Silly Old Europe

Friday, October 14, 2005

Silly Old Europe

I tend to be a grammar and usage snob, but even I have to roll my eyes at the pretensions of official guardians of the language. We Americans are spared such nonsense as the Academie Française attempting to stamp out le fast-food.

Among the things we miss are periodic efforts to change overnight the way an entire language is written. The German-speaking countries' most recent initiative along these lines was hugely controversial, so much so that some important institutions actually refused to comply: imagine that!

1 July 1996: Following ten years of work by an expert commission, a declaration approving the new spelling rules is signed in Vienna by representatives from Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and various other nations with German-speaking minorities. [Good thing they remembered Liechtenstein, or people might not have taken the whole endeavor seriously]

6 October 1996: At the Frankfurt Book Fair (Buchmesse) 100 respected authors, professors, and scientists sign the Frankfurt Declaration (Frankfurter Erklärung) calling for rejection of the reforms. [The Frankfurt Declaration? Sounds damned important.]

14 July 1998: The German supreme court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) rules that the new spelling rules may go into effect as planned on 1 August 1998. The ruling denies a claim by a Lübeck couple that the spelling reforms damaged their son's educational rights and their own rights as parents. [If you think the U.S. has a monopoly on frivolous lawsuits, think again.]

27 September 1998: Almost 60 percent of voters in the Schleswig-Holstein referendum reject spelling reform in the state's schools, making it the only one of Germany's 16 Bundesländer [states] not to follow the new spelling rules. Legally, the vote was open to question. A later court decision overturns the referendum. [Even in my home state, where nothing is too ridiculous to put in a ballot initiative, I can't imagine voting on spelling.]

1 August 2000: Germany's leading daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), returns to the old spelling rules. On July 26, 2000 the paper unexpectedly announces its decision to reject the unpopular spelling reforms that most of the German media had adopted a year before. On the first day of August "die FAZ" appears with the traditional spelling. [I remember where I was when I heard about the FAZ's defiance, the way my parents' generation remembers the day JFK was shot.]

August 2004: The debate over spelling reform reignites when two of Germany's leading publishing houses, the Springer-Verlag and Der Spiegel announce they will return to the old spelling rules. [Anarchy is breaking out.]

31 July 2005: The transitional period ends. From this date on, only the new spelling rules will be accepted in all German-speaking countries. Private citizens may continue to write German as they see fit [gee, thanks], but all official publications and schools must use the new rules. [I see massive civil disobedience in the near future. Germany may have to annex Austria again to force compliance with the new order.]

Around the same time as the German-speaking countries overhauled their language, the Dutch-speaking countries (both of them) did the same. As far as I can tell from acquaintances who lived through it, it was a very traumatic experience for the nation.

So it was big news when the latest edition of the official spelling book/dictionary of the Dutch language was published yesterday. As a student of Dutch, I'm not sure whether to laugh or guffaw.

Revised Dutch dictionary sparks debate

13 October 2005


[The new edition] comes a decade after the last great spelling amendment sent a shockwave through the Dutch language community. [That's right: a shockwave.]

Nothing had changed for 40 years until the 1995-released dictionary changed words such as pannekoek (pancake) to pannenkoek (note the 'n' in the middle). [Mmm, pannekoeken (slobber).]


However, many of the [2005] changes are ones that have already filtered through, such as the new spelling for 'kenningsmakingsgesprek' (get-to-know-you conversation), which is now spelled as kennismakingsgesprek. [Is anyone really going to notice a few letters more or less in such a gargantuan word?]


And there are changes [in spelling rules], where the middle 'n' rule has been made simpler. Mushroom is thus spelled 'paddenstoel' again, instead of paddestoel. [Dutch fungi must be bewildered at the flip-flopping of the humans.]


Try to follow this: When Dutch-language speakers talk about Jews as a population group, it must have a capital letter. But if they want to refer to Jews as a religious group, it must have a lower case 'j'. [And if they want to refer to a lot of people arguing, they must use 'Jewish carnival' (really).]

You can thus write: Not all Jews are jews or Not all jews are Jews. [I think I may need a shrink to sort out my identity issues.]

What is also strange is the entry of the word 'handknie', which is combination of the Dutch words for hand and knee, but which means elbow in Suriname. [Shouldn't 'elbow' be 'arm-knee'?]


Since Suriname became a member of the [Dutch Language Union] in 2004, joining Belgium and the Netherlands, several Surinamese words have been officially added to the Dutch language. [Pop quiz: where is Suriname?]

The new Green Book is now available in bookstores, but the new spelling rules will not be officially applied until August 2006, when publishers will need to start amending their publications. An expensive operation. [I hope I don't have to bring my old books in for burning. Probably not; that sounds more like the German approach.]

Don't worry if you find this hard to follow: there's a website dedicated to the new spelling, where you can take a fun quiz of your knowledge of the new rules and look up the spelling of any word you wish, using a wild-card character for the bits of the word you're unsure about.

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