German new order brings triple trouble

Orthographic gardening roots out a few linguistic illogicalities, reports Steve Crawshaw in Bonn
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The Independent Online
In English, things are simple because they are so obviously complicated. There is no logic in the way words are spelt or pronounced. Therefore, no one tries to impose order on the chaos.

What, after all, would be the "logical" way of spelling a naked grizzly: a bear bear, or a bare bare? And, if either version is deemed "correct", how does one explain ear and are? Or, if the correct answer is neither bare nor bear but (by analogy with the Labour Party leader) bair, what explains the rainy plains? Clearly, it is easier to stick with orthographic anarchy. If it was good enough for Shakespeare (or even Shakspere), it's good enough for us.

In German, however, where there is at least a semblance of linguistic order, the not-quite logic always brings the desire for more.

After years of meetings in dictionary-filled rooms, a team of orthographers has announced a complex new set of rules on how to spell and not to spell. In Britain, such matters are dealt with at considerable length in newspapers' and publishers' conflicting books of house style. Realise or realize, connection or connexion, floppy disk or floppy disc, tsar or czar. There are endless sets of in-house edicts. But no organisation (organization) would seek to make judgements (judgments) on behalf of the entir e nation.

The Germans, however - mindful of the results achieved by the French in this respect - appear eager to introduce The Correct Version. The rules have been drafted, together with the Austrians and the Swiss - this is an international Germanophone venture. The rules will be implemented, once the politicians have approved the professors' work. The decisions are intended to stick: this is the first reform of the spelling system since 1901.

The grammarians have drawn back from some of the most controversial proposals - for example, the heretical suggestion that the Kaiser should become the Keiser, or that Boot (meaning, and pronounced, "boat") should be respelt Bot. As one paper noted, these suggestions had caused "almost hysterical debate," and slipped off the agenda as a result of the public outcry.

But there is still a long list of changes that has been agreed and is due to be introduced - beginning in two years, and taking full effect in 2001.

Thus, the ess-zett, a character resembling a Greek beta, which sometimes replaces the double s, will now (sometimes, not always) be abandoned. Foreign words are to be changed: Mayonnaise will officially give way to Majonase, Asthma gives way to Astma, and Nougat is replaced by Nugat.

Then, there is the question of doubling or tripling consonants. Until now, one was obliged to stick to double consonants, even where logic demanded a triple (in the German equivalents of words such as "still-life"). Now, where the double was obligatory and the triple was forbidden, the triple is obligatory and the double is forbidden. This is supposed to make life simpler. One cannot help wondering if teachers will now be as confused as pupils used to be.

The cost of the project - the changes to school books will cost about £2bn - has been widely noted. There has been rueful comment, too, on a situation that the Suddeutsche Zeitung compared with Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea. "On his way to the harbour,his magnificent catch is eaten by sharks. Of the original reform proposals, only the bare bones have survived."

None the less, the Suddeutsche concludes on an almost charitable note: "Maybe this was the charm of the whole project: that, by pulling up some weeds, one gets a glimpse of the beauty of the garden once more."

One proposal that failed to catch on, when tidying up the linguistic garden, was the abandonment of the capital letter for ordinary nouns. The capital serves no useful purpose in modern German. You do not need a capital letter, in order to realise that Brot is bread and Wein is wine.

None the less, the idea that sauerkraut, wurst and lieder should be written without capitals is too shocking for millions to contemplate. It is almost as unthinkable as the idea that Britons might decapitalise john major, god, or even the queen.