Most words in German base their spelling on pronunciation, e.g. Mann or English man, men. There is a second way, more common in English, e.g. night, where the gh has more to do with where the word comes from (related to German Nacht) than with how you pronounce it.

But there is a third method. Männer is spelt with an ä because it comes from Mann. The ä tells us that it is an a that has been modified and makes Männer much easier to recognise as the plural of Mann than it is to recognise men as the plural of man - which does not even look like a plural.

Is there a name for this sort of spelling that is based on grammar?

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    I don't quite agree with your distinction of a "third method" here: Männer is spelt with an ä rather than an a as this precisely corresponds with a difference in pronunciation (first "method" listed in your question). Or, if you will, it's spelt with an ä rather than an e because of "where the word comes from" (related to Mann; second "method" listed in your question). Apr 10, 2019 at 5:19

1 Answer 1


I recall the term Stammprinzip, the amtliches Regelwerk calls it Stammschreibung or Schemakonstanz. To quote from the introduction (p. 8):

Die deutsche Rechtschreibung bezieht sich nicht nur auf die Lautung, sondern sie dient auch der grafischen Fixierung von Inhalten der sprachlichen Einheiten, das heißt der Bedeutung von Wortteilen, Wörtern, Sätzen und Texten. So wird ein Wortstamm möglichst gleich geschrieben, selbst wenn er in unterschiedlicher Umgebung verschieden ausgesprochen wird. Man spricht hier von Stammschreibung oder Schemakonstanz. Dies betrifft zum Beispiel die Schreibung bei Auslautverhärtung in manchen deutschen Sprachgebieten (Rad und Rat werden gleich ausgesprochen, aber unterschiedlich geschrieben wegen des Rades und des Rates), den Umlaut (zum Beispiel Wand – Wände, aber Wende), das Zusammentreffen gleicher Konsonanten (zum Beispiel Haussegen, fünffach, zerreißen, enttäuschen, Blinddarm), gelegentlich auch Einzelfälle (vier mit langem [iː], aber vierzehn, vierzig trotz kurzem [ɪ]). Hingegen werden in manchen Fällen verschiedene Wörter, obwohl sie gleich ausgesprochen werden, unterschiedlich geschrieben (Unterscheidungsschreibung; zum Beispiel Saite, Seite; wieder, wider).

As the explanation indicates, this is not seen as "spelling based on grammar" but as maintaining, as far as possible*, the spelling of a stem across word forms even if the stem is pronounced differently. So it has more to do with potentially ignoring grapheme-phoneme correspondence.

There's one obvious example where the spelling reform of 1996 has increased similarity among word forms: Compare pre-reform muß-t, muss with post-reform muss-t, muss. Also (very hard on the eyes of those who learned the old orthography!) cases such as nummerieren instead of numerieren because of Nummer.

*In the example of WandWände, keeping a as a is out of the question because not all nouns that have -e in the plural have umlaut; ä is considered more orthographically similar to a than the identically pronounced e.

  • Interesting that these words do not have any translation into English that I can find. But from the parts (Stamm- and -konstanz) it is clear that you are right that this is "seen as [...] maintaining [...] the spelling [...] acrosss word forms [...]." It does not tell you how to pronounce it (until you have learnt how to pronounce ä etc.) But it does not mention its other importance - showing the change in meaning / grammatical inflection. So, for example, the Ä in Äpfel tells us two things. First, the "Stammschreibung" - it is related to Apfel, but it also shows it is plural. Apr 9, 2019 at 21:33
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    But umlaut is a matter of pronunciation first [apfl̩ εpfl̩] and spelling second. Epfel would show plural just as well (and this was the way the word was written in Middle High German).
    – David Vogt
    Apr 9, 2019 at 21:46
  • Or, to be more precise, the A in Äpfel tells it comes from Apfel and the ¨ tells us it is plural, clearly showing the dual value of the Ä. It is this second purpose that "Stammschreibung" ignores. Apr 9, 2019 at 21:48
  • Except that there is no plural marker in Epfel. It could be a singular noun. In the same way as men could be in English. There is no way to tell it is plural as it rhymes with hen, wren, wen and pen, whereas Äpfel is clearly plural, as men would be if we spelt it män. Apr 9, 2019 at 21:58
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    I don't see why Äpfel is clearly plural and Epfel is not? Note that there are words containing ä that are not plurals and in fact, not related to any words with a: Ärger, Bär, träge.
    – David Vogt
    Apr 9, 2019 at 22:03

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