Germans eat their words over pruning the tongue

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The Independent Online
Throw away your German text-books. As of today, some of the iron rules governing the language of Goethe and Klinsmann are no longer valid. Of the 212 existing spelling regulations, for instance, only 112 will remain.

That's the good news. The bad news is that while the number of rules may have been reduced, the number of exceptions has gone up proportionately. The cumbersome grammar that has driven generations of students to despair has survived the latest attempt to reform the language.

Since 1901 the best brains of the German-speaking world have been pruning Hochdeutsch in an effort to bring order to their Babel of vernaculars and dialects. A mere 95 years later, government officials of Austria, Switzerland, Germany and Liechtenstein signed an agreement yesterday to lay down the new rules.

As one might expect when so many different parties are involved - Germany's united front was undermined by its 16 bickering Lander - the academics' early revolutionary zest has petered out into a stream of feeble compromises.

The Swiss had already abolished the "", because they could not find room for it on their multilingual keyboards.

Now the Germans and Austrians have agreed to the change, replacing the alphabet's Gothic legacy with "ss". Except, that is, after long vowels, and in the word "a", the German for "ate".

Many of the commas that bedevil the average German sentence have gone, too, particularly those preceding the words for "and" and "or".

For the first time in a century, writers will be given a choice of spellings for some words. They will be able to decide, for example, whether they preferred "potentiell" to "potenziell", and "substantiell" to "substanziell".

In their search for purity, the academics who are purging the German language have discarded many foreign imports, such as "Midlifecrisis" and "Sexappeal", while others have been Germanised by acquiring a letter or two.

Thus, smokers ordering a packet of cigarettes by computer will henceforth have to type out two extra letters (see box). Spaghetti, however, is allowed to shrink.

More radical proposals have been thrown out. Nouns will still begin with a capital letter, the verb in convoluted sentences will remain at the very end, and the gender rules have been simplified only slightly. Dogs will stay male, cats female, and girls neuter.

Nor have the reforms resolved the age-old endeavour to achieve linguistic uniformity between the three main German-speaking countries.

When Austria joined the European Union last year, it came with a dowry of 23 "Austricisms", resisted by Germany to the bitter end during the accession talks. Those words are now accepted by the EU, but they are still missing from dictionaries printed in the Federal Republic.

The Austrian dialect at least resembles standard German, unlike the language which is spoken by Swiss Germans. Switzerland is very proud of its version of Hochdeutsch, even though it bears no resemblance to the language spoken in Zurich's cafes.

Swiss films have to be sub- titled in Germany because Germans simply do not understand the dialogue.

The Germans themselves remain divided by their common tongue. Apart from the Bavarians' impenetrable pronunciation, common words spoken in one region can be incomprehensible 100 miles away. The humble potato, for instance, has 15 incarnations, ranging from "Pudel" in the north to "Eschtopfel" in southern Bavaria.

The new rules will be taught at schools from the autumn, and introduced officially in 1998. Then there will be a seven-year period of chaos, when the two systems will live side by side. Only in 2005 will bureaucrats risk losing their jobs by putting too many commas in their memos.

Writing it the right way

How the new German should be spelt


Zigarette Zigarrette

Paket Packet

Kanguruh Kanguru

Restaurant Restorant

Spaghetti Spagetti

Ketchup Ketschup

Crepe Krepp

Karamelle Karamell

Apotheke Apoteke (pharmacy)

Du du