1. Forum
  2. >
  3. Topic: German
  4. >
  5. How do spelling reforms work?


How do spelling reforms work?

I've heard there's been spelling reforms in Germany, and some other places. How does it work? Does the government just tell everyone to spell a certain list of words differently?

Thanks for the replies!


June 4, 2018


  • 1135

There are linguistic societies that get a lot of input from linguists and researchers. Together they spend years figuring out what to change and how to change it. Then they finalize the reform. Whatever they come up with is offial and a specific date is chosen at which the new orthography becomes effective and theoretically everybody is supposed to use it.

Next step: All new books and important already published books such as school books, dictionaries, orthography reference books need to be printed and reprinted according to the new rules - the books of the latter group all at once so that everything is ready for all the schools at the same time, which costs a huge amount of money and resources - not to mention the many more trees sacrificed for this cause. Printers and publishing houses rejoice about the extra business.

Teachers need to learn the new rules because they are supposed to teach them to the students and correct their mistakes. But since the changes are so many, far from being logical and are applied in some cases in a way that can only be described as willy-nilly, nobody can tell for sure what applies in a specific situation anymore. Teachers correct assumed “mistakes” in students’ writings, get into fights with parents about what is the actual correct new spelling now. Students are upset and turn to creative applications of the spelling rules to show the teachers how little they (the teachers) know about the new spelling. The teachers, by now completely confused, but not willing to admit it, telling students that their spelling is fine since the reform allows certain alternative spellings. (This is a major generalization and I am sure most teachers handled the situation perfectly, but the described situation happened, and surely was not an isolated case.)

In the general population, big chaos results as nobody knows anymore what is correct and what is incorrect. Many people are convinced that, since you don’t need to use a comma before certain kinds of infinitve clause anymore, you don’t have to use commas at all. Or they tell everyone that the letter ß has been stricken out from the German alphabet. Official protests erupt in the population. Letters of complaint are written by famous German authors, stubbornly clinging to the old orthography. One German state decides by popular vote to re-introduce the old orthography, other states attempt the same, but fail. Magazines, newspapers and other organizations each create their own “house rules”.

The amount of criticism results in three (!) attemps at patching up the biggest issues of the reform. After the first version of 1996, new versions are published in 2004, 2006 and, the currently effective final version, 2011. The last version has in many ways returned to the spelling before 1996, the most idiotic changes were undone, most of the not quite so idiotic changes remain as alternative spellings, although the Duden makes (generally followed) recommendations for the preferred forms, which tend to be the old forms.

Was it worth it? Is the German spelling easier than before? Do German people make less spelling mistakes than before? No. Absolutely not. On the contrary. Only a small percentage (around 10%) of the population was ever in favor of the reform. The final version, which is more old than new orthography, seems to be generally accepted now (I guess everyone was tired about this whole rigmarole), but lots of people that do not work with language or write professionally never bothered to learn the new orthography. And if you visit some German forums, you will get the impression that individual people also decided to create their very own, very idosyncratic house rules - grammatical and orthographical anarchy! Would this be different without the reform? Probably not, but how can you learn how to spell correctly when you have to apply different rules every couple of years? How much money was wasted in this linguistic battle that lasted 15 years - I do not know.

Don’t try this at home in your own country!


France has made them, and is far more autoritative when it comes to langage than Germany.
So, I guess same should apply: official documents are to be writen the new way, the teaching has to be done accordingly; private outlets (newspapers, book publishers, marketing and advertisement, word processors correctors, etc…) are recommended to use it, as well as individuals, but obviously will do as they please, and certainly no-one will be punished for writing the way they learnt.
What happens mostly is the old and new spelling are somewhat considered correct, until one way (could be any of the two) takes over with time, or both stay (making things so much easier ;p for future learners…)

Edit: Oh, and there is much, much talking done about how the new way is awful, and the old way was silly ;D

Learn German in just 5 minutes a day. For free.