German spelling reform

Over the centuries there have been countless proposals to reform English spelling into something that more closely and concisely resembles pronunciation. These proposals typically involve the introduction of a new alphabet, or the modification of the existing one, such that each phoneme is represented by a single letter form. Examples include the Deseret alphabet, the Initial Teaching Alphabet, the Shavian alphabet, and Unifon. This isn’t the place to discuss the merits of such systems (or even of the idea of spelling reform generally); my question is whether any similar systems have been proposed for the German language. Note that I’m specifically not talking about the official Rechtschreibreform which began in 1996; rather, I want to know whether there have been any proposals to adopt a phonemic alphabet for German. For example, has anyone proposed replacing German’s many digraphs, trigraphs, and tetragraphs (ei, ie, eu, ai, ch, sch, tsch, dsch, etc.) with single letters representing their respective phoneme or phonemes? And likewise have there been any proposals which would mark the distinction between “short” and “long” vowels (e.g., den vs denn)?

So far I can tell, spelling reform has concentrated on reducing ambiguity. I suspect that constructions that in German are unambiguous, such as the digraphs and the use of doubled consonants to indicate short vowels, have not been widely considered as necessary for reform.

I think German and Spanish both went through a reform 400-600 years ago becoming much more phonetic. The modern languages largely follow rules. Too bad English didn’t do the same.

English has too much variation in accents for spelling to be made phonetic.

thelabdude wasn’t proposing a completely phonetic spelling system; he or she only noted that Spanish and German spelling had been made more phonetic, and wished the same had been done for English. But at any rate, this thread isn’t for discussing English spelling reform; it’s for discussing German spelling reform.

I’m not aware of any such proposal, at least there is none that has received significant attention. As others have noted, there’s no real need for it; German has a lot of these digraphs and trigraphs, but it uses it quite consistently and uniformly, and almost always it is possible, for any given word even those one has never read of heard before, to conclude from the spelling how the word is pronounced - something which certainly does not hold for English. Where ambiguities existed, these were either abolished by the 1990s reform (a notable instance was Maß, which could be long or short but is now only long, the short variant being Mass), or can be resolved from context.

Agreed; the primary purpose of a phonemic German spelling reform would merely be concision, not disambiguation. But surely such ambiguities still exist post-1996. For example, is there any rule for when word-terminal <ie> is pronounced as /jɛ/ (as in Familie) and when it’s pronounced as /i/ (as in Ervilie)?

To me, a native English speaker, spelling in German was a revelation. Honestly, any word I hear correctly pronounced in Hochdeutsch, I can spell. (Dialects can throw a wrench in the works)

If you want to fix spelling, start with French.

Is French as bad or worse than English, or does it just have rules strange to an English speaker?

The <ie> in <Familie> is /iə/. The sound /jɛ/ is the sound found in (e.g.) <jetzt>.

I think the rule is that it’s /i:/ when stressed, and /iə/ when unstressed?

When I tried to learn French, there was a pronunciation provided for each new word. When I learned German, the first chapter explained the rules, and there was no need for pronunciation. I seem to recall that German dictionaries (The eq. of Merriam Webster, not German-English) don’t provide pronunciation, but I only saw one once. Since German speakers don’t often need to check spelling, they are little used.

French does have generally consistent rules in the sense that if you know the rules, you should be able to correctly pronounce most written words. It doesn’t work the other way around though. Hearing something doesn’t indicate how it’s spelled.

Well, there is all that tiresome business of knowing whether or not to pronounce the final consonant!

It’s fairly consistent, though. In most cases, the final consonant is pronounced only if it is C, R, F, or L. The exceptions to this rule are easily learned for the most part.

I don’t know any German, so I didn’t know it had a consistent spelling. Spanish certainly has. I often noted how easy it was by comparison with English and French, but I didn’t know this was the result of a deliberate reform. That’s interesting to know.

I guess we’d need a linguist (who can spot easily this sort of things) or someone who learned both English and French as foreign languages to tell. It isn’t easy to notice weirdness in your own language.

Of course, I can tell that French spelling is quite odd, but for instance I never noticed that the following was an issue in French (let alone knew there was a general rule that applied) :

When I think of it, “r” isn’t pronounced in verbs’ infinitive.
ETA : also, a normally silent final consonant is pronounced when the following word begins with a vowel (“ils dirent aussitôt” is pronounced “il dire Taussito”)

Except when it isn’t:
<les haches> isn’t pronounced /le zaʃ/
<un homme et une femme> doesn’t have a /t/ in it

I know that the second example doesn’t actually have a “normally silent final consonant” at the end of the third word… but there’s no way of telling that from the spelling.

The following pairs of French words are spelled identically and pronounced differently:
(nous) portions / (deux) portions
(il) est / (vers l’)est

I’m sure I could think of more examples.

However the claim made above was that for most words you can predict the pronunciation from the spelling (but not vice-versa). I think this claim is correct.

About the pronunciation of final “l” (nombril, fusil…) I get the impression this varies with the speaker, although the “silent l” version is considered correct. Is that right?

What confuses me in French is the distinction between “aspirated” and “unaspirated” H. They’re pronounced the same (i.e. not at all), but affect the preceding S differently.

Thai writing is seldom ambiguous, as would be expected given 44 consonants and dozens of distinct vowel combinations, but even Thai writing has weirdnesses. In the two very similar words
เวลา , เปล่า
the former is two syllables each with a vowel, the latter one syllable with a compound vowel.

Well, “hache” doesn’t begin with a vowel, so there’s no reason for the “s” to be sounded.

The exception would rather be “les hommes” where the “s” is sounded despite the word “homme” beginning by a consonant.
The difference being that though in modern French the “h” at the beginning of a word is always silent, “hache” is a word of Germanic origin, so the “h” was originally sounded, hence a consonant, while “homme” is of Latin origin, and the “h” was already silent in late Latin, so it’s sort of ignored and “doesn’t count” as a consonant.
Of course this rule has the slight inconvenience of requiring an etymologic dictionary. :o