Saturday, May 29, 2004

BERLIN — A national experiment to reform the German language is close to collapse after a quiet but angry revolt by publishers, academics and teachers who say it is “barbaric” and destroying centuries of linguistic freedom.

Under the new rules that were meant to simplify a complex language once described by Mark Twain as “slippery and elusive to the grasp,” Germans were supposed to find it easier to read and write.

But with 1,106 new rules to learn, and 12,000 new spellings, even the hardiest academics have declared the system “almost impossible.”

The president of Germany’s PEN club, Johano Strasser, has called it “language rape.”

The Rechtschreibreform, or spelling reform, includes in select cases replacing the ancient symbol resembling a fat capital B (known as the S-Zett) with “ss.”

Oddly, there has been no attempt to simplify aspects of the language that can be infuriatingly complicated to Germans and foreigners alike, such as the compound: Unabhaengigkeitserklaerungen, which refers to declarations of independence.

The reforms, first introduced as an experiment in the mid-1990s and due to become official next summer, have caused an immeasurable amount of friction and most practices have simply, failed to catch on.

German lawmakers from the country’s 16 states declared that all new school textbooks had to be written in the new style — at great cost to publishers.

But some publishers have stuck to the old rules or left it to their authors to decide whether they want to use the old or new system.

Though some newspapers reluctantly went along with the changes at first, most have since dropped them or adopted parts of them.

When the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany’s newspaper of record, discarded the new rules in frustration four years ago, it wrote in a front-page condemnation: “Gripped by uncertainty about what is right and what is wrong, people have begun avoiding terms and phrases that might be subject to the new spelling rules. A new language … of avoidance has been created and it is not a pretty one.”

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