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The Curious History of the German 'Doubled S' - ß

Updated: Mar 9

German Street Sign:Straussstrasse - Eszett - the Double S

In my previous posting Are those even the same letters in old German?, I talked about the German umlaut letters. This time it is about the very confusing letter s in German- it was confusing in earlier English writing, and German still uses part of that old style.

Ä, Ö and Ü are variants of familiar letters, but the fourth letter that German has that we don’t is the real kicker: ß It looks like an odd form of b, but it’s pronounced s, like in Straße (sometimes spelled Strasse, “SHTRAA-suh” ‘street’ or Schloß “SHLAWS” ‘castle, palace’).

A give-away is the name for that letter: Eszett (“ESS-tset”) which means “s z”. Eszett is just an s plus a z... but an old-style s and z. You know the old-time way of writing an s in the 1700’s? It’s called the long s, and looks almost the same as an f, only the cross-piece is only on the left side, it doesn’t extend to the right side the way an f’s does.

In English ‘a congressional session’ used to be written:

Eszett - S and Z - Unique German letter

In a word like 'confession' you can see the f and long s side by side. The f has a bar all the way through, whereas the ſ has a bar just on the left side. Not a great design, but most of Europe used it for centuries.

So getting back to the ess-tzett: ſ plus the older way to spell z, Ʒ, gives you ſ+Ʒ = ſƷ = ß. German has run the old form of s into the old form of z. It’s always pronounced like s, and can be replaced with double-s, so Preußen (‘Prussia’) can also be spelled Preussen. In Switzerland, they only use the double-s. Nowhere do the German-speaking countries use the long-s anymore (except to look archaic), but the long-s is the norm in older writing.

Earlier English had something similar, when a word ended in -ss:

(Here’s an article on the ‘long s’ that looks to us like an f: )

So that is what is going on with those odd s/f letters, and what is going on when you see the ess-tzett ß. The rest of the different forms of the Latin Alphabet that you’ll find in older German developed that sort of way as well- habits of handwriting gradually let them drift to those forms, each one with its own story.


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