German spelling reform of 1996

From Academic Kids

The German spelling reform (Rechtschreibreform) was an international agreement signed in 1996 by the governments of the German-speaking countries (Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland), concerning the reform of German spelling. Luxembourg, a trilingual country with German as one of its official languages, has not endorsed the reform.


History of German spelling regulation

The Duden privilege

In 1880 the Prussians regulated German spelling on the basis of Konrad Duden's dictionary. Duden's dictionary continued to be the deciding factor when the German parliament (Reichstag) produced rules for spelling throughout the German empire in 1902.

In the following decades, German spelling was essentially decided de facto by the editors of the Duden dictionaries. After World War II, this tradition was followed with two different centers: Mannheim in West Germany and Leipzig in East Germany. By the early 1950s, a few other publishing houses began to attack the Duden monopoly in the West by putting out their own dictionaries, which did not always hold to the "official" spelling of the Duden. In response, the Ministers of Culture in West Germany officially declared the Duden spellings as binding as of November, 1955.

The Duden ( editors used their power cautiously, because they considered their primary task to be the documentation of usage, not the creation of rules. At the same time, however, they found themselves forced to make finer and finer distinctions in the production of German spelling rules.

Debate over the need for reform

The scholarly debate over correct spelling was polarized in the late 1960s, because the young men and women of that generation rejected spelling regulation as repressive and a means for social selection. Suggestions for reform were no longer limited to trying to decide doubtful cases, but rather proposals were made to fundamentally simplify German spelling and thus simplify the task of learning to write.

Many of the reform suggestions called for the elimination of German's capitalization of all nouns, replacing it with a system like that in English, where only proper nouns are capitalized. Various Scandinavian countries had done just that after World War II.

A study in the Netherlands suggested that the German system seemed to improve the reading speed of test groups. The test subjects could read text samples in their native tongue more quickly if they were written with all nouns capitalized than with the English capitalization system. The report was quite influential, and in Britain it was soon suggested that this capitalization be taken over into English, though the attempt to do so failed completely.

Institutionalized reform talks since 1980

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

Their initial proposals were further discussed in two conventions in Vienna in 1986 and 1990, to which the Austrian government invited representatives from every world region where German is spoken. In the closing remarks from the first of these meetings, the capitalization reform was put off to a "second phase" of reform attempts, since no consensus had been reached.

In 1987, the West German Ministers of Culture charged the Institute for the German Language in Mannheim and the Society for the German Language in Wiesbaden with the task of coming up with a new system of rules. In 1988 these groups presented an incomplete, but very wide-ranging set of proposed new rules (for example, "Der Kaiser im Boot" would be changed to "Der keiser im bot"), that were quickly rejected by the general public and then 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 Ministers of Culture invited 43 groups to present their opinions on the document, with hearings held in Germany (now united), Austria and Switzerland. On the basis of these hearings, the Working Group backed off of the idea of eliminating the capitalization of all nouns, and also allowed the continued differing spelling of the homonyms das (the) and daß (that).

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 August 1, 1998, with a transitional period lasting until the 2004–2005 school year.

Institution of the reform

On July 1, 1996, all of the German states (Bundesländer), 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 August 1, 1998. A few German states introduced the new rules as of the 1996–1997 school year.

The various dictionaries raced to be the first with the new spelling, which turned out to be very profitable. For a time dictionaries were showing up on the best-seller lists for German books. The market in school books was also given an impulse.

Transitional period

Some have suggested that the main cause of the current controversy over the spelling reform may spring from the eight-year transitional period. Experience from other reforms that affect the behavior of large groups of people (introduction of the metric system, switching to the Euro, Sweden's change from driving on the left to driving on the right, etc.) show that such reforms are more effective the shorter the transitional period is. When there is a longer transitional period, many don't bother to learn the reform in the hopes that it will later be canceled. This has the tendency of dividing the people into groups of early adopters and resisters. Many experts say that the ideal is to prepare well in advance and then make the change from one day to the next.

The above analysis, however, ignores the fact that the decision of the Ministers of Culture can ultimately affect only the schools and public offices, since anyone else can simply write the way they prefer. Thus it is impossible to introduce a spelling reform "overnight". Even if the spelling of private individuals could be legislated, there are still millions of books in the libraries using the older spelling. Comparison to the currency change or driving on one side of the road or the other does not apply here, since in those cases, the old behavior completely disappears after the change (the old money is valueless or must be traded in; it is illegal and unsafe to continue driving on the "wrong" side of the road).

Public debate after the signing of the declaration of intent

The reforms did not come into the eye of the general public until after the international declaration of intent was signed. Animated arguments arose about the correctness of the decision, with school teachers being the first to be confronted with the implementation of the new rules. At the Frankfurt Book Fair (the largest in Germany) of 1996, Friedrich Denk, a school teacher from Bavaria, obtained signatures from hundreds of authors and scientists demanding the stoppage of the reform. Among the leading supporters were Günter Grass, Siegfried Lenz, Martin Walser, Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Walter Kempowski. The protest gained further nation-wide significance through initiatives such as "Wir Lehrer gegen die Rechtschreibreform" ("Teachers against the spelling reform") which was headed by the teacher and activist Manfred Riebe.

The issue was taken up in the courts, with different decisions in different states, so that the German Supreme Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) was called upon to make a ruling. On July 14, 1998, and after several hearings involving the teachers' initiatives, the court declared that the introduction of a spelling reform by the Ministers of Culture was legal.

In the state of Schleswig-Holstein a referendum of September 27, 1998 called for a return to the traditional spelling. However, the leader of the government, Heide Simonis, managed to reverse the decision of the referendum via a parliamentary vote in 1999.

As the new dictionaries were published in July-August 1996, the critics of the reform felt themselves justified. They began to demand the reversal of the change at the federal level. However, the State Ministers of Culture continued to refuse to accede to their demands. The editors of the Duden also agreed that many of the problems in the traditional spelling system were due to the arcane rules that they had produced to explain it, thus lending their support to the new spelling, which was styled as "more logical".

In May 1998 a group of 550 language and literature professors demanded the reversal of the reform.

Later developments

In 1997, an international committee was formed to handle any cases of doubt that might remain under the new rules. In 2004, 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, like the proposed capitalization change, would the committee require the agreement of the State Ministers. This move was strongly criticized.

Simultaneously, the committee released their fourth report on the spelling reform, 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 their future deliberations. The Academy had been a strong critic 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 make some changes to the reform, making the traditional spelling of certain words and phrases the preferred spelling, with the new spelling still being acceptable. They also confirmed that the transition phase would end on August 1, 2005. A Council for German Spelling will be instituted on this date, taking the place of the existing international committee. This decision was unanimous and would require a unanimous vote to change, which seems highly unlikely at this point.

Legal status

The spelling change is based on the international agreement of July 1, 1996, signed by Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Strictly speaking it is not a treaty. Signers 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 has been no parliamentary decision over the reform. Instead, the Supreme Court ruled that the reform in the schools can be decided by the Ministers of Culture. Thus as of August 1, 2005, the traditional spelling will be considered incorrect in the schools. It is presumed that from there, it will spread to the German public.

State of implementation

As of 2004, most German print media use rules that to a larger extent comply with the reform. This includes most newspapers and periodicals and the German press agencies dpa and Reuters. Still, some “quality” newspapers like Die Zeit, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, or Süddeutsche Zeitung each felt the need to create their own in-house orthographies, while most “lesser” newspapers use more or less the rules set up by dpa. These in-house orthographies thus occupy a continuum between “old spelling with new rules for ß” and (almost) full acceptance of the new rules.

Nevertheless some newspapers and periodicals continue to use the traditional spelling or have switched back to the traditional spelling, including the most widely-read daily tabloid "Bild-Zeitung" (3.9 Million copies), and one of Germany's most respected newspapers, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Die Welt. The list at (in German) contains some 300 newspapers and periodicals that are known to use the traditional spelling. (For comparison, the total number of German publications is several thousands, and there are at present no exact figures as to the proportions of old/new spelling.)

In books, the implementation depends on the specific subject, and 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 spelling, while novels are spelled as the authors prefer. Classics are typically printed without changes, unless they are specific school editions.

Since the dictionaries switched to the new spelling early on, there is no standard reference work available for the traditional spelling. However, Theodor Ickler, Professor of German at the University of Erlangen, has produced a dictionary which aims to meet the demand of simplification without the need of imposing any new spellings. There is also a lively trade in used copies of the older Duden dictionaries. The newest Duden (2004) includes the most recent changes proposed by the ministers.

Actions of opponents

There are still active groups working to cancel the reform, despite the near end of the transitional period. The year 2002 saw the foundation of the "Forschungsgruppe Deutsche Sprache" ("Research Group German Language") by historian and writer Reinhard Markner, which is supported by leading writers and intellectuals. In 2003, Bavarian Minister of Culture Hans Zehetmair declared that the reform was a mistake. "Language is a dynamic process. It must grow and develop." Friedrich Denk together with journalist and author Hans Krieger as well as several other reform critics founded the "Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung" ("Council for German Spelling") on 22. August 2004.

Among the politicians, Lower Saxony's Minister President Christian Wulff also stated that Germany should go back to the traditional spelling. Peter Müller, Minister President of Saarland said, "This spelling reform is a miscarriage and is not accepted by most people. Politics has to accept this and have the power to remove this reform again completely." The CDU and CSU chiefs Angela Merkel and Edmund Stoiber have also moved to undo the reform.

The German Academy for Language and Poetry suggested a compromise in 2003. Many critics consider this reform of the reform to be a second-best choice.

Several minister presidents have threatened to remove language reform from the competence of the ministers of culture, and in this way to capsize the reform plans. This has been followed by many publishing houses announcing returns to the traditional spelling.

Acceptance of the reform

In Germany

According to the German Constitutional Supreme Court, the introduction of the new spelling in the schools by way of ministerial ordinance was legal and did not need parliamentary consent.

According to a report on the television magazine "Panorama" on July 21, 2004, "Even six years after its introduction, 77% of Germans consider the spelling reform not to be sensible. This came out of a representative poll. Especially older people reject the new rules, for example 81% of those between 30 and 40 years old. In the meantime, only every fifth German citizen (21%) feels that the spelling reform is in order."

In Switzerland

The German debate about the spelling reform produced surprise among the Swiss media outlets, rather than agreement. In Switzerland, the reform has had a less noticeable impact since the letter ß, which means the biggest part of the reform, had not been in use anyway. Most Swiss newspapers and magazines follow house spelling rules which in the case of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Switzerland's leading daily paper, divert substantially from the official rules. The Schweizer Monatshefte returned to the traditional Swiss spelling in 2004.

In Austria

Austrian media considers the subject to be open to discussion, with no decision having been made. A return to the traditional spelling would still be possible. Many media outlets in Austria use house rules rather than the official spelling rules. A Gallup poll conducted in August 2004 indicated that 62% of Austrians would favor a return to the traditional spelling. The Kronen-Zeitung (largest newspaper in Austria) announced on August 16, 2004, that it would return to the classical spelling rules.

New Rules

The spelling reform is an attempt to simplify the orthography and make it easier to learn, without substantially changing the familiar rules of the German language. The new rules concern the following areas:

  • correspondence between sounds and written letters (this includes rules for spelling loan words)
  • capitalization
  • joined and separate words
  • hyphenated spellings
  • punctuation
  • hyphenation at the end of a line.

Sounds and letters

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

ß and ss: the letter "ß" appears only after long vowels and diphthongs.

  • der Flußder Fluss (the river)

A short vowel is followed by "ss" or "s".

  • Ich möchte, daß du kommst.…, dass du kommst (I want you to come)
  • but das Hausdas Haus (the house)

As a consequence the German spelling of anschluss is now closer to the English spelling

  • der Anschlußder Anschluss

As before the reform, Switzerland uses "ss" for "ß", keyboards without "ß" use "ss" instead, and there is no capital "ß". Words in uppercase substitute SS for ß: FUSSBALL.

Triple consonants before a vowel are no longer reduced:

  • SchiffahrtSchifffahrt from Schiff + Fahrt (boat trip)

Doubled consonants after short vowels at the end of certain words, to conform with derived forms

  • AsAss because of plural Asse (ace, aces)

Vowel changes, especially "ä" for "e", to conform with derived or otherwise close forms

  • StengelStängel (stalk) because of Stange (bar)

Additional minor changes aim to remove a number of special cases or allow alternative spellings

  • rauhrau (raw) because of blau, grau, genau

Several loan words now allow spellings that are closer to German. Especially, the suffixes -phon, -phot, and -graph can be spelt with f for ph.


The reform aims to solidify the capitalization of nouns, and clarifies the criteria for this.

  • infrage stellenin Frage stellen (to question)
  • eislaufenEis laufen (to ice-skate)

Capitalization after colon is now always allowed. The polite capitalization of du, dein, ihr, euch in letters is removed, but retained for Sie and Ihnen.

Compound words

As before, compound nouns are joined, but several other joined compounds are now separated.

Nouns and verbs are generally separated:

  • radfahren → "Rad fahren" (ride a bike)

Infinitive verbs with other verbs are separated:

  • kennenlernenkennen lernen (get to know)

Other constructions now admit alternative forms:

  • an Stelle von or anstelle von (instead of)

See also: Spelling reform.

de:Reform der deutschen Rechtschreibung von 1996


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