Theodor Ickler: German language (Elke Philburn)

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Der Artikel Theodor Ickler: German language (Elke Philburn) enthält den von Elke Philburn ins Englische übersetzten Vortrag Theodor Icklers vom 27. September 2001 Wem gehört die deutsche Sprache?

Zur Geschichte

Die Frage „Wem gehört die deutsche Sprache?“ hatte bereits der Deutsche Bundestag am 26. März 1998 in einem Beschluß beantwortet: „Die Sprache gehört dem Volk.“ („The language belongs to the people.“) Diese Feststellung wurde weder von den Kultusministern noch vom Bundesverfassungsgericht respektiert. Vielmehr räumte das Bundesverfassungsgericht den Kultusministern in seinem Urteil vom 14. Juli 1998 unter Mißachtung der Legislative das Sonderrecht ein, die Sprache gegen den Willen des Volkes an den Volksvertretungen vorbei zu reglementieren. Darauf hatte Theodor Ickler in seinem Vortrag aufmerksam gemacht, dabei die politischen Hintergründe beleuchtet und die Betreiber der Rechtschreibreform genannt.

Diesen Schlüsselvortrag hatte Elke Philburn ins Englische übersetzt. Die Übersetzung stand u.a. in der englischsprachigen Wikipedia in der Benutzerseite von Manfred Riebe. Da der Artikel offenbar unerwünscht war, wurde er auch dort von Unbekannt gelöscht.

Text der Übersetzung

To whom does the German language belong?
Von Theodor Ickler

The so-called spelling reform has failed from day one.

It displays considerable flaws from a linguistic standpoint and by the admission of its originators should have been corrected before its inception. For this reason, in April 1998 around 600 professors of linguistics and literature signed the following declaration:

„The so-called spelling reform ‘is not in line with linguistic research’ (according to the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sprachwissenschaft on 3. March 1998); even the orthography commission of the Kultusminister in their first report of December 1997, foresaw fundamental corrections as inevitable. A regulation with such shortcomings, which, for good reasons, has been rejected by the most well-known authors and a large majority of the people and which would destroy the uniformity of written language for decades, must not be made obligatory for schools and authorities under any circumstances.”

In terms of making spelling easier for pupils, the reform has failed to achieve its goal on all fronts. Indeed, it can be shown that it has had the opposite effect. The Bavarian Kultusminister (minister for education and cultural affairs) Hans Zehetmair, who early on had determinedly introduced the reform in Bavaria, came to the conclusion that it did not result in greater uniformity but rather in an orthographic mix-up (Stuttgarter Nachrichten, 24.3.2001). Because of the lacking uniformity between ‘reformed’ dictionaries, teachers were instructed quite early on to be more lenient when assessing pupils’ spelling. The result is that at secondary level over the last five years the teaching of orthography has largely not been treated with the seriousness it might once have demanded.

It becomes apparent that the reform is of little use when one considers the orthography in newspapers, even though they only partly apply the rules and avoid the most nonsensical spellings. After a decision by the news agencies, essential parts of the new regulations have not been applied at all, for example the use of small initial letters for established terms such as ‘Erste Hilfe’ or for ‘Du’ as a form of address. The same applies to the Germanisation of foreign words from living languages as well as the new punctuation rules, none of which have been adopted by the press.

A large majority of Germans continue to reject the reform. Alongside this general discontent, almost all well-known authors have also prohibited the printing of their works in new spelling, even for excerpts meant to be printed in school-books.

At the moment, behind closed doors, measures of backtracking are in progress, which are making revised dictionaries, school-books, childrens’ books and spell-checking programmes obsolete and rendering costly re-training courses meaningless. Even dictionaries that have already undergone substantial revision according to the latest changes, will once again become outdated as a result of the next steps of the spelling commission. What should also not be underestimated is the effect of spelling-software, which at the moment adds to the impression that the reform has been fully accepted.[...]

During the 20th century there must have been an around 100 drafts for a spelling reform. The most widely developed of these was the reform of Reichserziehungsminister Bernhard Rust, which shows a striking similarity with our present reform - although it was not in itself specifically national socialist. Only the conditions towards the end of World War Two prevented the implementation of his reform.

After the war, new plans were initiated, in part by the same people. One of the main proponents of today’s reform, the now retired culture secretary in North-Rhine Westphalia, Friedrich Besch, said in 1995:

„The present reform has been worked on since 1952.” (Frankfurter Rundschau, 30.11.95) According to this, the preparatory work has lasted for no less than 40 years! The long preparation time is often brought forward as a warranty of quality. This is not only erroneous in itself but it is entirely wrong for well-founded reasons.

In 1973 the preparations for a reform were given powerful momentum through the congress ‘vernünftiger schreiben’ by the trade union ‘Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft’. A central point of their programme was the so-called ‘gemäßigte Kleinschreibung’ (the abandonment of capital letters in nouns). The mood in those days was counter-revolutionary, which, among other things, manifested itself in plans to boycott the grading of spelling. The way in which the cultural practice of spelling was rated in those days can be seen from the following quotation: „Schlechte noten in rechtschreibung haben einen ähnlichen charakter wie z. b. schlechte schulnoten wegen epilepsie, chronischem husten oder grippe.” (bad marks in spelling have a similar character like bad marks because of epilepsy, chronical cough, or flu) (Drewitz/Reuter (eds.): vernünftiger schreiben. Frankfurt 1973, p. 62).

Twenty years later, the reformers presented a draft which was discussed at a hearing in Bonn in 1993, and which was largely rejected by the Kultusministerien. When the reformers had to come to a completion in Vienna one year later, they had hastily worked out a plan that was entirely different from the main points that were originally intended over the decades before, namely:

- the use of small initial letters for nouns - the abandonment of signs for vowel length - the ‘Germanicising’ of foreign words - uniform spelling of ‘das’, also for the conjunction

None of the four points were eventually implemented in the reform. Even the spelling of foreign words was not changed apart from minimal interventions (e. g. Philosophie, Physik, Katastrophe, Theater, Apotheke - all these stay as they were). In order to to eventually present an acceptable proposal and to ensure that this enterprise with its ten or so international meetings would not turn out to have been completely pointless, various individual rules were decided upon. These rules, however, would soon emerge to have been insufficiently thought-out and fraught with difficulties. Consequently, as early as 1997, the reformers themselves under the pressure of criticism, came to realise that changes of the reform would be inevitably necessary. Surprisingly, the Kultusminister now categorically rejected any correction. The Neuregelung thus came into operation with all its flaws in 1998.

In the meantime, something had happened which had been particularly wisely planned by the reformers but which now backfired. After their experience with failed reform projects the reformers had come to the following realisation:

„Eine Änderung geltender Konventionen und Normen über die Schüler zu erreichen, ist zwar verlockend und wäre, wenn es gelänge, auch am erfolgversprechendsten, aber sie setzt an am schwächsten Glied in der Kette.”

[To achieve a change of existing conventions and norms through the pupil is tempting and would be most promising, if it succeeded. But it also relies on the weakest link in the chain.]

These were the words of the leading reformer Gerhard Augst in 1982. Yet, the scruples soon disappeared and a determined decision was taken which in effect would take the defenceless pupil hostage.[...]

As early as 1996, the Kultusministers of most federal countries introduced the spelling reform to schools. The Vienna Declaration had been signed by the German-speaking countries on 1. July 1996. Only one day later, the new Bertelsmann dictionary was on display in the bookshops and reformed school-books were also already available.[...] The early implementation of the reform at schools was meant to create a fait accompli. When Horst H. Munske, one of the reformers, angrily left the Rechtschreibkommission, he spoke to the magazine SPIEGEL about a ‘suprise attack’. What he meant was that the phase during which the reform was supposed to be tested at schools, had been ignored. Instead, the introduction was treated as definite. The testing-phase which had been promised by the reformers was indeed out of the question, because since 1996 not a single detail was changed about the Neuregelung, at least not officially. From then on, the argument that pupils should not be left alone with their new spelling was the strongest point with which well-founded objections were dismissed.[...]

On 12. May 1998 the Federal Constitutional Court dealt with the complaint made against the Schleswig-Holstein Oberverwaltungsgericht and the Verwaltungsgericht (‘upper administrative court’ and ‘administrative court’) by a couple from Lübeck. Some time before the hearing there were indications from various sources that the judgement would be in favour of the Kultusminister. Even two days before the oral hearing, to which I was invited as an expert, the then chairman of the ‘Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache’, Prof. Günther Pflug, told me triumphantly he knew from a reliable source that the Bundesverfassungsgericht (‘federal constitutional court’) was going to decide in favour of the Kultusminister. The only thing to be feared from now on were petitions for referendums. This prediction fulfilled itself as foreseen, but it is still remarkable how well the side of the reformers were informed about the outcome of the proceedings that were still pending. Despite these gloomy prospects, I attended the hearing at the Bundesverfassungsgericht together with Christian Meier, President of the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung. We were ridiculously outnumbered by some 50 experts who had been invited by the court and who supported the side of the reformers. The essential content of the verdict was made known by the press about ten days before the pronouncement of judgement, relying on statements by politicians from Bonn. As a consequence, the complainants withdrew their complaint on the assumption that they could not hope to expect a fair hearing. The Bundesverfassungsgericht, however, decided to ‘break new legal ground’ (according to a spokesman) and to pronounce the judgement nevertheless, because of general interest.

This judgement demonstrates time and time again, that the court can only understand linguistic norms as norms imposed from above. This way the nature of language is misunderstood from the outset. In fact, language should be understood as a typical creation of an ‘invisible hand’. This means, the people who speak a language and develop it do not follow an overall plan but instead they want nothing but greatest possible clarity. On the back of individual speech acts the language system subsequently develops.

Thus, one might say that the stance of the reformers is based on a fundamental distrust in the ability of a language community to self-regulate, hence distrusting market economy and, as it were, relying on language as being care of (or at least corrected by) a centrally govererned and administered economy. This conception has been represented more or less like-mindedly by illiberal, state-authoritarian linguists such as the previous national socialist Weisgerber, as well as todays leading reformers, such as Prof. Nerius, who was previously associated with the socialist party of the GDR.

Due to this false conception, the Bundesverfassungsgericht came to the thesis that in the language itself there could be ‘wrong developments’ that are in need of correction and require state intervention. One might say, in the view of the court, the same way the state makes money available and monitors the stability of the value of that money, it also makes the uniform language available and may change it, should the occasion arise. Unfortunately, this conception is wide-spread in Germany and this is a point in which, for example, the French and the British cannot understand us, as some of them imply in their mocking comments.[...]

The present illusory boom of the reformed spelling is not only due to its adoption at schools and authorities where it has been decreed by the state, but also to the preparedness of the press to adopt the new rules, even though they more or less toned them down through their own ‘Hausorthographien’ (abridged and simplified bodies of rules that serve as guidelines for newspaper editors - E. P.). Only in recent times has it been possible to uncover the decicive role of the German press agency ( Deutschen Presse-Agentur). As early as August 1996 the chief editor of the dpa, Wilm Herlyn, sent a letter to all customers, (newspaper editors as well as TV and radio stations) which aimed at shaping public opinion but at the same time conjured up the inevitability of implementing the reform: „In our opinion, implementing the new spelling is, at the end of the day, inevitable, bearing in mind that the printed media otherwise might lose potential customers among coming generations.”

The questionnaire which was included in this letter, was impossible to get hold of, because the dpa refused to hand it out. However, a few weeks ago I received it nevertheless and realised it was phrased in a similarly tendentious way. In this letter, the possibility of a refusal was presented as downright wrong. A refusal on the side of the press at that time would have meant the end of the reform, as without the cooperation of the newspapers, a long-term change of spelling is not possible. If one considers also the fact that then hardly anything was known about the content of the Neuregelung, it is easy to understand why a certain proportion of the small number of customers who bothered to answer at all were in favour of the implementation. Later, however, newspaper editors acted as if they had been suprised and could not have withdrawn from the rushing ahead of the news agencies.

Comments made on behalf of the Board of Directors of the Axel Springer Verlag AG stated:

„It is not that the newspapers in German language would have forced the news agencies to accept the reform. The federal association of German newspaper publishers (‘Bundesverband der Deutschen Zeitungsverleger e. V.’) and the news agencies have together made the decision to introduce the spelling reform in 1999.”

The editors of the magazine ‘Hörzu’ wrote:

„For us, the individual boards of editors, artistic freedom is not allowed, because there has been a common decision of the publishers of newspapers and magazines to go along with the reform.”

Confronted with this, the ‘Bundesverband Deutscher Zeitungsverleger e.V.’ however maintains:

„The BDZV has never made a decision on the spelling reform.” [...]

With many newspapers there is a belief that the reformed spelling is obligatory for everyone, either now or in the near future:

„We cannot follow the decision of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung* because the ignoring of existing legal norms, even with the best will in the world and despite the tempting results, may not appear to us as the ideal way.” (Wolfgang Weimer, Chief Editor of the WELT in a letter).

(* The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung had returned to the traditional spelling on 1. August 2000, E. P.)

The ADAC (Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobilclub) wrote:

„From 31.07.2005 the new spelling is a duty and the previous way of writing is no longer permissible. In this respect, of course, neither we as ‘Motorwelt’ nor any other institution has the legal or factual possibility of undoing it.”

(‘Motorwelt’ is one of the most high-circulation magazines.)

When ‘Bild der Wissenschaft’ in autumn 2001 also adopted the reformed spelling, I cancelled my subscription as a result of that. The chief editor sent me, as well as other unwilling readers, a standardised letter which read:

„As you know, it is the obligatory rule that from the summer of 2002 onwards the new spelling has to be applied. Regardless of whether one approves of such a prescription or not, one is obliged to adhere to it. At the end of the day, I do not continue driving at 60 kilometres per hour through a 30-km-zone, even if this restriction seems senseless to me.”

I mean, even without further knowledge of the conditions, it should be clear to a German state citizen that the state outside its responsibility cannot prescribe the language and the spelling. The Federal Constitutional Court, in its otherwise desastrous misjudgement, unnecessarily pointed this out once again.

„As far as this regulation has a binding force in law, it is restricted to the area of schools. Persons outside this area are not legally obliged to adhere to the new spelling rules and to apply the new way of writing. They are rather free to write as before.”

This whole unpleasant story allows only one conclusion:

The language belongs to the people.

The Germans’ misery consists in the fact that too many of them believe it belongs to the state.

The text, translated from German, is based on a publication by Theodor Ickler, Professor of German as a Foreign Language at the University of Erlangen, in: IBW-Journal 4/2002, after a lecture „Wem gehört die deutsche Sprache?“ held at the ‘4. Erlanger Kunststofftage’ on 27. September 2001.


  • vernünftiger schreiben, reform der rechtschreibung. Hrsg. von Ingeborg Drewitz; Ernst Reuter. Verband Deutscher Schriftsteller; PEN-Zentrum der BRD; Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft. Orig.-Ausgabe. Frankfurt (am Main): Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verlag, 1974, 189 S., ISBN 3-436-01886-4 (Fischer-Taschenbücher; 1465 : Informationen zur Zeit)
  • Kurt Reumann: Die Sprache gehört nicht den Kultusministern. In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Nr. 64, 17. März 1998, S. 6
  • Hans Krieger: Wem gehört die deutsche Sprache?. In: Süddeutsche Zeitung, Nr. 186, 15. August 1998, S. 14
  • Irmtraud Gutschke: Wem gehört die Sprache? In: Neues Deutschland, Nr. 187, 12. August 2004, S. 2
  • Peter Eisenberg: Lehrer, euch gehört die Sprache nicht! In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Nr. 89, 17. April 2009, S. 33





  • German Spelling Reform, Rechtschreibreform. In:, a part of The New York Times Company -
  • Deutscher Bildungsserver - im Netz
  • Stoppt das Chaos! Resolution zur Wiederherstellung der Einheitlichkeit der deutschen Rechtschreibung. Anzeige. In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung vom 18. Juni 2002, S. 49 - PDF-Datei
  • Resolution zur Wiederherstellung der Einheitlichkeit der deutschen Rechtschreibung - DSW

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