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EXPLAINED: The spelling reform that changed the German language

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EXPLAINED: The spelling reform that changed the German language
The word "Spelling" is written on a sign at Baindt primary school in Baden-Württemberg. Photo: picture alliance / Felix Kästle/dpa | Felix Kästle

Language is constantly changing and adapting. For the German language, one of the most significant moments of change came 25 years ago with the introduction of the German spelling reform.

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What was the German spelling reform?

The Rechtschreibreform, or the German spelling reform, was a significant change to the rules of German spelling that aimed to simplify and standardise the spelling of words in the German language.

Acknowledging the need to clear up complexities and inconsistencies in the language that had developed over centuries, German-speaking countries like Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and regions with German-speaking minorities came together in 1996 to sign the Rechtschreibreform agreement.

The primary objective of the reform was to simplify the spelling rules, making the language more systematic and phonetically-oriented.

On August 1st, 1998, the rules were finally implemented in public authorities and schools. While many of the changes still remain in effect, some have disappeared with time. 

What changed with the reform?

One of the most notable changes was the alteration of the use of the "Eszett" (ß) in words. The reform removed the "ß" from many words, and instead, "ss" became the standard spelling.

READ ALSO: Eight of the most common (and funniest) mistakes German learners make

For example, daß ("which") became dass, and Kuß ("kiss") became Kuss. The reform also introduced clear rules for the use of "ss" and "ß," such as using a double "s" after short spoken vowels, as seen in Schloss ("castle") or Genuss ("enjoyment") and "ß" after long-spoken vowels or vowel combinations such as, as in Spaß ("fun") or heiß ("hot").

Schifffahrt, Kontrollleuchte, and Balletttänzer

Compound words with multiple identical consonants changed a lot under the reform too. Previously, in words like Schifffahrt, ("shipping") only one "f" was written, but after the reform, all three "f"s were included, leading to Schifffahrt, Kontrollleuchte ("warning light") and Balletttänzer ("ballet dancer").

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However, since the introduction of the reform, spelling has generally not followed this rule, with most words being spelt now with a maximum of two consonants in a row.

Germanised foreign words

As more and more foreign words started to enter the German language, the reform introduced special 'Germanised' spellings of these words. 

As introduced by the reform, the "ph" in word components of Greek origin is generally often replaced by an "f". For example, you would write Geografie instead of Geographie and Saxofon instead of Saxophon. However, both variants are still in use.

READ ALSO: 10 German words that English should adopt

Some specific words introduced by the reform, however, didn't catch on at all and were eventually withdrawn by the Council for German Orthography.

For example, since 2011, Grislibär is again Grizzlybär ("grizzly bear"), and the rarely used spellings Ketschup and Majonäse were removed from the council's word list in 2016. 

Together or separated?

The spelling reform also introduced some standardisations to the separation or combination of words.

Since then, combinations of two verbs (e.g., spazieren gehen instead of the former spazierengehen), nouns and verbs (e.g., Rad fahren instead of radfahren), and combinations with the verb sein (e.g., dabei sein instead of dabeisein) are generally written separately.

On the other hand, irgendjemand ("anyone") and irgendetwas ("anything") are now written as single words. 

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Uppercase or Lowercase

Some words that were previously written in lowercase now appear with uppercase letters and vice versa. heute mittag, for example became "heute Mittag," and pair formulas like arm und reich ("poor and rich") or jung und alt ("young and old") became Arm und Reich and Jung und Alt.

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