German hyphen war reaches European court

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Every time 10-year-old Leonhard Matthias Grunkin-Paul visits his dad, he loses his name. The boy is the victim of a bizarre act of German bureaucracy that is mangling the identity of hundreds of thousands of people.

Leonhard's parents have declared a hyphen war on the German authorities. Their case, two years in the making, is about to reach thedizzying heights of the European Court of Justice. The problem: Germany's strict naming law bans hyphens. Although you can hyphenate your name after marriage, you cannot pass it on to your children. "It makes things too complicated," said Karin Eichhoff-Cyrus, director of Germany's language and name enforcers, Gesellschaft für Deutsche Sprache.

German bureaucrats fear a hyphen pandemic. A child with a double-barrelled name, they point out, could go on to marry someone with a double-barrelled name. Their children would have four linked-up surnames, and the next generation might have eight.

The Grunkin-Pauls don't see it that way. Although all are German citizens, Leonhard Matthias was born and registered in Denmark where hyphenated names are allowed. When his parents divorced, he stayed in Denmark but visits his father over the border in northern Germany, where his name is not officially recognised.

First names are a legal minefield as well. "We had parents in the other week wanting to call their daughter 'Gift'," said Dr Gerhard Müller of the Gesellschaft für Deutsche Sprache.

"The word means 'poison' in German, so it was also a no-no. We have to play by the rules."