Oskar Jancke regarded the cultivation and instruction of language as the central task of the Academy. The name chosen for the Academy in 1949 - German Academy for Language and Literature - is indicative of the importance (informed by a literary perspective) attributed to questions of language at the time.
»Power and Powerlessness of Language«: Announcement of events at the 1952 conference. At top, handwritten comments by Oskar Jancke, then Vice President of the Academy.
© Deutsche Akademie
In this context, the Academy’s linguistic work and linguistic criticism, for which the engagement of Dolf Sternberger came to be representative, as well as linguistic scholarship oriented on public discourse was accompanied by the »cultivation of language« in a »comprehensive and normative sense« (WE Süskind, 1950) from the very beginning. The »Language Norms« project led by Harald Weinrich can be seen as exemplary in this context. Its findings were published between 1980 and 1983 as »Public Language Usage«.
Many of the questions posed in calls for submissions since 1967 – for example »Can Language Conceal Thoughts?«, »Do We Need the Subjunctive Case in German?« or »Do the Young Speak another Language?« – illustrate the Academy’s particular interest in linguistic topics, just as the many issues of the magazine »Valerio« published since 2005.
The Academy also played a key role in another debate: the orthography reform. In 1954 this was still literally referred to as the »Rechtschreibungsreform« [Spelling Reform] when Gerhard Storz reported to members about a conference on the topic in Stuttgart and explained his reasons for rejecting the reform goals discussed in the »Stuttgart Recommendations« – a position that the members unanimously supported. That same year the Academy presented a critical position paper concerning the reform plans. Nevertheless, the Academy participated in a »Task Force for Orthographic Reform.« In 1958 Max Stefl and Gerhard Storz informed the Academy that they had been able to prevent plans for a radical implementation of the lower case. In the run-up to the conference of the Orthography Commissions slated for Vienna in 1964, together with colleagues Gerhard Storz once again wrote a position paper (Jahrbuch 1963, pp. 150) – with capitalisation again being the main focus. The disconcerting uncertainty regarding spelling," it begins, "will never be viewed in the correct light so long as it is viewed solely as a symptom of flaws in our system of orthographic rules. No orthographic system is perfect, and nor will the current voices of complaint fall silent, even after reforms are implemented, if reform is not accompanied by a new practical spirit. For it is just as much the demands for absolute certainty that make of certain orthographic ambiguities an unbearable lot as the uncertainties themselves."
This then led to a decisive appeal against a »tyranny of orthographic unity.«
»Moved into Language, Arrived in Literature« Ilma Rakusa, Yoko Tawada, Zsuzsanna Gahse (f.l.t.r.), autumn conference 2008 in Darmstadt
© Isolde Ohlbaum
The topic of orthographic reform reappeared on the agenda in the 1990s. While Academy conferences debated »The Future of Literature and Language in a United Europe« (Strasbourg, 1995) and »Language Policy in Europe« (Darmstadt, 1995), policy makers completed the last steps towards the implementation of a long-prepared revision of German orthography. The »General Declaration of Intent regarding the Revision of German Orthography« was signed by representatives from Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, Liechtenstein, Austria, Romania, Switzerland and Hungary. Its implementation was planned for 1998. On 25 October, 1996 the education ministers of the German states declared the democratic decision-making process concluded.
Critique of and resistance to the »difficult situation« (Chronik, 211) caused by the reform would occupy the Academy in the following years. Finally, in the spring of 1997 an orthography commission was formed at the Academy, charged with »developing the suggestions of how a unified German orthography as well as its sensible continuation can be achieved in the future« (Chronik, 211). A moratorium was also called for so that possible faits accomplis would be avoided and in particular schools and publishers would not be further unsettled.
Many members wanted to cling to the familiar ‘old’ orthography and fight for its reintroduction. However, the implementation of this position was hardly feasible following the ruling by the German Supreme Court that the regional education ministers had the right to mandate the reform without parliamentary authorisation. In light of the situation, the Academy decided to produce a detailed compromise proposal, which was published in book form in early 2003. In his role as Chairman of the Language Commission, Peter Eisenberg, who had led the work, later wrote: »The compromise was strongly criticised by representatives of doctrinal purity on the side of those against the reform as well as their opponents, even the Academy itself had publically characterised it as a second-best solution« (Spracharbeit, 28). However, most of the members viewed this as the only sensible approach in the interest of restoring the »orthographic peace« and a unified orthography – and the fact that the newly created Council for German Orthography implemented the central part of the compromise proposal in its resolutions in 2006 appeared to be a belated confirmation of those hopes.
Book presentation in Berlin in 2013 - Peter Eisenberg, Heinrich Detering and Werner Scholze-Stubenrecht (f.l.t.r.) are discussing the »Initial Report on the State of the German Language« (»Reichtum und Armut der deutschen Sprache. Erster Bericht zur Lage der deutschen Sprache«.)
© Deutsche Akademie
While the representatives of the Academy are working on a further improvement of the reform within the Council for German Orthography, in 2007 the Academy began planning for a new comprehensive project: the first »Report on the State of the German Language« begun in 2009 in cooperation with the Union of German Academies of Science and presented in 2013.
Chronik: Zwischen Kritik und Zuversicht. 50 Jahre Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung. Herausgegeben von Michael Assmann und Herbert Heckmann. Göttingen: Wallstein 1999. 81 Abb. 479 S.
Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung. Jahrbuch 1963. Heidelberg: Lambert Schneider 1964. 231 S.
Reichtum und Armut der deutschen Sprache. Erster Bericht zur Lage der deutschen Sprache. Herausgegeben von der Deutschen Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung und der Union der deutschen Akademien der Wissenschaften. Berlin, Boston: de Gruyter 2013. 233 S.
Zur Reform der deutschen Rechtschreibung. Ein Kompromißvorschlag. Herausgegeben von der Deutschen Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung. 2., durchges. Auflage. Göttingen: Wallstein 2003. 141 S.
Spracharbeit. Peter Eisenberg in: Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung, Darmstadt 2008, S. 26-29.