Theodor Ickler

Spelling trouble

Why would a nation put itself through all the trouble, to achieve so little?

Aus einer Rezension des englischen Linguisten Geoffrey Sampson zu Sally Johnsons “Spelling trouble”:

On a family holiday in Saxony in April 2005, shortly before the end of the transition period, I never once spotted a written form deviating from the norms I learned in the pre-reform period. (The one change to a really common word mentioned by Johnson is that the special German s-z symbol ß is replaced by ss in the conjunction "dass", 'that' – but then in Switzerland, where much of my German was learned, the s-z symbol is not used at all.) Why would a nation put itself through all the trouble which Johnson documents, to achieve so little?

Part of the answer is that although the changes are in fact numerous, many of them concern issues which, in English, are simply below the radar of people who define and maintain usage norms. A number of the changes, for instance, concern the points where it is permissible to use a hyphen to break a word across lines. Previously, one could divide a word within a "sp" or "sk" cluster but not within "st"; now, one is allowed to write "Wes-te" (waistcoat) analogously to "Wes-pe" (wasp). (And the pleasantly quaint rule whereby "ck" when broken across lines becomes "kk" has been given up; "Zucker", 'sugar', is no longer broken as "Zuk-ker" but as "Zu-cker".)

Admittedly, there are differences in this area even within the English-speaking world. As a graduate student in the USA in the 1960s I was surprised to find that American dictionaries often indicated where it was appropriate to break words, and my American fellow-students expected to use this information in drafting their own writing. (Nowadays, presumably, they would no longer feel the need, because word-processing software makes such decisions for the writer.) But in Britain to my knowledge no dictionary has ever marked such things, and they have never been taught in the school system. Common sense suggests that it might be unwise to split, say, "raging" into "rag-ing", because "rag" suggests a different pronunciation; and such matters may well be systematically codified by publishing houses for their internal purposes. But the most pedantic schoolteacher would never have docked marks from a pupil's work for poor word-breaks; we have no public rules saying what breaks are "correct" or "wrong". In Germany, apparently, mistakes of this order can contribute to a child being made to repeat a year at school.

The German for repeating a year's schooling used to be "sitzenbleiben" (to stay sitting), and is now written "sitzen bleiben". One of the most controversial areas within the reform package concerns changes to rules about which compounds are to be written solid and which as separate words. Again, in Britain the equivalent issue is not perceived as a matter of "correct/incorrect". We have norms for which compounds are written solid, which are hyphenated, and which written as separate words, but the norms function without being made explicit. That creates difficulties for foreigners; now that, within the EU, we are accustomed to reading authoritative documents which have been drafted in English but with no native-speaker input, I find that one of the commonest hallmarks of Euro-English is compounds written solid that ought not to be. But for native speakers it works. I feel confident that no experienced native writer of English would write, say, "towncentre" as one word, though I do not know why: logically and phonetically it seems as much a unit as, say, "loudspeaker" (which would look strange written as "loud-speaker" or "loud speaker"). I do not know whether we tacitly follow some general rules, or learn how to write compounds case by case, and if a schoolchild wrote "towncentre", the teacher's response would be along the lines "We usually write that as two words" rather than "Mistake, lose a mark". In German there are complex explicit rules, and the rules have changed in ways which many Germans find objectionable.

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