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Germany: Fifty-seven varieties become nine

After two years of legal wrangling, opposition from authors, professors and politicians, and petitions from parents, changes in German grammar and spelling come into effect in schools officially tomorrow - in time for textbooks to be in place at the beginning of term in three weeks' time.

In practice many primary schools have already begun to teach the new rules along with the old ones, which will remain in use until 2005. The civil service will introduce the changes according to a timetable still to be set.

Newspapers and news agencies have also set no date for change, pending the outcome of a referendum in Schleswig Holstein on September 1, the only state which will not stick to the August timetable.

Despite much debate and several court actions by parents in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, the changes are almost as agreed by the three countries in 1996, although some original suggestions have been toned down and a few dropped. The new spellings also come into effect in Austria from tomorrow and in Switzerland from September 1.

Spellings of foreign words have been Germanised, and between 500 and 1,000 new words will be created. Some 800 old words will be eliminated and comma rules reduced from 57 to just nine.

In schools, however, old spellings will not be marked as wrong. Teachers will make a note in the margin of what the new spelling should be.

"It doesn't mean that everyone will have to master the new rules from one day to the next," says Susanne Dahl of Duden Verlag, publishers of the German dictionary.

In matters of dispute the Duden has the last word, so to speak. The new Duden incorporating the reforms has been the best-selling book in the country for two years now. The company set up a hotline for those seeking clarification on specific aspects of the new rules. New phone lines have been opened in anticipation of another flood of enquiries.

But Duden Verlag says nothing is set in stone, and some reformed spellings may never catch on.

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