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Germans Will Spell 'em The Way They See 'em

First reforms in 95 years aim to simplify, simplify

In grammar school, English speakers learn how to spell "philosophy" just so. It makes no difference that the word looks nothing like it sounds - that's just the way it is.

For the past 100 years, German students have struggled alongside their English-speaking counterparts, frustrated by the gap between phonetics and spelling.

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But no more. This fall, many German schools will begin teaching new spelling rules dictated by the first German spelling reform since 1901. Through these reforms, words like "philosophie" and "apotheke" (pronounced ap-o-TAY-ke) will change to "filosofie" and "apoteke" - all to make the written language more accurately reflect the spoken one.

Gerhard Stickel, director of the Institute for the German Language, says the old orthography, or rules of spelling, was just getting too difficult for people to remember. "People should control orthography, rather than being controlled by it," he says.

Mr. Stickel's institute worked in concert with organizations from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein to hammer out a reform of German orthography acceptable to all four countries.

After reaching an agreement, the changes were taken to the governments of the four countries. In each case, the governments accepted the reforms and made them law.

The reforms will not officially take effect until June 1, 1998. Even then, they can only be enforced in two sectors: government and public schools. In addition, to help ease the process along, there will be a grace period - until 2005 - when both spellings are acceptable. But the newer one will be preferred.

Despite the late starting date, many schools will take the initiative and begin teaching the new rules this coming academic year.

If the concept of waking up one morning to find new dictionaries, textbooks, and office memos seems a bit strange to English speakers, there's a good reason for that. English orthography has remained largely unchanged since Samuel Johnson published his "Dictionary of the English Language" in 1755.

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Unlike Stickel's institute, or the Acadmie Franaise for the French language, no organizations in the English-speaking world hold themselves responsible for the maintenance of the English language. "I don't think what's being done in Germany is possible in England," says Margo Charlton of the Oxford English Dictionary. "We don't have the mechanisms to do such a thing."

No change in US since Webster

Nor does the United States.

The only significant orthographical reform of English in the last 250 years came from Noah Webster. He published his "American Dictionary of the English Language" in 1828, which initiated the American spelling of words like labor (from labour) and program (from programme).

Since that time, dictionaries have become the sole arbiters of English orthographical reform, and if the Oxford Dictionary is any indication, they are not on the cutting edge of spelling reform.

"That's something we don't touch with a barge pole," Ms. Charlton says. "It would be contrary to our principles to react ahead of evidence. We wouldn't change something before it was commonly accepted."

Many line up against orthographical reform for practical reasons.

English has become so gnarled phonetically that some would-be reformers, including playwright George Bernard Shaw, have proposed a new alphabet with 48 letters to cover all the contingencies. Of course, this means publishers would have to build new presses, street signs would have to be changed, and the written language relearned.

The German reforms are not nearly as radical as that, but some German speakers oppose them for sentimental reasons.

"There will be problems," Stickel says. "The moment you change the spelling system, there are always people who worked so hard to learn the rules and almost hate the idea of changing them."

Norbert Wolf, a German professor at the University of Wrzburg, points to a more fundamental objection.

Spelling scores improve

"It's emotional," he says. "They are afraid of losing tradition. I just read some articles on the changes of 1901, and you can see many of the same arguments [against the reforms] back then."

In response to the issue of tradition, Stickel notes, "the German language does not change when we change how we write it down."

He concedes that the most important people to convert to the new rules are journalists.

"Most [journalists] dislike having to think about spelling - just one more thing to think about on deadline - but papers have to think about their readers. And with a new generation of children coming out of school with different reading expectations, I think they will have to change," Stickel says.

Werner D'Inke, the managing editor of the Frankfurt Allgemeine, widely considered Germany's top daily, says his newspaper will make the switch on Jan. 1, 1998.

In the end, Stickel says, the reforms were made to make spelling easier. The results, so far, have borne this out.

Karin Eckermann, a teacher of grammar school and high school German for the past 25 years, says that high school-aged students tested under the new spelling rules have improved their scores as much as 40 percent.

Professor Wolf says this is key. "You should make orthography easy," he says. And while Mrs. Eckermann says she has grown attached to the quirks of the old system, she agrees that the reform is for the best.

"As the difference between the spoken word and the written word becomes too great, the orthography must be reformed," she says.

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