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Spelling Bee has a sting in the tail...
August 2, 2000 3:33 AM   Subscribe

Spelling Bee has a sting in the tail... The highly influential Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has abandoned the much-heralded German spelling reforms, arguing that the attempt to simplify and "democratise" the language has been a costly mistake. At the same time, though, the new Duden is accused of including too many English words such as "downloaden, Wellness and chatten, Backstage, Smiley and Trash", allegedly indebted to "advertisers and cyber geeks".Given that MeFi readers are, generally, from the two cultures separated by a common language, it's an interesting case study of state intervention gone wrong...
posted by holgate (4 comments total)

I was having a similar discussion with a teacher friend recently. She was bemoaning the influence of the US on her pupils, many of whom now spell words such as colour using the American 'color'. Her biggest problem, she says is the use of 'z' where they should use 's' (for instance customise/customize).
She is absolutely convinced this is directly attributable to their use of the internet as a learning tool, and has had arguments with pupils who were convinced that they were correct because they'd seen their spelling on the web.
I think the German professor is correct in saying that Duden has a responsibility to the German language. Every language grows and changes over time, but the world is becoming a smaller and smaller place and media, technology and globalisation are influencing native tongues to a large extent. The world would be a very boring place if we all spoke the same language, who would British and American tourists have to shout at in simplistic English in foreign bars ("You have a lovely village....we have lovely village in England...You think I am character, yes?...)
posted by Markb at 5:25 AM on August 2, 2000

I had arguments like this with an ex-girlfriend earlier this year. She was an english major. She argued that language should remain consistent with the rules which I argued to be archaic. I profferred that language exists for the benefit and betterment of the people who use it, and if it works, rules should be rewritten to accomodate the needs of the people who use it. She said that was just an excuse not to study good grammar.

Grammar is more important than communication? Grammar exists in order to assist communication but when grammar gets in the way of communication, communication is more important.

Naturally, in the end I had to dump her.

The world is getting smaller. For the first time in history it is theoretical that through use of the internet and other technologies, we could eventually have a common tongue all over the world. One language where we can communicate. The rules are there to make language functional, but if a rule can be broken and still communicate, no harm no foul. Language is gonna have to become less stoic and more fluid in order for humanity to accomplish that worldwide language. It's why Esperanto failed in the end. Language should not be approached as a rigid ritualistic entity to revere and respect. It's a tool.
posted by ZachsMind at 9:53 AM on August 2, 2000

Costly mistake? I dunno. I think it was about time somebody got off their butt and did something about the german words that look like US Navy acronyms (one I found recently: "Commander, Naval Surface Reserve Force (COMNAVSURFRESFOR)". When reading Marx in college, I was always amused at his favoring terms like "In a word ..." right before a half-paragraph of economic jargon, before I realized that in German, it might have been a word! (Truthfully, it was probably just a convenient expression, not intended by the translator to be taken literally.)

Anyway, it's ridiculous to try to mandate this kind of reform. Language is always more fluid than any committee could monitor or control. A better approach might have been to phase OUT existing rules, i.e. move from prescribed to allowed to prescribed, rather than smash-bang you've-got-a-new-language.

As for English, I'm still a descriptivist and I think that the natural evolution of both American and British English is closer together. The bigger question for those students is why they have been allowed to assume that what they see on the internet is "correct" or represents their culture. This is a dandy opportunity for that teacher friend to educate on the differences and on verifying sources and assumptions, rather than arguing over what spelling is prescribed by some dictionary.
posted by dhartung at 9:56 AM on August 2, 2000

"...a common tongue all over the world. One language where we can communicate. The rules are there to make language functional, but if a rule can be broken and still communicate, no harm no foul."

i think the issue is about two separate forms of communication - speech and written. our speech changes, evolves within the culture that it is used. however, written forms are much slower to change, not adapt, because they are more permanent, tangible - the changes that have taken place from Old, Middle, to Modern English really are not that great (a layman can read Beowulf fairly well in its 'original' translation).

i think that is the real beauty of keeping languages separate - whatever we may speak, a written record of the elegance and grace that all grammars bring to their individual languages is more than a treasure, it defines a culture.
posted by alethe at 1:17 PM on August 2, 2000

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