I read that in 1996 the German language underwent an orthography reform:


Wikipedia says that the rules were compulsorily taught in schools, so I imagine that children starting school from that year on received a teaching which was, in this sense, different from the one previously given.

Since 1996 is not so far away in time, I ask whether in the German-speaking society is there any difference among the spellings of people, according to what they learned at school.

I mean, were people who were adults in 1996 forced to learn the new rules, and how? Or did they simply start seeing words with a different spelling all around them and then rewired their brains?

Moreover, to which level is nowadays the old spelling accepted?

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    Es mußte sein, daß dies einmal gefragt wird. ;)
    – Takkat
    Commented Jul 20, 2013 at 8:39
  • From a foreigner's point of view (mine!) it may be interesting to know this. For instance you wrote "mußte", would it be the same for "musste"? Commented Jul 20, 2013 at 8:48
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    Related: german.stackexchange.com/questions/751
    – chirlu
    Commented Jul 20, 2013 at 8:50
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    @martina yes, It's a joke, of course. Takkat answered with alte Rechtschrebung...absischtlich, finde ich. :)
    – c.p.
    Commented Jul 20, 2013 at 9:18
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    When I was in school they told us that we could write however we pleased (old or new) because we were too old to learn the new rules as we had just finished learning the old ones and the teachers didn't know them either. I finished school in 2000. So we were a lucky bunch :). I write pretty much however I want still. When I think a new rule makes no sense... I don't use it. Since only the administration is compelled to write according to the new rules while everyone else has a lot of leeway I think noone neither cares nor nows exactly what's right and what's not (as far as the differences go)
    – Emanuel
    Commented Jul 20, 2013 at 9:41

5 Answers 5


I grew up learning the old spelling and learnt the new one in university. One of my profs was even on the reformers' board. I say, yes there is a division, but it has nothing to do with the actual reformations, that took place. Most of them are quite concise and make a lot of sense and many unknowingly make much fewer mistakes. But that is not the question here.

The division has to do with the fact that conservatism is a strong political force (I am not talking parties here, I'm talking about politics as a social phenomenon). People feel intimidated by new stuff they don't know the first thing about. There is a huge number of people from age 35 (I'm 34, that's why I choose this number) upwards, who will blame every single grammatical or spelling mistake they make on the reform (I experience it professionally every single day). The reform, like the Euro, the "Wiedervereinigung" or the European Union has become a sort of scape goat.

The younger ones, having grown up with all this, naturally accept it as part of their lifes. To them it's no issue at all, they don't even stop thinking about it and that's exactly where the division draws its line.

Mind you, I'm not saying every change is for the better, it's a complex issue, all I'm saying is yes, there is a division, there is a clash of generations, which is only going to be finally resolved by the old generation dying out eventually.

And to address your further questions: Yes, people were expected to pick up on the new spelling and there was tons material out there for almost a decade to facilitate it. But there are still distinguished publishers and newspapers out there who refuse to accept the new spelling. This is well accepted as a statement. Generally I would say, the principle of consequence is most accepted. That means if you stick to the old rules, great, if you stick to the new rules, even better, but if you mix them, you reveal yourself as not really mastering any of them.

  • "who will blame every single grammatical or spelling mistake they make on the reform": are you saying that these people consider as errors some of the reformed spellings? Commented Jul 20, 2013 at 14:54
  • No, what I mean is that e.g. one of my colleagues doesn't get the difference between "das" as a relative pronoun and "dass" formerly "daß". Each time I correct him, he says that this was all better before the reform, but actually it has always been a grammatical mistake.
    – bouscher
    Commented Jul 20, 2013 at 14:59
  • uhm, but there's no problem here, as far as two "s" are used. I mean, there should be no confusion. Following this line of thought, if I write daß (instead of dass), would ordinary people think I'm old-fashioned or something or would this pass unnoticed? Commented Jul 20, 2013 at 15:03
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    Well, anyone would be bewildered when reading, say Goethe, in original spelling and this is only 200 to 250 years ago. The old man used to rhyme e.g. "steigen" on "reichen" because of his hessian background and he would also spell accordingly sometimes. Spelling was much more "freestyle" that is according to regional pronunciation back then.
    – bouscher
    Commented Jul 20, 2013 at 15:44
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    for the kid's issue: german.stackexchange.com/questions/3794/…. By now my kids always get new books or reprints just to make sure they learn it right.
    – Takkat
    Commented Jul 20, 2013 at 17:30

Es gab vor der Rechtschreibreform nur wenige Menschen, die fehlerfrei geschrieben haben, und nach der Reform gibt es nur wenige, die nach den reformierten Regeln fehlerfrei schreiben. Es gibt Leute, die beruflich schreibend tätig sind, und die daher die neue Schreibung lernen mussten - nicht aus gesetzlichen Gründen, außer Schullehrern natürlich, sondern weil es zum guten Ton und professionellem Ethos gehört.

Die allermeisten Menschen kommen aber ohne viel zu schreiben aus und es ist diesen überlassen, wieweit sie die neuen Regeln übernehmen oder nicht, und wenn sie etwas schreiben, dann ist es nach neuer wie alter Schreibung falsch.

Es gibt wohl auch ein paar Aktivisten, die aus Verdruss über viele der neuen Regeln alle neue Regeln ablehnen, und die alte Schreibung komplett zurückwünschen, und dies als Form des politischen Ungehorsams vor sich hertragen, aber als Spaltung der Gesellschaft kann man das nicht bezeichnen. Das würde ja bedeuten, dass die Leute sich über die Schreibweise hinaus voneinander absondern und Neuschreibern etwa nicht im gleichen Fußballverein sein wollen, im gleichen Stadtteil oder Restaurant.

  • +1 Ich gebe dir vollkommen recht. Nur bei der Spaltung, sehe ich es etwas anders: Spaltungen können sehr subtil und partiell sein.
    – bouscher
    Commented Jul 20, 2013 at 15:23
  • Can you provide an example of a common error people made with the old spelling? Commented Jul 20, 2013 at 15:34
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    @martina: Es gibt die allgemeine Regel, dass hinter einem kurz gesprochenen Vokal 2 oder mehr Konsonanten folgen, also etwa der Muff mit doppel-f, während bei einfachem Konsonant der Vokal lang gesprochen wird: das Mal. Man könnte zwar behaupten, dass das ß eine Ligatur aus s und z ist, also zwei Konsonanten, aber damit erklärt man nicht, wieso früher Muß (Zwang) und Ruß (ein Brandrückstand) unterschiedlich geschrieben wurden. Die neue Regel, wonach das scharfe ß durch zwei s ersetzt wird, wenn ein kurzer Vokal folgt, ist sinnvoll, verständlich und harmonisch. Commented Jul 20, 2013 at 16:43
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    Das hindert aber viele Menschen nicht daran Straße mit doppel-s zu schreiben, als gäbe es eine Regel jetzt gar kein ß mehr zu benutzen. Netto kam aber wohl eine Vereifachung bei rum, denn den Fehler ss statt ß gab es auch vor der Reform bereits. Commented Jul 20, 2013 at 16:45
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    @martina: Mein Lieblingsbeispiel ist die »Drei-Buchstaben-Regel«: Wenn durch Wortzusammensetzung drei gleiche Konsonanten nebeneinandergestanden hätten (z. B. in Schifffahrt), entfiel nach der alten Rechtschreibung einer von ihnen (aus Schifffahrt wurde Schiffahrt). Die meisten wussten allerdings nicht, dass dies nur galt, wenn der nächste Buchstabe ein Vokal oder stilles h war (Pappplakat wurde also genau so geschrieben geschrieben). Mit der Rechtschreibreform werden keine Buchstaben mehr gestrichen, was sich auch allgemein herumgesprochen hat.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Jul 20, 2013 at 19:32

I know we're talking about German here, but in case anyone's interested in another example (perhaps for a paper or something), the Real Academia Española reformed some elements in Spanish orthography in 2010. One of the changes had to do with accent marks. Previously, "solo" (alone) and "sólo" (only) were differentiated by an accent mark on the first o, but now they are undistinguished. In all government, periodical and most business correspondence, I see people adhere to the new rules. But some authors and publishing houses stick with the old rules, and there have been a lot of statements by authors saying that they do so conscientiously.

As other people mentioned here in the German examples, there are many aspects as to who adopts the changes. In part I think it surely has to do with age; people who learn the new system as their first won't feel the old one was any better. But people who learned the old system have to make a choice: Do they adopt the new one and potentially identify themselves as "modern," "correct," and "institutional," or do they stick with the old one and potentially identify themselves as "traditional" or "conservative"?

Interestingly, the changes with the accent marks have been widely adopted, but some changes seem to have been ignored. For example, the RAE also changed the name of the letter Y to "ye", whereas it previously was most commonly known as "i griega" (the Greek I). I have yet to hear anyone actually call it "ye," and I have a suspicion that if I were to say it to someone they'd have no idea what I was talking about.


"Moreover, to which level is nowadays the old spelling accepted?"

There are in my opinion still diffrent groups of people and how they write.

  • Young people in school are now FORCED to only learn the new spelling
  • Older people (30+ years from now) learned the old spelling and are divided in those who accept the new spelling and those who think that the old spelling was better.

I handle it this way, since I learned the old spelling:

I learned the new spelling and I think also that this was coming only from a bored politican or to support the school book industry (can't use "wrong" books from older years anymore). However, when teaching someone the german language, I use the new spelling, even I like the old spelling a bit more, because it was "just more beautiful" in my opinion. So depending who is the receiver of my german text, I switch between the new and old spelling. When I want my text to be "beautiful and kind of old style", I use the old spelling, when I want my text to be "correct", I use the new spelling (in example in business letters)

  • Punkt 2 eröffnet eine falsche Dichotomie. Man kann sehr wohl meinen, die alte Schreibung sei besser gewesen und dennoch die offiziell geltenden Regeln aktzeptieren, weil man abstrakt akzeptiert, dass es ein einheitliches Regelwerk geben soll, und sich dann auch einem als schlecht identifizierten Abkommen unterwirft. Wenn jeder nur tut, was er für vernünftig hält, dann braucht man kein allgemeingültiges Regelwerk. Commented Jul 21, 2013 at 23:29
  • Dann könnte man aber auch argumentieren, die neue "Schlechtschreibreform" hätte man generell nicht gebraucht, da es ja bereits ein allgemeingültiges Regelwerk gab an das sich alle gehalten hatten. Ich kannte niemand der sich vor der Reform an der geltenden Rechtschreibung gestört hatte, nach der Reform jedoch schon und ich habe oftmals den Eindruck dass grade jetzt viele einfach schreiben wie sie wollen, auch manche Zeitungsverlage halten sich heute immer noch an die alten Schreibregeln. Auf die Schnelle gefunden: sueddeutsche.de/kultur/…
    – user2238
    Commented Jul 21, 2013 at 23:52

I am glad that my wife does help my 12 years old daughter with homework for German, otherwise I would need to learn the new rules. So in practice I use whatever version I see fit. I would not be surprised if they would take some stuff back.

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