The grand plan to simplify the German language is turning into an embarrassing and expensive national nightmare.
An estimated ?50 billion spent, and five years down the road of using the ?new German? spelling and grammar, the plan has gone awry with the country?s top newspaper publishers opting to swing back to the old way.
Today, national Sunday paper Die Welt am Sonntag of the giant Axel Springer newspaper group will back-track, because, unlike schools and state departments, the rules cannot be imposed on publishers. Going with public opinion which shows that 64% of Germans don?t want the changes, the Springer group?s other papers, including Bild Zeitung and the Berliner Morgenpost, will follow Die Welt from tomorrow.
This step, said Professor Dr Theodor Ickler from Erlangen University?s language department, produces a major crack in the government?s bid to get the new rules through once and for all. Controversy raged even before the 1996 decision ? which included Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein ? to go ahead with altering spelling, comma-rules and other grammatical points.
Adding fuel to the fire at this week?s Frankfurt Book Fair ? the world?s biggest ? more than 100 of the country?s top language experts and publishers lobbied against the reforms. Among them were Nobel Literature Prize-winner (also announced last week), the Austrian Elfriede Jelinek and the 1999 Nobel Prize-winner Gunther Grass.
Next August is the official cut-off date for schools and state departments to make the final leap to implement the new rules, and the critics? voices are growing louder. Influential lobbyists We Teachers Against Spelling Reform claim that the artificially created rules have broken all the normal conventions of language development.
Even professional dictionary producers like Bertelsmann and Duden have added to the chaos with their own interpretations of the rules.
?Many words have simply disappeared,? said Ickler. ?How can scholars and teachers handle new rules that even the professionals don?t really understand??
Perhaps most damning of all is that instead of fewer errors being made in the already complex business of writing good German, the academic lobby claims more mistakes are being committed to paper than ever. Language experts, including Professor Dr Werner Veith from the German Institute at Mainz University, claim the new rules cut right through German grammar, semantics and phonetics ? and cut down on expression.
But supporters, who number just 26% of the German population, together with the ministry of culture, reckon that to go back would be a disaster for the country?s 14 million scholars.
?From a simple project which aimed at simplifying some words, this has developed into a major nightmare as the reformers changed more and more in order to justify their hard work,? said Ickler.
Germany did not learn from the catastrophic effects of Norway and the Netherlands? attempts to change their rules, or even from France?s efforts to make a few small changes to her language which in the 1990s brought the population out onto the streets in protest.
While red-faced state ministers ponder the problem, insiders say that they won?t do a complete U-turn. Rather, at a conference later this month, there will be some back-tracking to accommodate the critics and, they said, ?to find some kind of compromise?.