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Amok Mama: The greatest lie of our age

If your biggest beef with people is the way they spell, you need to get over it, says Jacinta Nandi.

Another article’s been published about Sprachnotstand in German universities! This time by Hannah Bethke, a uni lecturer who sometimes has to mark papers and it’s literally doing her head in. Kids today can barely write: you know the kind of spiel. Surely, at some point, people in Germany’s German skills will have got so bad that there’ll literally be nowhere left for them to sink to? We’ve been sinking so far and so fast for so long, HOW MUCH WORSE CAN IT GET?

So. Some people spell “Vorraussetzung” with two “r”s – people whose papers poor Hannah has to mark. And she claims she’s worried about them – and the future of the German language, of course. Well. Even if “Vorraussetzung” were a ghastly mistake, and not just ONE LETTER AWAY from the actual spelling, as if shaming people makes them spell better.

Hannah Bethke and her ilk don’t want people to spell better. She knows that laughing at people’s weaknesses won’t magically improve their spelling. All it does is make them clam up. She doesn’t want students whose spelling so infuriates her to improve – she wants them, preferably, off the course – but if they have the temerity to remain on her course, they should at least have the decency to be ashamed of themselves for not being as clever as she is.

My mum was a terrible speller. I remember her not being able to spell Yours Sincerely – she always wrote “Sincerley”. I remember sitting down with her and telling her that it was sincere like sincere and then –ly, so it had to be sincerely. I remember her calling out to me to tell her how to spell it just one week later.  Hannah Bethke is much better at spelling than my mother. And she’ll be pleased to learn that my mum’s bad spelling damaged her confidence – her confidence, more than her ability – to get on in life, be successful.

Thing is, maybe Hannah’s right. Maybe people who can’t spell properly shouldn’t go to uni. They should probably all be herded out of the universities and marched into Nagelstudio training colleges or something similar.

What infuriates me is her impatience, her lack of sympathy or imagination! This idea that it isn’t hard! That everyone who isn’t lucky enough to be born as clever as Bethke is lazy, weak and stupid. Wicked, even.

Words are hard. Spelling them correctly is, let’s be honest, fucking difficult. Why, for example, do you, in German say “Du hast recht?” If I have something, it’s a noun, and a noun needs a capital. Why aren’t the words sir and madam spelt with a capital? Why isn’t it it’s and not its? It’s Hannah’s article: the article is Hannah’s, so, logically, it should be her’s. Jane Austen thought so too, by the way. 

When I first came to Berlin, I fell in love with a Palestinian boy. He’d come over at 15, been put in U-Haft for a while. He taught himself to read German with the BZ. He actually didn’t know the difference between lower and upper case, unlike the made-up students in Bethke’s hatchet job piece. He used to write me little notes when he’d been unfaithful or spent all my money on drugs – “Libe Jaci, I love you To MaTCh.” Like that. They’d break my heart, I used to look at them and know I wasn’t really gonna end up marrying him. I always felt a mix of shame and delight.

In those little notes he wrote me, there was more MEANING than in that article Bethke puked up. She might be good at spelling, but she can’t write at all – because she has nothing to say. And I think this is where her “fear” comes from. She isn’t insecure about her spelling, but her actual intelligence. This is what a lot of grammar Nazis are scared about. They know they’re not original or intelligent thinkers. They know in a true democracy, our universities and newspapers wouldn’t be filled with their meaningless texts or unoriginal thoughts. People who spell “Vorraussetzing” with two “r”s belong in a Nagelstudio but in a truly fair society, Bethke would be a Toilettenfrau. And she knows this! She knows she’s a smug, small-minded person who needs to keep people like my mother ashamed or they might notice how little she actually has to say.

We can use spell-check to change all “aubegines” into “aubergine”. There’s no spell-check in the world that can change Bethke from a meaningless coward into someone who actually has something to say. I despise her and everyone like her – everyone who thinks commas are more important than human beings. It’s bad enough people thinking profits and cars and oil and sofas are more important than human beings. But commas? Fuck, you, Hannah, Bethke.