Girish Mahajan

German orthography reform of 1996

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German orthography reform of 1996

The German orthography reform of 1996 (Rechtschreibreform) was a change to German spelling and punctuation that was intended to simplify German orthography and thus to make it easier to learn, without substantially changing the rules familiar to users of the language.


The reform was based on an international agreement signed in Vienna in July 1996 by the governments of the German-speaking countries - Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. Luxembourg did not participate despite having German as one of its three official languages: it regards itself "as a non-German-speaking country not to be a contributory determinant upon the German system of spelling", though it did eventually adopt the reform.

The reformed orthography became obligatory in schools and in public administration. However, there was a campaign against the reform, and in the resulting public debate the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany was called upon to delineate the extent of reform. In 1998 the court stated that because there was no law governing orthography, outside the schools people could spell as they liked, including the use of traditional spelling. In March 2006, the Council for German Orthography agreed unanimously to remove the most controversial changes from the reform; this was largely (not completely) accepted by media organizations such as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that had previously opposed the reform.

The rules of the new spelling concern the following areas:, correspondence between sounds and written letters (this includes rules for spelling loan words), capitalisation, joined and separate words, hyphenated spellings, punctuation, hyphenation at the end of a line. Place names and family names were excluded from the reform.

Sounds and letters

The reform aimed to systematise the correspondence between sounds (phonemes) and letters (graphemes), and to strengthen the principle that derived forms should follow the spelling of the root form.

ß and ss: In reformed orthography the grapheme ß (a modernised typographical rendering of how sz appeared in traditional Gothic script; it is seldom used in Switzerland) is considered a separate letter that is to appear only after long vowels and diphthongs. In general in German, long stressed vowels are followed by single consonants, and short stressed vowels by double consonants. In the traditional orthography, "ß" was written instead of "ss" if the s phoneme belonged to only one syllable, thus in terminal position and before consonants "ss" was always written as "ß", without regard to the length of the preceding vowel. In the reformed orthography, a short stressed vowel is never followed by "ß". This brings it into line with the two-letter spelling of other final consonants (-ch, -ck, -dt, -ff, -ll, -mm, -nn, -rr, -tt, -tz). Thus Fass [fas]Fässer [ˈfɛsɐ], by analogy to Ball [bal]Bälle [ˈbɛlə]; cf. the old spelling: FaßFässer, in contrast to Maß [maːs]Maße [ˈmaːsə] like Tal [taːl]Täler [ˈtɛːlɐ].

Nevertheless, the new German spelling is not fully phonetic, and it is still necessary to know the plural of a noun in order to spell its singular correctly: Los [loːs]Lose [ˈloːzə], Floß [floːs]Flöße [ˈfløːsə].

Exempted from change are certain very common short-vowelled words which end in a single 's' (such as das, es), echoing other undoubled final consonants in German (e.g. ab, im, an, hat, -ig). So the frequent error of confusing the conjunction dass (previously daß) and the relative pronoun das has remained a trap: Ich hoffe, dass sie kommt. (I hope that she comes.) Das Haus, das dort steht. (The house that stands there.) Both are pronounced /das/.

The so-called "s rule" makes up over 90% of the words changed by the reform. Since a trailing -ss does not occur in the traditional orthography (which uses -ß instead), the -ss at the end of reformed words like dass and muss (previously muß) is now the only quick and sure sign to indicate that the reformed spelling has been used, even if just partly, in texts (except those of Swiss origin). All other changes are encountered less frequently and not in every text.

Triple consonants preceding a vowel are no longer reduced (but hyphenation is often used in these instances anyway):

  • Schiffahrt became Schifffahrt from Schiff (ship) + Fahrt (journey)
  • In particular, triple "s" now appears more often than all the other triple consonants together, while in the traditional orthography they never appear.

  • FlußschiffahrtFlussschifffahrt, MißstandMissstand
  • Doubled consonants appear after short vowels at the end of certain words, to conform with derived forms:

  • AsAss because of plural Asse (ace, aces)
  • StopStopp because of the verb stoppen
  • Vowel changes, especially ä for e, are made to conform with derived forms or related words.

  • StengelStängel (stalk) because of Stange (bar)
  • Additional minor changes aim to remove a number of special cases or to allow alternative spellings

  • rauhrau (rough) for consistency with blau, grau, genau
  • Several loan words now allow spellings that are closer to the "German norm". In particular, the affixes -phon, -phot, and -graph can be spelled with f or ph.


    The reform aims to make the capitalisation of nouns uniform and clarifies the criteria for this.

  • eislaufenEis laufen (to ice-skate)
  • Examples such as Eis laufen are thought by some to be grammatically incorrect, the argument being that as a separate word Eis cannot be a verb modifier and thus has to be a direct object, whereas laufen ('to go', 'to walk', 'to run') is an intransitive verb and cannot take a direct object, thus engendering some harsh criticism of the spelling reform. In the reform revision of 2006, the verb eislaufen reverted to its old spelling.

    Capitalisation after a colon is now obligatory only if a full sentence or direct speech follows; otherwise a small letter must go after a colon.

    The polite capitalisation of du, dich, dein, ihr, euch, and euer (the cases of the familiar second-person pronouns) in letters is discouraged, but it is retained for Sie, Ihnen, and Ihr (the formal second-person pronouns).

    Compound words

    As before, compound nouns are generally joined into one word, but several other compounds are now separated.

    Nouns and verbs are generally separated:

  • radfahrenRad fahren (to ride a bicycle)
  • Multiple infinitive verbs used with finite verbs are separated:

  • kennenlernenkennen lernen (to get to know)
  • spazierengehenspazieren gehen (to go for a walk)
  • Other constructions now admit alternative forms:

  • an Stelle von or anstelle von (instead of)
  • There are some subtle changes in the meaning when the new forms collide with some pre-existing forms:

  • vielversprechendviel versprechend (literally "much promising," but the meaning of the long compound adjective is "promising" in the sense of "up-and-coming", "auspicious"; whereas the second phrase with two words means "promising many things")
  • Exceptions

    Family names
    are completely excluded from the rules and are not affected by the reform; this also applies to given names.
    Place names
    are not strictly subject to the rules. The German Ständiger Ausschuss für geographische Namen (Permanent Committee for Geographic Names) strongly recommends applying the rules for new names, but stresses that this applies only when new names are assigned or the competent authorities decide to modify existing names.

    Debate over the need for reform

    Spelling reform had been discussed for a long time and was still controversial in the late 1960s. Suggestions for reform were no longer limited to doubtful cases, but rather proposals were made to fundamentally simplify German spelling and writing, and thus the task of learning to write.

    Many of the suggested reforms called for the elimination of the capitalisation of all common nouns. A similar reform had previously been carried out in the Nordic countries.

    Institutionalised reform talks since 1980

    In 1980, the Internationaler Arbeitskreis für Orthographie (International Working Group for Orthography) was formed, with linguists from East Germany, West Germany, Austria, and Switzerland taking part.

    The initial proposals of this working group were further discussed at two conferences in Vienna, Austria, in 1986 and 1990, to which the Austrian government had invited representatives from every region where German is spoken. In the closing remarks from the first of these meetings, capitalisation reform was put off to a future "second phase" of German language reform attempts, since no consensus had been reached.

    In 1987, the ministers of culture of the federal states (Bundesländer) in West Germany assigned the Institute for the German Language in Mannheim, Germany and the Society for the German Language in Wiesbaden, Germany with the task of coming up with a new system of rules. In 1988, these two organisations presented an incomplete but very wide-ranging set of proposed new rules, for example, the phrase Der Kaiser ißt den Aal im Boot ("The Emperor eats the eel in the boat") would be written Der keiser isst den al im bot. However, these proposals were quickly rejected by the general public, and then they were withdrawn by the ministers of culture as unacceptable. At the same time, similar groups were formed in Switzerland, Austria, and East Germany.

    In 1992, the International Working Group published a proposed global reform to German spelling entitled Deutsche Rechtschreibung — Vorschläge zu ihrer Neuregelung (German Spelling: Proposals for its New Regulation). In 1993, the German ministers of culture invited 43 groups to present their opinions on the document, with hearings held in the unified Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. On the basis of these hearings, the working group backed off from the notion of eliminating the capitalisation of all nouns. It also preserved the orthographical distinction between the inconvenient homophones das ("the", or "that", relative pronoun) and daß ("that", conjunction, as in "She said that you came"), which introduce different types of subordinate clause.

    At a third conference in Vienna in 1994, the results were recommended to the respective governments for acceptance. The German ministers of culture decided to implement the new rules on 1 August 1998, with a transitional period lasting until the 2004–2005 school year.

    Institution of the reform

    On 1 July 1996, all of the German states (Bundesländer), and the countries of Austria, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein, as well as some other countries with German-speaking minorities (but notably not Luxembourg) agreed to introduce the new spelling by 1 August 1998. A few German Bundesländer introduced the new rules starting from the 1996–97 school year.

    The various dictionary companies raced to be the first with the new spellings, and that idea turned out to be quite profitable. For a time, German dictionaries were showing up on the best-seller lists for German books. The market for school textbooks was also given a new life.

    Public debate after the signing of the declaration of intent

    The reforms did not attract much attention from the general public until after the international declaration of intent was signed. Animated arguments arose about the correctness of the decision, with schoolteachers being the first to be faced with the implementation of the new rules. At the Frankfurt Book Fair (the largest in Germany) in 1996, Friedrich Denk, a teacher from Bavaria, obtained signatures from hundreds of authors and scientists demanding the cancellation of the reform. Among the leading opponents were Günter Grass, Siegfried Lenz, Martin Walser, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, and Walter Kempowski. The protest gained further nationwide significance through initiatives such as Wir Lehrer gegen die Rechtschreibreform (We Teachers Against the Spelling Reform), which was headed by the teacher and activist Manfred Riebe.

    In May 1997, the "Society for German Spelling and Language Cultivation – initiative against the spelling reform" (Verein für deutsche Rechtschreibung und Sprachpflege e. V. (VRS) – Initiative gegen die Rechtschreibreform) was founded in opposition to the German spelling reform.

    The issue was taken up in the courts, with different decisions in different German states, so that the Bundesverfassungsgericht (Federal Constitutional Court of Germany) was called upon to make a ruling. In May 1998 a group of 550 language and literature professors, led by Theodor Ickler, Helmut Jochems, Horst Haider Munske and Peter Eisenberg, two of the Reformers, Harald Weinrich of the Collège de France, Jean-Marie Zemb of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, and others, in a resolution requested the reversal of the reform by the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany.

    On 14 July 1998, after one hearing on 12 May 1998, and involving only one teachers' organisation, the High Court declared that the introduction of the spelling reform by the Ministers of Culture was legal.

    In the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, a majority of voters in a referendum on 27 September 1998 called for a return to traditional spellings. However, the prime minister of that state, Heide Simonis, found a way to reverse the results of that referendum via a parliamentary vote in 1999.

    While the new German dictionaries were published in July and August 1996, the critics of the language reform perceived themselves to be justified. They began to demand the reversal of the change at the federal level. However, the Ministers of Culture continued to refuse to accede to their demands. The editors of the Duden dictionaries also agreed that many of the problems in the traditional spelling system were due to the "arcane rules" that had been fabricated to explain the system, thus lending their support to the new spelling system, which they said was and is more logical.

    One of the public critics of the spelling reform was Josef Kraus, the president of the Deutscher Lehrerverband (German Association of Teachers).

    Later developments

    In 1997, an international committee was formed to handle any cases of doubt that might arise under the new rules. In 2004, the German Federal Education Minister, Edelgard Bulmahn, announced that this committee was to be given wide-ranging powers to make decisions about German spelling. Only in cases of extreme changes, such as the proposed capitalisation change, would the committee require the consent of the Ministers of Culture. This move was strongly criticised.

    Simultaneously, the committee released its fourth report on spelling reforms, reviewing the points of the reform in detail. However, this report was rejected by the Conference of Ministers of Culture in March 2004. The ministers also demanded that the committee work together with the German Academy for Language and Poetry in its future deliberations. The academy had been strongly critical of the reform from the beginning. The ministers also made changes to the composition of the international committee.

    In July 2004, the Ministers decided to introduce some changes to the reform, making both the traditional and the new spellings acceptable. They also formed a Council for German Orthography, "38 experts from five countries", representing linguists, publishers, writers, journalists, teachers and parents. Taking the place of the existing international committee, the Council agreed unanimously to implement the uncontroversial parts of the reform, while allowing compromises on other changes: "writing compounds separately or as a single word, [on] the use of lower and upper case, punctuation and syllabification". This modified reform came into effect by 1 August 2006.

    Legal status

    The spelling change is based on the international agreement of 1 July 1996, signed on behalf of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The signatories for Germany were the president of the Conference of Ministers of Culture, Karl-Heinz Reck, and the parliamentary secretary of the Federal Ministry of the Interior, Eduard Lintner. There have been no Bundestag (parliamentary) decisions on the reforms. Instead, as mentioned above, the German Supreme Court ruled that the reform in the public schools could be decided by the Ministers of Culture. Thus, as of 1 August 2005, the traditional spelling system was to be considered incorrect in the schools, except that two of the German states, Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia, had both officially rejected the reform. Since 2006, the new rules have become compulsory in Bavarian and North Rhine-Westphalian public schools as well. It is presumed that from the schools the writing reforms will spread to the German-speaking public.

    State of implementation

    As of 2004, most German printed media used spelling rules that to a large extent comply with the reforms. These included most newspapers and periodicals, and the German press agencies Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA) and Reuters. Still, some newspapers, including Die Zeit, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and the Süddeutsche Zeitung, created their own in-house orthography rules, while most other newspapers used approximately the rules set out by the DPA. These in-house orthographies thus occupy a continuum between "old spelling with new rules for ß" and an (almost) full acceptance of the new rules.

    In books, the extent of implementation varies according to the book's subject, and it often varies within a publishing house. Approximately 80% of newly published books use the new system. Schoolbooks and children's books generally follow the new spellings, while the text of novels is presented as the authors prefer. Classic works of literature are typically printed without any changes, unless they are editions specifically intended for use in schools.

    Since dictionaries adopted the new spellings early on, there is no currently in-print, standard reference work available for traditional spellings. However, Theodor Ickler, a Professor of German at the University of Erlangen, has produced a new dictionary that aims to meet the demands of simplification without the need to impose any new spellings. It has not been reprinted since 2004. The commerce in used copies of the older Duden dictionaries has dwindled. As of the 2004 edition, the Duden dictionary includes the most recent changes proposed by the Ministers of Culture.

    In Germany

    According to a report on the television magazine Panorama on 21 July 2004, "Even six years after its introduction, 77% of Germans consider the spelling reform not to be sensible. This came from a representative poll. A majority of adults reject the new rules (for example 81% of those between 30 and 40 years old). In the meantime, only one out of every five German citizens (21%) feels that the spelling reform is acceptable.

    In Switzerland

    In Switzerland, the reform had a less noticeable impact, as the letter "ß", which was a prominent part of the reform, had not been in much use anyway.

    Liechtenstein follows the same spelling system as Switzerland.

    In Austria

    A Gallup poll conducted in August 2004 indicated that 62% of Austrians would favour a return to the traditional spelling.


    German orthography reform of 1996 Wikipedia

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