The Mystery of the Old "S" Explained


What on earth is going on with those letters? The s looks like an f !

It sure does. I do hope you never need those last couple of sentences.

But that odd-shaped s, that’s the old long s that was used across the West for

a thousand years and more. Going back to Ancient Greek, there were two forms of lower case s (sigma), one at the end of the word < ς >, and one everywhere else < σ >,and a third form for capital S < Σ >.

Latin largely went with the form that looks like our modern form of s, < ς >, but when writing in ink, they could drag that into a pretty vertical form. By Charlemagne’s time in the 800’s, the tradition grew to use the round s as it’s called at the end of words, and to use the long s.

It applied to the Latin alphabet in general into the 1700’s and even 1800’s. My grandfather’s grandfather, of English descent, was still using the long s in the word Miſs/Miss in his Civil War diary (Charlotte Brontë did, too!). I imagine he reserved it for fancy occasions, such as talking of young ladies.

Here are two examples in English- you can see how that could throw you at first:

when it's just the long s:

English, German, Italian, French, they all used it. The French Revolution nixed it, English gradually abandoned it in the late 1700’s to early 1800’s.

German however maintained its medieval writing traditions into the mid-1900’s. Some Germans started using the more Latin-based round s across the board by the 1700’s, but they were in the minority.

Even today, Ye Olde Shoppes of Germany will post signs using old-timey writing, including the long s.

This is an old ad:

"Eßt mehr Fisch! Dann bleibt ihr schlank, gesund u. frisch!"

“Eat more fish! Then you’ll stay slender, healthy and fresh!”

in print and cursive.

Why do we need to know what’s going on with the long s? When we read old documents, it shows up everywhere, in handwriting and in print, and it can be really confuſing. We know the river is not the Miffiffippi, but when you see Miſſiſſppi, it sure looks like a bunch of f’s.

So the first thing is to learn to recognize the long s versus an f.

The long s is only lower case, never a capital, and it never has the full crossbar.

Now that’s just cruel, to make two letters distinguished only by whether there’s a full bar or a half bar, but that is medieval s vs. f for you

There are lots of variants; your old family letters and documents could use any of them. All of these are long s:

The second thing is to know when people used which.

Round s was used at the ends of words (or word parts: the end of prefixes, the end of a word within a word):

ſauſen vs. ſaufen

‘to flit’ vs. ‘to chug'

herausgeſauſt vs. ausgeſoffen

'flitted out' vs. 'chugged [it] empty'

aus- is the end of the prefix: heraus- and aus-

ſaus heraus! vs. ſauf es aus

'flit out!' vs. 'chug it empty!'

The first ſ is long, the other two are final.

Kreiſchen vs. Kreischen

kreischen ‘to screech’ vs. Kreis-chen ‘a wee lil circle'

Liebesbrief (liebe-s-brief)

'love letter': the -s is a suffix to ‘love’, and ends that word-within-a-word

Häuslein, Mäuschen

'wee house’, ‘wee mouse’: the -s ends the first word.

In English, final s was round, and sometimes the second of two s’s:

happineſs (only the final s is round)

Aſsembly ‘assembly’

And then sometimes Germans used round-s at the end of syllables that weren’t the ends of words:

kos-miſch (cosmic), Realis-mus, Os-wald, Dres-den, Schles-wig (the dashes aren’t there in normal use): kosmiſch, Realismus, Oswald, Dresden, Schleswig.

German generally did not use long-ſ in Antiqua font (which is what you’re reading now), but did in Fraktur and Kurrent.

The distinction had been helpful in distinguishing certain doublets:

Wachſtube (Wach·stu·be) und Wachstube (Wachs·tu·be)

‘guard room’ vs. 'wax tube’

(“VAHKH-shtoobuh” vs. “ VAHKS- toobuh”)

Kreiſchen (Krei·schen) und Kreischen (Kreis·chen, für kleiner Kreis)

‘wailing’ vs. ’wee lil circle’

("cry-shuhn" vs. “krice-hjuhn”)

Röschenhof (Rös·chen·hof) und Röſchenhof (Rö·schen·hof)

'Wee Rose Court’ vs. Röschen Court (Röschen is a name)

“Rös-hyuhn-hoaf” vs. "Rösh-uhn-hoaf"

Lachſturm (Lach·sturm) und Lachsturm (Lachs·turm)

‘a gale of laughter’ vs. ‘a tower of salmon’

“LAHKH-shtoorm” vs. “LAHKS-toorm"

(taken from wiki https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Langes_s)

Of course, it’s easy to mistake f and ſ and get a congreffional feffion.

The further back you go, the less reliable the rules are- don’t expect strict adherence to the rules, particularly before the late 1800’s.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Schloßſtraße, Schloßhof “SHLAWS-shtraa-suh”, ““SHLAWS-hoaf”

Castle Street, Castle Court

P.S. here’s a little more practice in English:

It sure makes for a different look. Don't let it throw you.

Do you have any German, Danish, Dutch, Swedish or Norwegian documents you can't read? We can help. Find out more here.

Would you like to share this piece? You have full permission to share as long as you include Stefan's bio and this link to sign up and keep in touch with us.

#etymology #languages #OldGerman #OldEnglish

  • Facebook icon
  • White LinkedIn Icon
  • Instagram icon

412-540-KEY1 (5391)

©2020 by Unlock Your History