Morphematic reorientation of German orthography takes place in conformity with
a general law in the history of writing. Alphabetic writing systems, being necessarily
phonographic, tend to develop towards the encoding of non-phonetic units. The
emergence of morphematic elements in German is preceeded by the evolution of
word-separation by regular spaces which had been adopted throughout Europe by
the end of the 13th century. Based on a corpus containing 157 High German texts
(late 15th to late 18th centuries), this paper will demonstrate that morphematic
reorientation of German orthography can be explained neither as an invisible-hand-process
nor as the outcome of prescriptive grammar, but as the result of interaction
between orthograpic norm and usage.
Three cases will be considered in detail:
(1) Graphic assimilation of allomorphic plosive variation emerges as early as the 12th century, reflecting regional final devoicing. By the early 17th century, the rule governing orthographic reprensentation of final devoicing in present-day German is fully adopted in usage. Its morphematic reinterpretation does not follow before the end of the 17th century.
(2) Morphematic graphic representation of [a]-Umlaut emerges during the 14th century in Upper Germany as a phonetic reflex of open [e]. It is recommended by Middle German grammarians since the 1560s, with explicit mention of morphological factors. Around 1700 the writing rule imposes itself in usage.
(3) The use of double consonant letters occuring in final positions of 'graphic' syllables (<soll> according to <sollen>) rests inhibited until the 18th century, in particular to prevent tri- or tessaragraphs (<sollt>, <sollst>). It is the influence of Adelung's grammar which leads to the final adaption of the present-day rule.