The ß — Eszett ([ɛs'tsɛt] in German or scharfes Es (sharp es) if spelled out — is a letter used only in the German alphabet. It alternates with "ss" under certain conditions. "ß" is unique among the letters of western alphabets in that it has no majuscule (upper-case form); "SS" must be used when everything is being written in capitals. Nowadays many people simply use the lower-case glyph with all-caps too, but this is wrong.
origins of the ligature ß
There are two different origins of the ligature ß:
Ligatur ſs: a ligature of long s (ſ, looks like an f without bar) and (normal) round s.
Ligatur ſz: a ligature of ſ and z.
The ligature of long ſ and round s was used antiqua typefaces, for instance in English or French. It fell into disuse when the long ſ was abandoned in the 18th century.
In German blackletter typefaces, the ligature of long ſ and z was used since the Middle Ages. In the second Germanic sound shift, Germanic [t] became [s] or [ts]. At first, both were spelled zz, but soon, they were differentiated as ſz and tz. Originally, that s-sound was different from the old Germanic s-sound, but this difference was lost in the Middle Ages. Therefore, the spellings ſz and ss became confused. The modern distinction between the two spellings emerged after many centuries. Until the German spelling reform of 1901, the use depended from region to region.
The usual typeface for German was blackletter. In the late 18th and early 19th century, when more and more German texts were printed in antiqua, the typesetter looked for an antiqua counterpart of the blackletter ſz ligature because they wanted to preserve the common distinction between ſz and ss. The preservation of this difference in antiqua typefaces became obligatory with the German spelling reform.
different forms of antiqua ß
There have been four different typographical solutions for the form of the antiqua ß:
- letter combination ſs (not as a ligature, but as a single type),
- ligature of ſ and s,
- ligature of ſ and a kind of blackletter z (blackletter z looks similar to a "3"; this solution is closest to the orginal blackletter ligature),
- a ligature ſ and a kind of 3 so that the ligature resembles a Greek β (a compromise of the second and the third solution).
Currently, most antiqua ß are shaped according to the second or the fourth solution. The third solution is seldomly found, and the first has fallen into disuse.
The typographer Jan Tschichold claimed that the German blackletter ß originated as a ligature of ſ and s. His view is widespread, even though historical linguists say that there's no argument to support it. Tschichold's claim is based on a picture drewn by himself that shows how ſ and s melt together in blackletter, and on a reference to the ſs-ligature in antiqua. A historical specimen of the former has never been found, and the latter is true, but pointless.
In today's German orthography, "ß" (like other "simple" consonants) is used after a long vowel, while "ss" (like other "doubled" consonants) is used after a short one. Both represent the sound /s/; a solitary "s" has the value /z/ (although this is devoiced at the end of a word). For example, Fuß (/fu:s/, German for "foot") has a long vowel, while Fluss (/flUs/, meaning "river") has a short vowel (cf. the difference of engl. "c(e)" and "ss" in "mice" and "miss").
Before the German spelling reform in 1998, the rule was that "ss" must never be used at the end of a syllable and must be replaced by "ß", even if it followed a short vowel. In other words, "ss" was only used when hyphenation would occur between the two s's. As a result, Fluss was formerly spelled Fluß, even though the plural has always been Flüsse (hyphenated Flüs-se). The new rule alleviates this irregularity in accord with the orthography of other consonants, which are single after a long vowel and double after a short one; for example, Wal /va:l/ with a long "a" and Ball /bal/ with a short one.
The spelling reform also affected place names, e.g. "Rußland" (Russia) became "Russland" and "Preßburg" (Bratislava) became "Pressburg".
If it were to be assumed that the word Fluss had already been spelt Fluss before the ß character existed, but were written in Fraktur writing with the distinction between the long s and the terminal s, then Flüsse would be rendered Flüſſe, while Fluss would be written Fluſs. This seems to support the view that ß might not, after all, derive from an ſz ligature and was part of the fuel in the aforementioned controversy about its origin.
Before the reform the Duden encouraged the use of "SZ" in cases where "SS" would produce an ambiguous result, as with "IN MASZEN" (in limited amounts) vs. "IN MASSEN" (in massive amounts).
This new usage of "ß" is now standard in Germany and Austria. Switzerland and Liechtenstein officially abolished the use of "ß" in the 1930s. In schools, correspondence or newspapers, "ß" is not used, but some Swiss publishing houses for books still use it. Many German speakers have de facto rejected the new spellings, and in mid-2004, several prominent German language periodicals announced that they were reverting to the old spellings. It remains to be seen whether the new system will catch on. See German spelling reform.
ß and β
"ß" should not be confused with the lowercase Greek letter beta ("β"), which it closely resembles, particularly to the eyes of non-German readers, but to which it is unrelated. Indeed the resemblance is not close enough to enable substitution of the one with the other in typeset material without the result looking extremely unprofessional. The differences are:
- β reaches below the line while ß does not.
- β connects the vertical part on the left with the end of the horizontal near the bottom; ß does not.
- β uses Greek rules of stroke thickness (slanted strokes are thinnest), ß uses Latin rules (horizontal strokes are thinnest).
However, such substitution once was common when describing beta test versions of application programs for older operating systems, such as classic Mac OS, whose character encodings did not support easy use of Greek letters. Also, the original IBM DOS codepage, CP437 (aka OEM-US), conflates the two characters, assigning them the same codepoint (0xE1) and a glyph that minimises their differences.
Also note that in German handwriting, the ß is written very similar to β. It often looks like a slanted β, though still means the same as ß. This is mainly done in handwriting because β is easier to write. Any typeset material should use the ß.
When ordering German words alphabetically, the collation rules say that "ß" should be treated as if it were a double "ss". So, for example: "Ruß" < "Russe" < "rußen" < "Russland". Some people sort "ß" like a single "s" but this is not recommended.
The ß is also used by some in romanizing the Sumerian language [in which it represented ...].
The ß character is popular in Hungarian "text speak" used with mobile phones, replacing the grapheme sz, thus using one letter fewer in the SMS.
The HTML entity for "ß" is
ß. Its codepoint in the ISO 8859 character encoding versions 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 13, 14, 15, 16 and identically in Unicode is 223, or DF in hexadecimal.
On Windows computers, the ß can be typed by holding Alt, typing 2 2 5 on the right number pad, and then releasing alt.