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Germans reject 'new spelling'

6 September 2004

As if Germany does not have enough major problems at the moment, there are growing signs of an unbeatable wave of popular opposition to the spelling reforms which have been introduced by the federal government and were supposed to become universal by August 2005. Six years ago the Rechtschreibung or 'new spelling', a reform affecting about 5% of the language, was introduced to simplify and modernise the complex German spelling rules. It was intended to make the language very much easier to learn.

In fact the changes have encountered increasing popular opposition. Literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki wrote: 'Chaos has broken out... in no other major European country is the gap so deep between the language of the people and the language of literature.'

The newspapers are voting with their feet. Axel Springer's titles and Der Spiegel returned to the old spelling last month. Gunther Grass and other leading writers have refused to allow their books to be published with the new spelling. Some publishers are taking the line of least resistance and allowing their authors to choose which form of spelling should be used in their books.

But for school textbook publishers this is a crucial and costly issue. Latest estimates for making the changes throughout educational publishing start at around €250m (£168m or $298m). Publishers may be unwilling but resigned to the costs involved, but will be even more unhappy if the changes are in the end abandoned.

These reforms are meeting resistance the bureaucrats never dreamed of, although they should perhaps have remembered that Germans are rightly proud of their cultural inheritance. Not surprisingly, people are usually attached to the spelling they have always used. Many would regard using correct spelling as a measure of their personal level of literacy. Which might be why Profile's Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary looks like being this year's successor to the hugely successful Eats, Shoots and Leaves.