.
Munske, one of the reformers, angrily left the Rechtschreibkommission, he
spoke to the magazine SPIEGEL about a ‘suprise attack’. What he meant was
that the phase during which the reform was supposed to be tested at
schools, had been ignored. Instead, the introduction was treated as
definite.  The testing-phase which had been promised by the reformers was
indeed out of the question, because since 1996 not a single detail was
changed about the Neuregelung, at least not officially. From then on, the
argument that pupils should not be left alone with their new spelling was
the strongest point with which well-founded objections were dismissed.[...]

On 12. May 1998 the Federal Constitutional Court dealt with the complaint
made against the Schleswig-Holstein Oberverwaltungsgericht and the
Verwaltungsgericht (‘upper administrative court’ and ‘administrative
court’) by a couple from Lübeck. Some time before the hearing there were
indications from various sources that the judgement would be in favour of
the Kultusminister. Even two days before the oral hearing, to which I was
invited as an expert, the then chairman of the ‘Gesellschaft für deutsche
Sprache’, Prof. Günther Pflug, told me triumphantly he knew from a reliable
source that the Bundesverfassungsgericht (‘federal constitutional court’)
was going to decide in favour of the Kultusminister. The only thing to be
feared from now on were petitions for referendums. This prediction
fulfilled itself as foreseen, but it is still remarkable how well the side
of the reformers were informed about the outcome of the proceedings that
were still pending. Despite these gloomy prospects, I attended the hearing
at the Bundesverfassungsgericht together with Christian Meier, President of
the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung. We were ridiculously
outnumbered by some 50 experts who had been invited by the court and who
supported the side of the reformers. The essential content of the verdict
was made known by the press about ten days before the pronouncement of
judgement, relying on statements by politicians from Bonn. As a
consequence, the complainants withdrew their complaint on the assumption
that they could not hope to expect a fair hearing. The
Bundesverfassungsgericht, however, decided to ‘break new legal ground’
(according to a spokesman) and to pronounce the judgement nevertheless,
because of general interest.

This judgement demonstrates time and time again, that the court can only
understand linguistic norms as norms imposed from above. This way the
nature of language is misunderstood from the outset. In fact, language
should be understood as a typical creation of an ‘invisible hand’. This
means, the people who speak a language and develop it do not follow an
overall plan but instead they want nothing but greatest possible clarity.
On the back of individual speech acts the language system subsequently
develops.

Thus, one might say that the stance of the reformers is based on a
fundamental distrust in the ability of a language community to self-
regulate, hence distrusting market economy and, as it were, relying on
language as being care of  (or at least corrected by) a centrally
govererned and administered economy. This conception has been represented
more or less like-mindedly by illiberal, state-authoritarian linguists such
as the previous national socialist Weisgerber, as well as todays leading
reformers, such as Prof. Nerius, who was previously associated with the
socialist party of the GDR.

Due to this false conception, the Bundesverfassungsgericht came to the
thesis that in the language itself there could be ‘wrong developments’ that
are in need of correction and require state intervention. One might say, in
the view of the court, the same way the state makes money available and
monitors the stability of the value of that money, it also makes the
uniform language available and may change it, should the occasion arise.
Unfortunately, this conception is wide-spread in Germany and this is a
point in which, for example, the French and the British cannot understand
us, as some of them imply in their mocking comments.[...]

The present illusory boom of the reformed spelling is not only due to its
adoption at schools and authorities where it has been decreed by the state,
but also to the preparedness of the press to adopt the new rules, even
though they more or less toned them down through their
own ‘Hausorthographien’ (abbridged and simplified bodies of rules that
serve as guidelines for newspaper editors - E. P.). Only in recent times
has it been possible to uncover the decicive role of the German press
agency (Deutsche Presse-Agentur). As early as August 1996 the chief editor
of the dpa, Wilm Herlyn, sent a letter to all customers,  (newspaper
editors as well as TV and radio stations) which aimed at  shaping public
opinion but at the same time conjured up the inevitability of implementing
the reform: “In our opinion, implementing the new spelling is, at the end
of the day, inevitable, bearing in mind that the printed media otherwise
might lose potential customers among coming generations.”

The questionnaire which was included in this letter, was impossible to get
hold of, because the dpa refused to hand it out. However, a few weeks ago
I  received it nevertheless and realised it was phrased in a similarly
tendentious way. In this letter, the possibility of a refusal was presented
as downright wrong. A refusal on the side of the press at that time would
have meant the end of the reform, as without the cooperation of the
newspapers, a long-term change of spelling is not possible. If one
considers also the fact that then hardly anything was known about the
content of the Neuregelung, it is easy to understand why a certain
proportion of  the small number of customers who bothered to answer at all
were in favour of the implementation. Later, however, newspaper editors
acted as if they had been suprised and could not have withdrawn from the
rushing ahead of the news agencies.

Comments made on behalf of the Board of Directors of the Axel Springer
Verlag AG stated:

“It is not that the newspapers in German language would have forced the
news agencies to accept the reform. The federal association of German
newspaper publishers (‘Bundesverband der Deutschen Zeitungsverleger e. V.’)
and the news agencies have together made the decision to introduce the
spelling reform in 1999.”

The editors of the magazine ‘Hörzu’ wrote:

“For us, the individual boards of editors, artistic freedom is not allowed,
because there has been a common decision of the publishers of newspapers
and magazines to go along with the reform.”

Confronted with this, the ‘Bundesverband Deutscher Zeitungsverleger e. V.’
however maintains:

“The BDZV has never made a decision on the spelling reform.” [...]

With many newspapers there is a belief that the reformed spelling is
obligatory for everyone, either now or in the near future:

“We cannot follow the decision of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung*
because the ignoring of existing legal norms, even with the best will in
the world and despite the tempting results, may not appear to us as the
ideal way.” (Wolfgang Weimer, Chief Editor of the WELT in a letter).

(*The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung had returned to the traditional
spelling on 1. August 2000, E. P.)

The ADAC (Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobilclub) wrote:

“From 31.07.2005 the new spelling is a duty and the previous way of writing
is no longer permissible. In this respect, of course, neither we
as ‘Motorwelt’ nor any other institution has the legal or factual
possibility of undoing it.”

(‘Motorwelt’ is one of the most high-circulation magazines.)

When ‘Bild der Wissenschaft’ in autumn 2001 also adopted the reformed
spelling, I cancelled my subscription as a result of that. The chief editor
sent me, as well as other unwilling readers, a standardised letter which
read:

“As you know, it is the obligatory rule that from the summer of 2002
onwards the new spelling has to be applied. Regardless of whether one
approves of such a prescription or not, one is obliged to adhere to it. At
the end of the day, I do not continue driving at 60 kilometres per hour
through a 30-km-zone, even if this restriction seems senseless to me.”

I mean, even without further knowledge of the conditions, it should be
clear to a German state citizen that the state outside its responsibility
cannot prescribe the language and the spelling. The Federal Constitutional
Court, in its otherwise desastrous misjudgement, unnecessarily pointed this
out once again.

“As far as this regulation has a binding force in law, it is restricted to
the area of schools. Persons outside this area are not legally obliged to
adhere to the new spelling rules and to apply the new way of writing. They
are rather free to write as before.”

This whole unpleasant story allows only one conclusion:

The language belongs to the people.

The Germans’ misery consists in the fact that too many of them believe it
belongs to the state.

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