In German, beside the common ‘s’ we have a letter ß called Scharfes ‘s’ (sharp ‘s’). Sometimes it is also somewhat old-fashionedly referred to as Eszett, literally ‘s-z’.
Why would anyone need more than one “s”? – you might ask and you’ll find to your surprise that English also used to have more than one, albeit a long time ago. Let’s take a look at the history (and maybe the future) of this innocent letter and see what’s the new hotness in German typography…
I cannot recall how many times I have seen German manuals in Japan using a β (beta) instead of the proper letter. Maybe the designer didn’t know or didn’t have a Mac (there you can get the ß even with a US keyboard layout by hitting option+s very easily). Of course it does look somewhat similar (by pure coincidence), and to make the confusion perfect the hand-written ß does have a descender, making it look even more like a beta, while the print ß does not (except for italics that is, which are derived from handwriting).
There are actually three forms of ‘s’
Antiqua is what typographers call the printing letter forms of the Renaissance, that were inspired by the older (“antiquus” means old) Roman capital letters and the lowercase letters of the Carolingian Minuscule (in contrast to Fraktur or black letter scripts)
The letter “ß” as it is used in modern Antiqua scripts (sounds like an oxymoron, but isn’t) has its origins in a ligature of the long ‘s’ [ ſ ] and the round end-‘s’ [ s ]. The usage rule for the two s-forms was straightforward: the long ‘s’ was used at the beginning of words and syllables, and also mid-word, while the round ‘s’ was used at the end of words or the end of syllables. In those days it was even widely used in English and French, as you can see on the picture to the left showing both forms used in the US bill of rights not so long ago. Its usage has been abolished, however, because it made things unnecessarily complex using two different letters with the exact same phonetic value just to make typographers happy.
The reason “ß” is sometimes referred to as “Eszett” is, because in the old German black letter script Fraktur a ligature of ſ+z – a long ‘s’ and a ‘z’ – was used instead of a ligature combining ſ+s; probably because the descender of the Fraktur-z gave the letter better visual balance, but maybe also because in medieval times the ‘z’ alone has often been used for an unvoiced ‘s’ sound, so it looked rather natural.
On a side note: Fraktur was the standard printing script until the Nazis 1941 suddenly declared it un-German (“Judenlettern”) and abolished its use. Ironically many people still consider the blackletter Fraktur wrongly a Nazi-script, although it has been the commonly used printing font for centuries before the Nazis.
Modern meaning and usage
The reason this ligature has so stubbornly remained a part of the German alphabet is simple. It has established itself as an unconditionally unvoiced ‘s’. That’s significant: in German (as in English and probably other Indo-European languages) there’s no real difference made visually between voiced and unvoiced ‘s’. Of course a double-s would be unvoiced, but double-consonants also stand for short pronunciation, so it stands for more than just the voicing.
In German an ‘s’ after a long vowel is usually voiced (Nase, Hose, Besen). So in the exceptional case an ‘s’ after a long vowel would not be voiced, the “ß” was the perfect candidate to give a visual clue.
Unfortunately the usage of the “ß” was completely inconsistent. Yes it was always unvoiced, but at times it was used for an unvoiced ‘s’ after a long vowel, sometimes for one after short vowels, at times the same word would be spelt using a double-s in the infinitive form, but the “ß” when in the 3rd person (müssen/muß/mußte, fressen/frißt/fraß), yet with no consistency as to whether the vowel before the ‘s’ was long or short.
The much hated, discussed, rejected, partly embraced and now arbitrarily implemented revised German spelling has one single point I really like about it and that is its absolutely consistent dealing with the dreaded third “s”.
Any unvoiced ‘s’ after a long vowel, Umlaut or a diphthong is spelt “ß”. When it’s unvoiced after a short vowel always “ss” is used.
It wouldn’t be a rule if there were not an exception: names.
Please be aware that the “scharfes ‘s’” [ ß ] does not exist in Swiss German, so instead of “ß” you’ll always use a double-s. Which is often cause for amusement and confusion, e.g. in catalogues where “measurements” (Maße) suddenly look like “weight/mass” (Masse) to German eyes.
Let’s just have another “ß”!
Since uppercase letters are often used in official forms in Germany, it has become a general workaround that “ß” in uppercase is written “SS”. Usually this is no big issue – after all the Swiss do this all the time, however when you fill in a form and are required to write your own name in uppercase letters and your name happens to contain an “ß”, then you’d have to spell it incorrectly just to comply with the requirements of the form.
Partly due to that problem, and partly because ever since the Euro there hasn’t been any new letter added to their fonts some overly zealous typographers have designed fonts with an uppercase “ß”. Just hold this thought for a second and let it sink in: an UPPERCASE “ß”.
What a complete absurdity. The “ß” has its origins from a ligature of two lowercase letters. There has never been an uppercase long ‘s’, making an uppercase ligature of it is ludicrous.
Moreover there is no such thing as any uppercase ligature, because ligatures are all about readability. That’s the whole reason for fusing two letters into one: to make things easier to read. UPPERCASE TEXT DEFIES THE PURPOSE OF LEGIBILITY, its bad legibility (and writing speed) were the main reasons lowercase letters have come into existence in the first place.
And if the main reason really was that people would have to misspell their names, because they couldn’t write an ß in uppercase on some idiotic form, why don’t we tell German administration to finally upgrade from DOS and get computers that can deal with more than just ASCII and uppercase letters for crying out loud? Wasn’t Munich for example moving to Linux? But I digress.
In Latin there was no U at first, so they used V for both sounds, or maybe they didn’t even make a distinction, hence the name “double-u” in English or “doble u” in Spanish for W
Before some typo-geek points out that the W came into existence as a VV ligature, and it actually is an uppercase ligature, I’d like to point out that this ligature happened in the middle ages and in lower case. Romans never had a W. Furthermore the v does have an uppercase counterpart, so making an uppercase W didn’t require raping the alphabet.
Where to go from here?
It seems that even the Unicode Consortium isn’t immune to lobby driven pseudo requirements for some languages, so they have included “LATIN ALPHABET LETTER CAPITAL SHARP S” as U+1E9E and now we have to live with it. Fortunately according to German official grammar and spelling this letter doesn’t even exist (phew).
Doesn’t that make for a great conspiracy? The letter that never was. Maybe someone could throw in some Illuminati lore (founded in Munich, Germany – hint, hint) and make a cool movie of it.
If you can make a successful movie about an unimaginative and bleak font like Helvetica, the Inglorious Eszett Bastards might fly just as well.