Nation debates best place for the comma

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The Independent Online
COMMAS, hyphens and double consonants hurtled through the air in Germany's Constitutional Court yesterday, as its venerable judges in velvet robes grappled with dictionaries, writes Imre Karacs. It was the first day of their deliberations over the greatest intellectual undertaking of the German-speaking people this century.

Since 1901 philologists have been trying to agree over the correct spelling of imported words like "restaurant" and the arcane rules of punctuation. All in the aid of Rechtschreibreform, the epoch-making attempt to tidy up the language and, allegedly, to simplify it.

The project is finished, the books have been printed, but in place of the order their endeavour had sought to create, chaos reins. One of the lawyers who took the new rule-book to the country's supreme legal authority says his children "no longer know what is right".

The plaintiff's twins are nine years old. In their first years at school, they were well on their way to learning the 212 rules pertaining to German spelling. After the reform, only 112 are to remain.

And to prove that the scholars have not wasted the past 97 years, they have also discarded many of the commas that bedevil the average German sentence. The new user-friendly German is democratic, too. For the first time in a century, writers will be given a choice of spellings for some words. Unfortunately, while the number of rules may have been reduced, the number of exceptions has gone up proportionately.

That is not what bothers the twins, however. The reform has faced a series of legal challenges. A verdict is expected in September, at the start of the new school year.