Free of those confounding compounds

23rd August 1996 at 01:00
GERMANY. Cameron Morrell reports on a linguistic reform that spared the aubergine but not the steamship captain.

Ten years of debate and controversy ended last month with agreement to strip away some of the German language's less uniform and confusing aspects.

The education ministers of Germany, Austria and Switzerland met in Vienna and signed up to an effort to simplify the notoriously difficult language.

Newcomers cannot avoid memorising headache-inducing tables of adjectival endings, fabulously long compound words and the delicious choice of three genders for every noun: male, female and neuter. Not that girls should take offence at being designated neuter. Gender has nothing to do with sex in the cool, hard world of grammar.

More than 200 grammatical rules have been condensed to 112. The "'", a uniquely German creation which confounds foreign readers, will be replaced simply by "ss". Words which were previously written as one long compound will now be split into their constituent parts. Radfahren becomes rad fahren - to ride a bicycle.

To the disappointment of some the days of the upper-Danube Steamship Company captain calling himself the Oberdonaudampfshiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitaen are over. The number of comma rules has been pared from 52 to nine. Famous Thomas Mann-type sentences stretching over 15 to 20 lines, will now, hopefully, be redundant.

A move to Germanise foreign words, as the French have done, was rejected. An aubergine was considered more tempting than an Obergine and restaurants need have no fear of being rationalised into Restorants. During the last major reform of the German language in 1901, Kaiser Wilhelm II used his royal influence to ensure his throne remained a Thron while other words, such as thuer (door) and thor (gate) lost their aitches.

So, of the 12,000 words which form the basis of the German language, only about 185 will change. Still, this will mean work for teachers and children.

Primary pupils in nine states will start learning the revised grammar in the new school year. The remaining seven states will introduce the changes before August 1998. Between now and 2005 both sets of rules will be accepted as correct, but if a student slips back into the old style teachers will be obliged to point this out.

Claims by Germany's 16 education ministers that the changes will not cost much have been disputed by publishers who say they face a bill of DM 300 million (Pounds 136m) to convert their books.

Belgium, Italy, Romania and Hungary, which have German-speaking ethnic minorities, have also signed on for the new rules ensuring some linguistic unity. Only Luxembourg, the EU's smallest member state, has declined the invitation.

Regional dialects will be encouraged to go their own way as only High German is affected. This is the pure form of the language which is taught in schools and used in the media. Already, philologists claim success for the changes. They say that in recent writing tests, pupils made 40 per cent fewer grammatical errors using the new rules.

How this will affect the teaching of German as a foreign language in other countries remains to be seen. Officially, the changes don't come into force until August 1, 1998 and a seven-year grace period will allow people to adjust. Some countries, where language funds are not so generous, may find themselves overstretching this guideline.

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