The question of how to spell words like "restaurant" had been exercising scholars' minds since 1901. Last year their work, the first overhaul of German grammar in modern times, was finally approved by all the governments concerned, as well as by representatives of German-speaking minorities in Europe. The dictionaries have been printed, computer programs capable of rendering old into new are out, and schools were due to start teaching the updated rules from next Monday.
Now no one knows what will happen. On Tuesday, a court in the Land of Hesse ruled that the "Rechtschreibreform" cannot be introduced by decree. There is likely to be an appeal, but if, as likely, the judgment is upheld, spelling will become a constitutional matter, requiring legislation by the federal parliament, the Bundestag.
Further legal petitions, brought as in the Hesse case by parents worried about their children's education, are in the pipeline. How undignified - and utterly German - that the way words are spelt should be decided by courts.
For some legal authorities, the responsibility is too great to bear. A court in the Land of Thuringia, the second of six regions currently being sued, published its learned opinion yesterday. The gist of the verdict, with apologies for the loose translation, was the following: "Don't bother us. We're on holiday."
But the government in Bonn has seen the writing on the wall. "The child has fallen into the well," was how Jurgen Ruttgers, the federal minister responsible for education, commented with sadness on the Hesse verdict.
Time must now be found to prepare a language reform bill and submit it to the Bundestag in the autumn. Most parties are split right down the middle over the issue, except for the Free Democrats who want a laissez- faire language, and the post-Communists of eastern Germany who couldn't care less at the moment, but might start campaigning for the Cyrillic script just to be different.
"But what are we supposed to teach in the meantime?" ask the teachers. The new spelling was only due to come into force next year, and would have co-existed with the current rules until 2005. But schools in most Lander were just about to introduce their pupils to the language stripped of commas in 47 well-defined instances next term.
Berlin said yesterday that it was proceeding with the new curriculum as planned. Hesse itself could not say, because all its education officials were on holiday. Austria, Switzerland and Bavaria are sticking to the new language, denounced by the premier division of German writers as a disgrace.
"Restaurant" - in case you were wondering - was going to be spelt "Restorant", although places to eat would still be listed in phone books under "Gaststatten".Reuse content