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German Orthography

By Author: Communiqua
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German orthography

German orthography is the orthography used in writing the German language, which is largely phonemic. However, it shows many instances of spellings that are historic or analogous to other spellings rather than phonemic. The pronunciation of almost every word can be derived from its spelling once the spelling rules are known, but the opposite is not generally the case.

Today, German orthography is regulated by the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung (Council for German Orthography), composed of representatives from most German-speaking countries.

History of German orthography

Middle Ages

The oldest known German texts date back to the 8th century. They were written mainly in monasteries in different local dialects of Old High German. In these texts, the letter z along with combinations such as tz, cz, zz, sz or zs was chosen to transcribe the sounds /ts/ and /s(?)/, which is ultimately the origin of the modern German letters z, tz and ß (an old sz-ligature). After the Carolingian Renaissance, however, during the reigns of the Ottonian and Salian dynasties in the 10th century and 11th century, German was rarely written, the literary language being almost exclusively Latin.

Notker the German is a notable exception in his period; his German compositions not only are of high stylistic value, but also, his orthography is the first to follow a strictly coherent system.

Only during the reign of the Hohenstaufen dynasty (in the High Middle Ages) was there again significant production of German texts. Around the year 1200, there was a tendency towards a standardized Middle High German language and spelling for the first time, based on the Franconian-Swabian language of the Hohenstaufen court. However, that language was used only in the epic poetry and minnesang lyric of the knight culture. These early tendencies of standardization ceased in the interregnum after the death of the last Hohenstaufen king in 1254. Certain features of today's German orthography still date back to Middle High German: the use of the trigraph sch for /?/ and the occasional use of v for /f/ because around the 12th and 13th century, the prevocalic /f/ was voiced.

In the following centuries, the only variety that showed a marked tendency to be used across regions was the Middle Low German of the Hanseatic League, based on the variety of Lübeck and used in many areas of northern Germany and indeed northern Europe in general.

Early modern period

Until the 16th century, a new inter regional standard developed on the basis of the East Central German and Austro-Bavarian varieties. This was influenced by several factors:

Under the Habsburg dynasty, there was a strong tendency to a common language in the chancellery.
Since Eastern Central Germany had been colonized only during the High and Late Middle Ages in the course of the Ostsiedlung by people from different regions of Germany, the varieties spoken were compromises of different dialects.
Eastern Central Germany was culturally very important, being home to the universities of Erfurt and Leipzig and especially with the Luther Bible translation, which was considered exemplary.
The invention of printing led to an increased production of books, and the printers were interested in using a common language to sell their books in an area as wide as possible.
Mid-16th century Counter-Reformation reintroduced Catholicism to Austria and Bavaria, prompting a rejection of the Lutheran language. Instead, a specific southern interregional language was used, based on the language of the Habsburgian chancellery.

In northern Germany, the Lutheran East Central German replaced the Low German written language until the mid-17th century. In the early 18th century, the Lutheran standard was also introduced in the southern states and countries, Austria, Bavaria and Switzerland, due to the influence of northern German writers, grammarians such as Johann Christoph Gottsched or language cultivation societies such as the Fruitbearing Society.

19th century and early 20th century

Though, by the mid-18th century, one norm was generally established, there was no institutionalized standardization. Only with the introduction of compulsory education in late 18th and early 19th century was the spelling further standardized, though at first independently in each state because of the political fragmentation of Germany. Only the foundation of the German Empire in 1871 allowed for further standardization.

In 1876, the Prussian government instituted the First Orthographic Conference (de) to achieve a standardization for the entire German Empire. However, its results were rejected, notably by Prime Minister of Prussia Otto von Bismarck.

In 1880, Gymnasium director Konrad Duden published the Vollständiges Orthographisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache ("Complete Orthographic Dictionary of the German Language"), known simply as "the Duden". In the same year, the Duden was declared to be authoritative in Prussia. Since Prussia was, by far, the largest state in the German Empire, its regulations also influenced spelling elsewhere, for instance, in 1894, when Switzerland recognized the Duden.

In 1901, the interior minister of the German Empire instituted the Second Orthographic Conference. It declared the Duden to be authoritative, with a few innovations. In 1902, its results were approved by the governments of the German Empire, Austria and Switzerland.

In 1944, the Nazi German government planned a reform of the orthography, but because of World War II, it was never implemented.


After 1902, German spelling was essentially decided de facto by the editors of the Duden dictionaries. After World War II, this tradition was followed with two different centers: Mannheim in West Germany and Leipzig in East Germany. By the early 1950s, a few other publishing houses had begun to attack the Duden monopoly in the West by putting out their own dictionaries, which did not always hold to the "official" spellings prescribed by Duden. In response, the Ministers of Culture of the federal states in West Germany officially declared the Duden spellings to be binding as of November 1955.

The Duden editors used their power cautiously because they considered their primary task to be the documentation of usage, not the creation of rules. At the same time, however, they found themselves forced to make finer and finer distinctions in the production of German spelling rules, and each new print run introduced a few reformed spellings.

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