Lexicon reform spells trouble

Douglas Angus

German is changing. But where does that leave teachers of the language? asks Douglas Angus

Next year's official adoption of Germany's spelling reforms means more upheaval for modern languages teachers in the United Kingdom. The changes, which aim to simplify and unify the language, were introduced last summer, with the new spellings running alongside the old ones. But from next August, official German will use the new spellings only.

This may be good news for publishers, but teachers, exam-setters and the beleaguered learners will find the move less attractive. Pupils taking GCSE or A-level German in 1998 should really be using the updated spellings, although no decision has been taken on the format of next year's exams, and most textbooks and course material will be in the old style. So teachers will have their work cut out to make sure no one is disadvantaged.

Spelling reform is nothing new in Germany. This century has already seen several attempts at change. The present official spelling dates from 1901. But even then, what was installed was a unified form, rather than a simplified one. Since then spelling reforms have been looked for, but the language itself, like the Duden, the official chronicle of German spelling, has grown like Topsy. The result has been to make no one quite sure of anything.

So, since the late Eighties, experts have been working on a reform acceptable to the three main German-speaking nations of Germany, Austria and Switzerland. After much work and discussion, a common policy was agreed and signed on July 1 1996. The first new-style dictionaries appeared in October 1996, and four million have so far been sold in Germany alone.

Schools are already teaching the new spelling, and some newspapers have adopted it. The main bulk of the newspaper industry, though, will switch over next summer.

From August 1 1998, the new spellings become official. But this means only that the new spelling must be taught in education establishments and used for new documents produced by government bodies. Until August 2004 the old spelling will not be wrong, but merely ueberholt, or out-of-date.

The reforms have not gone unchallenged. Many Germans are rejecting the changes, and a strong movement based around such writers as Guenter Grass is campaigning against the move. But the reform is here to stay. No doubt many will still use the old spelling privately, but this will diminish in time.

In practical terms, five main areas are affected - spelling , composite words, capital letters and use of the hyphen and comma.

Spelling changes concentrate on several areas. First root words should be recognised in all combinations of the word, which brings, for us, strange-looking words such as Flannelllappen (Flanell and Lappen), nummerieren (from Nummer) and platzieren (from Platz).

Second, the ' will be replaced by ss in most cases. It will remain after a long vowel or double vowel - so we will find muss and muessen, dass, lassen and lAsst and so on. But Stra'e and drau'en will remain.

Third, Fremdworter - words of foreign extraction - will have two spellings, the original and the Germanified, as in Chicore and Schikoree, Thunfisch and Tunfisch.

Fortunately, such lovely words as the Donauschifffahrtsgesell-schaftsunteroffizier remain, (with an extra f) but combinations of verb and noun will separate, so radfahren will become Rad fahren. Combinations of verb and verb will also be split, as in sitzen bleiben, as will combinations of verb and adjective such as uebrig bleiben. But fernsehen will stay.

The hyphen is allowed to make some combinations easier to read, as in Klima-Anlage, but is discouraged in such Anglicisms as Job-sharing and Sex-appeal.

The principle of giving all nouns a capital letter remains. Some suspect this was retained, as was the ', so German would have a feature possessed by no other language. But there has been a serious attempt at simplifying the rules. Basically, nouns will always take a capital, as will adjectives used as nouns - der Erste, die NAchste, das Beste, im Allgemeinen, auf Deutsch, for example. Use of capitals for du, dein, and so on, in letters will disappear, and adjectives will not have capitals in cases such as erste Hilfe. But the Pope remains der Heilige Vater, otherwise Bavaria would have seceded from the Federal Republic.

Commas will no longer have to appear before und or oder, or before infinitive groups with zu and um zu, except for the sake of avoiding misunderstanding.

Where next? you can buy a new Duden or Bertelsmann dictionary (30-40DM), each of which comes with 100 pages of explanation of the new rules. All the main schoolbook publishers in Germany are releasing pupil guides such as Richtig Gut from Diesterweg (8.80DM), which comes with explanations and exercises. And the Kultusministerium in each Land is producing an explanatory booklet which should come free.

If you have a contact in a German school, get in touch and ask for any information you can get. You can also access the Institut fuer Deutsche Sprache on the Internet at http:www.ids-mannheim.de.

Douglas Angus is principal teacher of modern languages at Kelso High School, Kelso

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