In some discussions about the latest reform of the German orthography, it was claimed that a central language regulation body prevents people from writing as they like and thus prevents “natural” changes of orthography.

In contrast to this, I would hypothesise the following:
The establishment of spelling as a concept amongst the users of a given language automatically leads to the existence of conservative users who oppose spelling changes. The amount of these users and their “stubbornness” finally become so high that it prevents changes of spelling from reaching broad acceptance, unless accepted and propagated by a central regulation body for the language. This particularly applies for changes of a more general nature that affect more than just a small number of words, e.g., a hypothetical replacement of c by k, whenever it is pronounced as /k/ (as in can), for the English language.

Two examples that stimulated my hypothesis:

  • There is no central regulating body for the English language. As a result of this, there is some variety in spelling, e.g., the differences between British and American English or certain punctuation issues. However, the apart from this (and even within this), little to nothing has changed since the end of the 19th century (if I am not mistaken). Having read some of the works by H.P. Lovecraft, who is known for his archaic language, the only »old« spellings that caught my eye, were uses of the trema (e.g., in coöperate) and a few archaic vocables (e.g., Esquimaux).
  • For the German language, the Orthographische Konferenz (Orthographical Conference) of 1901 established an official orthography and at the same time reformed some aspects of spelling, for which a widespread convention existed at that time, e.g. the usage of the letter c. Though the next orthography reform (which most prominently changed the usage of the letter ß) happened not until 1996, the spelling of many words changed during this time, e.g., many alternative spellings allowed in 1901 came out of use (e.g, Concern), modern spellings were established (e.g., Photo → Foto) and even one rule changed (the triple-letter rule, which became increasingly bizarre) – all this being done by the Duden dictionary, which had an official monopoly on defining correct spelling. While both reforms met heavy opposition, their changes became accepted very quickly (in about 10 years) by most users.

Finally, my question: Is there more to my hypothesis (given a certain establishment of orthography, central regulating bodies accelerate orthography changes) than the above two examples?

  • Both. There are frequent reforms in Dutch and German, which are regulated. But not in French or Spanish, which are also regulated. Then you politically controlled reforms such as the simplified characters of Chinese, the reform of Japanese including different simplified characters after WWII, and reform by the new communist government after they gained control in Laos. I don't think these three have academies per se. Sep 21, 2013 at 12:21
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    @hippietrail: As for French: Is there any reason to assume that orthography changes would have happened if the orthographical “authority” were decentralised? The Spanish orthography was changed in 2010, if I am not mistaken. Moreover: Is there any example of a spelling reform of a language with decentralised orthographical “authority” (as, e.g., in English)? Sep 22, 2013 at 11:28
  • Nope. No reason at all. Did Spanish change any spellings? I know they changed the definition of ch and ll to no longer be considered as separate letters along with a new collation. But maybe that was an earlier reform. As for English I would say it has no centralized authority and no decentralized authority. Just a "fashion(s)" have tended not to change a lot at the formal register. So maybe I shouldn't've said both but neither. Sep 22, 2013 at 15:22
  • @hippietrail: I do not see the difference beteween both and neither as an answer to this question. According to [url=en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_orthography]this[/url] Spanish did change spellings. As for English: I was referring to the dictionaries and similar as “authorities” for lack of a better term (hence the quotes). Sep 23, 2013 at 12:58
  • If you read the stuff at the beginnings of the most cited English dictionaries such as the OED and Websters Third New World you will see they are very adamant that they are not authorities but instead are trying to document the language. People who cite English dictionaries as authorities in the same way a language academy or language laws are authorities they are wrong. Sep 23, 2013 at 13:35

3 Answers 3


What really fixes spelling is printing. Before Caxton set up shop in England, spelling was a matter of representing one's speech as closely as one could, using whatever spelling conventions one liked, and understanding others' different conventions as well. Since everything was copied, there was understood to be a great deal of variance. As there is today in handwriting, but not spelling.

Official language regulation bodies have, at best, a spotty history. They don't really represent the way the language is developing, and while the French Academy may have hindered whatever development there was towards a phonemic French orthography (I don't know of any, but what do I know?), it is certain that the French are too fond of their orthography, which is serviceable and meets their requirements adequately, to change much, unless something new, like texting or autotranslate or speech recognition, makes it seem like a good idea in some contexts.

As for English, forget it. There's too much installed base. Think MicroSoft after 400 years of .doc files. Are they going to revert to ASCII? No chance.

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    Thank you for your answer, but I was rather aiming at languages for which a certain fixation of spelling has already happened. Though it may be as you say that little conclusion can be made. As for the example of French: What has hindered language change more? The French Academy or the French and their fondness of their orthography? Mar 7, 2013 at 23:44
  • What really fixes spelling is printing. — Why do you think so? Copying by hand does not preclude a fixed spelling. Whenever documents were copied, scribes normally took great care to be exact. In the case of literature, this was done out of a sense of respect for the original form of the text. With most other documents, because the original text had to be kept entirely intact for legal reasons. If you look at the history of Latin, spelling changed very little from the classical age onwards, even through the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages.
    – Cerberus
    Mar 8, 2013 at 4:16
  • Greek, on the other hand, still knew a lot of variation during the classical age; but, by the end of the classical age and into Hellenism, Greek spelling became mostly fixed as well. The only connection between printing and fixed spelling I can think of is that the community of writers and readers expanded rapidly, and more people saw the same works pass by, which may have contributed to more uniformity. But I also think it is an independent process with its own dynamic influenced by various socio-cultural factors. Everything in Europe became more uniform and international ca. 1200–
    – Cerberus
    Mar 8, 2013 at 4:21
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    I would cite Dutch as a counterexample. They seem to have a desire to keep changing the orthography to keep up with the changing language. Sep 21, 2013 at 12:23
  • @Cerberus: copying by hand does not preclude a fixed spelling: but neither does it encourage it. Even where the copyist is careful to preserve the spelling of the original, this does nothing to fix the spelling either within a document or between documents.
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 20, 2013 at 14:06

The French Academy does go through orthographic reforms - the last one was done in 1990. It's certainly not as radical as German reforms but is quite present such as aiguë -> aigüe.


In general language standardisation happens after changes in the language communities. Only reforms in Chinese is a counter-example. The impetus of changes derives of the cultural changes in the communities. Historical American English and Brazilian Portugues changed faster. One language with many more or less isolated communities (historic Greek), isolated Portuguese in Portugal and Brasil. Small Dutch/Flanders may have easier reforms.

Regulation like revisions, and cross-community standardisation, are conservative (though still receive much opposition). Take the reform of German where some occurrences of ß (but not all) were replaced by ss.

Regulation authorities are seldom speeding things up to a larger degree. In general they start to allow new orthography and finally make some new spelling the standard. They also cannot really hinder new cultural terms.

The dictionary though intending to be non-regulative, in fact is regulative. As people tend to follow spelling and word choice as provided in the dictionaries.

Conclusion: The mosquito steering the elephant. Though language regulation is linguistically important, its controlling function (negative or positive) depends on other factors, like the Chinese in the past wanting to do a huge simplification.

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    I would say there are plenty of reforms besides Chinese that were brought down from above. Generally though they have a degree of popular support and even some push for them beforehand, as well as detractors. This was true for the Chinese reforms also. Many of the changes such as simplified forms already existed but become the new standard. Some did not agree as can be seen in Taiwan and Hong Kong. I'm sure there were those in PRC that did not agree but of whom we did not hear also. Standard new words invented by the French academy to replace loanwords are regularly ignored by speakers... Nov 23, 2013 at 18:41
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    Interestingly, the German switch from Adelungs’s to Heyse’s ß rules (and other aspects being reformed at the same time) is my prime example of an official change that did not happen in reaction to the language community. Nobody used Heyse’s rules between 1920 and 1996 (see, e.g., this Ngram estimating the relative amount of books printed with Heyse’s rules) and nobody would use them today, if the reform had not happened. Nov 24, 2013 at 16:46

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