State-Run Spelling

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Talk about language prescriptivism! Six years ago, the German government instituted spelling reforms, trying to make the language simpler. Now, the peasants are revolting:

Since then opposition to the changes has grown. It culminated in Germany's two leading publishing houses, Axel Springer and Der Spiegel, announcing on Friday that their publications would revert to the old spelling.

The reforms had failed, the publishers said, providing neither 'enlightenment nor simplicity'. They urged other newspapers to follow the example of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which had gone back to old spelling.

We are all creatures of habit, of course. It reminds me of this Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling that made the rounds as an e-mail forward a few years ago.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

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  1. Fistful of Euros has a much more interesting write-up on the matter than Hanah has provided.

  2. Excellent! I am hopeful that Bavaria, where I spent one happy year as a teenager, is one of the states that wants out. That Fistful article is rubbish. A needless reform (German is very close to phonetically spelled to begin with) that makes things more confusing than before (“Schifffahrt” — are you kidding?) is a waste of time. That said, there are one or two good parts of the reform, such as adapting foreign spellings to German spelling (ph -> f) but overall it’s a mess.

  3. Henry Ford and Colonel McCormick were big proponents of phonetic spelling. I beleive McCormick tried it for a while in the Chicago Tribune. I also seemto recall the Ford convince his buddie Andrew Mellon to have the Treasuary Department try phonetic spelling for a breif time during the Harding Administration.

  4. The only successful language reforms “from above” that I can recall were in Turkey and in Communist China, both of which had massively authoritarian governments to squelch dissent about it.

    It would seem you need a big, bad, mean army behind you if you want to forcibly reform a language. Anyone know any exceptions?

  5. I could be remembering wrong, but wasn’t the Cyrillic alphabet basically invented by the Eastern Orthodox Church about 1200 years ago? Granted, language reform would have been much easier to do at that time, since very few people were literate and there were no standardized spellings to be already used to.

  6. The French have been standardizing their language with l’Academie Fran?aise since 1635. Does the army of Louis XV count as an enforcement mechanism?

  7. The French have been standardizing their language with l’Academie Fran?aise since 1635. Does the army of Louis XV count as an enforcement mechanism?

  8. Tonight on H&R Pay Per View:

    Death Match: Gunnels vs. Metchis

  9. It would seem you need a big, bad, mean army behind you if you want to forcibly reform a language. Anyone know any exceptions?

    Dutch, 1954 (mentioned in the Fistful of Euros article). It’s almost perfectly phonetic now, except for a mass of Frech imports. Also, the Chinese reform is anything but “successful”, now that the traditional characters are once again making inroads into China after they took over Hong Kong. What a misguided effort that was to simplify the characters. I guess the main benefit to Mao was to render several thousand years of literature illegible to the masses.

  10. Patrick said: “(German is very close to phonetically spelled to begin with)”

    I took some German in college plus the widdle woman and I spent time in Bayer way back in 1970.

    I’ve always wondered: Do German elementary school kids have spelling classes such as in the US? I’m thinkin’ nah.

    And, Hanah: Meriweather Lewis was possibly the best known example of pushing the bounds of American English spelling before old Webster cracked the whip and standardized spelling.
    The question is whether American English would have standardized itself spontaneously or whether Webster was anal ahead of his time.

  11. Teddy Roosevelt was among those who were involved in simplified spelling in the US.
    Eg Labor viz the usual british Labour.
    There are dozens of other examples, so to say the Germans are a waste of time doing this is like the pot calling the kettle black.

    The non North american english speakers and writers have never bothered with simplified spelling , while the US has been its champion.
    And this from the country that gave us Missisippi
    which i can only remember as a word poem

  12. Re: H&R PPV

    I think Hanah can take him. Gunnels has always come across as a bit of a girly-man.

  13. I dont sea wheye we kant just macke spelleeng simpl.

  14. Hanah: There were a couple of alphabets used to translate the gospels into Slavic language, Glagolithic and Cyrillic, and there’s some debate as to which St. Cyril actually invented; since the scripts are related, it’s sort of a moot point.

  15. Do German elementary school kids have spelling classes such as in the US?

    Spelling is just not a big deal in Germany, because it doesn’t need to be. The “spelling bee” is totally unknown. Not that that makes German any easier… what with its absurdly complicated grammar, for which they have a saying, “Deutsche Sprache, schwere Sprache” (German language, hard language”)….

  16. I still don’t understand why “daughter” and “laughter” don’t rhyme.

  17. Shouldn’t that be, “dotter and laffter”?

  18. The French have been standardizing their language…

    Recently I had the opportunity to read a page of notes being passed back and forth in class between two 12yo French-speaking girls. For a few moments, I was unable to make any sense out of it. O mon dje, I thought, z? do not no ‘ow 2 spel.

    They were writing in SMS-French. Very funny, very clever, and very subversive.

    Il e bo grome. C kwa? Ta vu? Il m ki? (and so on.)

    Anyway.

    Writing English phonetically wouldn’t work. Take the word “schedule”, for example. The Brits would write it “shedjl”, the Americans “skedjul”, and pretty soon we’d have two different languages.

    And within standard British English, even the simplest words would cause confusion. “Can” and “can’t”. “I kan, but you kahnt”. (Or, if you’re the Queen, “you kawnt”.)

    Then, there’s the problem of sandi. The most obvious example of which is the pronunciation of “the”.

    Sanskrit is written phonetically, btw. It’s a perfectly logical kind of writing. Each sound is there, exactly as one would/should say it. The fact that it can take hours to figure out precisely which words a line of poetry actually contains might make it unfit for business memos, though. (If business memos were written in poetry.)

    O ghoti, as GBS would say.

  19. When I took German in college, one of its big selling points was its Teutonically regular spelling. To this day, I have yet to encounter a German word I couldn’t spell after hearing it, or pronounce more or less correctly after seeing it. (I think only Esperanto has easier spelling.) And they tried to SIMPLIFY it?

    Es ist mir zu verruckt. Unglaublich.

  20. Writing English phonetically wouldn’t work. Take the word “schedule”, for example. The Brits would write it “shedjl”, the Americans “skedjul”, and pretty soon we’d have two different languages.

    Quite aside from things like “electric” and “electricity.” English just wouldn’t work well with absolutely phonetic spelling.

    Then, there’s the problem of sandi.

    Sandhi, actually.

  21. Sandhi, actually.”

    No, I meant Sandi, my girlfriend. She has problems with “th” sounds. Broke her front teeth when she was a kid, and has whistled on the word “the” ever since.

    (There. That should do it.)

  22. Douglas Fletcher,

    Both “reforms” were aimed at making a break with the past–at de-mandarinizing China and de-islamizing Turkey–and at that, they were quite successful. They made all traditional literature written before The Year One unreadable, unless it was translated into the new alphabet.

    “By 2050, at the latest, nobody will be able to understand a conversation like we’re having.”
    –Syme, in Ministry of Truth canteen.

  23. Spelling is just not a big deal in Germany, because it doesn’t need to be.

    Actually, that is not true. I have visited Grundschulen in Cologne and Bonn and, yes, they do practice spelling (granted, not to the degree we do) – because they need it. The dialects of Cologne and Bonn play hell with kids trying to learn High German. I would guess that is true in any part of Germany where a variant of Plattdeutsch is spoken.

  24. I took a few years of German in school, and never found it that terribly difficult (at least, compared to Asian and Eastern European languages, I’m told). As others have mentioned, the spelling “rules” are such that you can spell nearly anything if just by hearing it. The verb order – second one goes to the end – is generally easy to remember. The drawback is learning three different words for “the” depending on the gender of the noun it precedes (which seems strange to begin with). But then again, the romance languages also have multiple “the”s.

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