Here is the transcript of series 1, episode 6: ß („Eszett“).
LG = Luke Green
FR = Frauke Rüdebusch
Note: At the end of this transcript are some images of the symbols that are referred to in the episode. They are numbered, so where you see a blue number in square brackets [ ] in the transcript, this refers to the corresponding image below.
LG: There are not often aspects of a language that are completely unique to it. Most of the time, you will find another language that shares this feature in some way or other. But German seems to have something that no other known language has. If you’ve seen written German before, you will have seen the Eszett, also known as the scharfes “s”, the letter you find in words like Straße or weiß that looks sort of like a capital “B” . What is this letter? How did German come to develop a new letter that can’t be found in any other language? That’s what we’re talking about today. And just a pre-warning, there are going to be some descriptions of letters and combinations of letters than might be hard to picture, but you can go online to the podcast website for the transcript and for some images of the letters we’re going to be talking about. So without further ado, let’s crack on with the show.
This is Yellow of the Egg. The podcast where we look at the German language and just ask – why? I’m Luke Green, and this is episode six, Eszett.
FR: This letter is called Eszett in most parts of Germany, but also there are many different names. Like in the south of Germany or in Austria it’s called sharp “s”, then there are names like rucksack “s” or an “s” that looks like a “3”, or humped “s”.
LG: You might recognise this voice from an earlier episode in this series. This is Frauke Rüdebusch from the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache. She was one of the guests in episode 2 about the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the German language. In her role as a research associate for the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache, she has also done work looking into the Eszett and its various names and theories regarding its origin.
FR: It’s a letter that represents the speech sound “s”, a sharp “s”, as the name says. The name Eszett is a little misleading actually because there is no letter combination in German words, in original German words, which have <sz>, it’s only foreign words that have that, but still, as we will see, it originated from a combination of <sz>, so actually this Eszett is not only one letter but it’s actually two.
LG: Among the many names for this letter, two seem to be more prevalent: Eszett and scharfes “s”. These names provide clues as to the history of the letter, which is far from straightforward. The name scharfes “s”, so ‘sharp “s”’, has its origins in the antiqua typeface, which is a style of writing where the letters are more smooth and rounded, and they tend to flow. These are the letters that we might know today as Latin letters. In this antiqua typeface, there used to be not one, but two versions of the letter <s>. In addition to the rounded “s” that we know and use today…
FR: It had another form of an “s” which called a long “s”. And, well, this long “s”, it looks like an “f”, a lower case “f” without the crossbar .
LG: Or if you picture a walking stick or a candy cane, this is what the long “s” resembled a little bit. The long “s” and the round “s” are generally pronounced the same way. But you would use one or the other in writing depending on where the “s” appeared in the word.
FR: This long “s” was used at the onset of a syllable and within a syllable. Whereas the round “s”, it was used only at the coda of a word, or of a syllable. So when you had a word like Anschluss, which is realised with two “s” at the end, you have an “s” within the syllable, which has to be a long “s”, and you have an “s” at the end of the syllable, which has to be a round “s”.
LG: This is where it starts getting interesting, where you have a long “s” and a round “s” next to each other, like at the end of the word Anschluss.
FR: If you put these two together, and they come very close, it looks like an “ß”. So this double “s” was realised as two letters, a long “s” and a round “s”. But ultimately, when the printing with the letter press has been invented, they were put on one sort, or one type, and they were- they became a ligature, actually. So this ligature, which is actually two letters so close together that they look like one, they ultimately became one letter, which was the sharp “s”.
LG: You can see similar things happening to letters in lots of languages where two letters become one. In French, you can see the combination of “o” and “e” to make a single ligature (œ). A famous and very common example of a ligature as used in English is the ampersand (&), which originates from the Latin word et, <et>, meaning ‘and’. The symbol was originally a combination of the letters “e” and “t”, although you can’t really see this nowadays. The same thing applies to this theory of the “ß”. But why is it specifically called a sharp “s”? Well, whenever you pronounce a word with a double “s”, this double “s” is always pronounced in a sharp way, like [s], never [z]. So because of this, whenever you see this special letter, because it stands for a double “s” according to this theory, it’s pronounced like a sharp [s]. But of course, this is only one theory of the origin of this letter. The second main theory relates to its other name, Eszett.
FR: The name Eszett, as it says, it derives from two letters, which were “s” and “z”. And these letters, or this letter, actually, has its origin very very early in language history. I have to go back to the High German consonant shift in the 6th to the 8th century, because back then, the “t”, the letter “t”, became a “z” and a “zz”.
LG: The High German consonant shift was a very systematic change where a number of consonant sounds were changed in the southern German dialects. For instance, the sound [p] shifted in many contexts to either [f] or [pf]. Which is why we have the modern German word Schiff, but because Old English didn’t undergo this shift, we still have ship. Or we have the modern German word Apfel with [pf] that corresponds to the English apple. Similarly, the [t] underwent a shift, in some contexts to a single “z” and in others to a double “z”.
FR: So it actually shifted from one letter to two, two different ones. Because the “z” and the double “z” were realised differently as speech sounds. One actually was more like an affricate [ts], and the other one was more like a sharp “s”, [s]. So I think it was in the 12th century that these two letters were, well, they went different ways. So that was actually when the unvoiced fricative “ss”, or “zz”, went from the “zz” to “sz” as a sharp “s” sound, this [s]. And in the 12th or in the 13th century, it was when we have the first piece of evidence of an “ß”.
LG: So that should technically mean that we have German words that contain a sequence of “sz”. Where can we find an “sz” in German?
FR: Nowhere, actually. There is no German word which has an “sz” in it. But if you look back to the times not that long ago when we had the German Gothic script. I think it was in the 1940s that books weren’t printed in Gothic script anymore. But before that, we had the German Gothic script.
LG: The German Gothic script was another typeface or handwriting style where the lines appear to be broken and feature many angles, they aren’t as smooth and flowy as with the antiqua typeface. This is why it’s called Fraktur in German.
FR: And this “sz” was realised as a long “s” and a tailed “z” . So if you put these two together, like a ligature like in the antiqua script, you have a long “s” and a tailed “z” . And if you look at the fractured, the Gothic, “sz” , it really looks like these two letters, and this ligature eventually became the letter “ß”. And then in the 1940s, when the Gothic script wasn’t printed anymore, it was decided that these two letters, which actually was an “sz” in Gothic script, and an “ss” in antiqua, became one letter Eszett or sharp “s”.
LG: It might sound like there are two conflicting histories, one where this letter derives from a long “s” and a round “s” in the antiqua typeface, and one where we have a long “s” and a tailed “z” in the Fraktur Gothic typeface. Which one is the correct history of the letter?
FR: It’s more like they run parallel to each other because we had Latin texts, which were printed, or written, in antiqua, and we had the German texts, which were written in Gothic script, or which were printed in Gothic script. So actually, it was a parallel development.
LG: These aren’t the only theories that exist regarding the “ß”, though.
FR: There’s a third theory, actually, but that’s not very common. And that says that this “ß” used to be an abbreviation for a little subscript “3” in Latin texts, but personally I don’t think that’s very possible.
LG: So we can assume that the two theories are correct that correspond with the two most widespread names for the letter, the Eszett and the scharfes “s”. As we heard at the start of the episode, though, there are other names for the letter, too. There’s the Bückel-“s”, which translates roughly as the ‘hunchback “s”’. There’s the dreierles “s”, which is a sort of ‘three-like “s”’, or an “s” that looks like a “3”. There’s the Rucksack-“s”, the ‘rucksack “s”’. These are definitely less-standard ways of referring to the letter, but they have their advantages.
FR: Yeah, no, they do focus on the shape and I think they are mostly names which are used by pupils in primary school, because they imitate the form of the letter, and maybe also for pupils in Germany it’s not very easy to learn this letter and the rules where you use it. Actually, in my opinion, these names that you use, Eszett and sharp “s”, they are not very clear about which letters you actually use. If you use an “sz”, as you would in the word Disziplin, it’s not a German word but these letters are in there, not as an “ß” but as “s” and “z”. And to be clear about it, that it’s not an “s” and a “z”, I think it’s easier if you say “rucksack ‘s’”, for example. And if you say “sharp ‘s’”, I- well, I grew up with Eszett, so Eszett is for me the letter. If I hear “sharp ‘s’”, still today I’m not very sure if I should write “ss” or “ß”. So these colloquial names for it, they are more clear.
LG: The lack of one definitive name for this letter further highlights its special status as an extraordinary symbol. And this letter is special in more ways than one. For example, it’s one of the few letters than you can freely substitute with other letters if needed. If you don’t have access to the symbol, for instance on a keyboard, you can use two “s”s instead. If you take the word weiß, meaning ‘white’, you usually spell it w-e-i-ß. But you can also spell it as w-e-i-s-s if you can’t use the “ß”. This is especially useful when writing words in capital letters, because before not too long ago, the “ß” didn’t even have its own capital letter.
FR: It was only, it was really, it was only invented in 2017. There was not a capital “ẞ” before that because there was simply no need for it. There’s no word, absolutely no word beginning with an “ß”. So there was no demand to write a capital “ẞ”.
LG: This capital “ẞ” looks fairly similar to a lower case “ß”, but just a little fatter and more like a capital “B” , which could arguably make it easy to confuse. Before the introduction of the capital “ẞ” in 2017, words that were written in all upper case couldn’t contain the “ß” at all and still be considered correct. Instead, they would be written with two “s”s. You can see this on signs or when you’re on public transport and the station appears in capital letters on the screens, STRASSE is usually written with two “s”s. It’s actually quite an easy solution, but it doesn’t come without its problems. For instance, there are examples of pairs of words that are spelled the same, but where one word contains a “ß”, and the other word contains a double “s”, and they have different meanings. If you write the words in capital letters, you would no longer be able to tell the words apart.
FR: Like in words as Masse, which is written with a double “s” because it’s a, it’s a short vowel. But if you write it in capital letters, you would have a double “s” whether it’s Masse or Maße, which is a completely different word. The difference is in the length of the vowel. So you would only see this difference in lower case letters and not in capital letters. I think the context would make clear which word is meant. But still if it’s names of people, it might be a problem. If a name like Groß or Großmann is written in capital letters, it has a double “s”. So it could be Grossmann, or it could be Großmann. Who would know if it’s not written in lower case letters?
LG: But now we have a capital “ẞ”, and we don’t have to replace the “ẞ” with these “s”s in upper case anymore. This saves space, and it avoids ambiguity. This is something that will definitely have caught on, right?
FR: Um, no. Not at all. I don’t think everyone knows about the capital “ẞ”. And it’s not on the keyboard, which is an important fact for the- for these times. And then it looks like a “B”. I don’t think it will have a great career. And then there’s these people who call me and ask “Should I use the capital ‘ẞ’ or should I use a double ‘s’?” and “If I use caps”. And actually I say, “well, if you don’t confuse it with a ‘B’, if the context is clear that it has to be an ‘ẞ’, it’s ok. But if there is any chance of it being seen as a ‘B’, don’t use it.”
LG: Would you use it yourself?
FR: No, I wouldn’t! Because it looks like a “B”. And I am a friend of disambiguating and not making it more complex or complicated.
LG: This ambiguity might only arise for native speakers of German in the context of upper-case letters. But for non-native speakers, even the lower-case “ß” can cause some issues. The “ß” is very distinctive and recognisably German, but because it can’t be found in any other known language, people who don’t speak German often have a hard time with it and might not know how to pronounce it when they first see it. When friends and family of mine have come to visit me in Vienna, they would often try to read out the German words they see on signs and posters. Because there is no English equivalent of the “ß”, the closest thing it looks like is a capital “B”, so they would often say things like “Strabe” instead of “Straße”. Some learners might be put off learning a language that uses unfamiliar letters. Does the “ß” make German appear more difficult to learn?
FR: No, I don’t think it makes it unattainable or unlearnable. There are very distinct rules of where to use the “ß”, and I think once you know when to use it, it’s ok. I think the difficult part of it is that there are realisations of the “s”, well for the “s” sound, actually, for the sharp “s”, for the unvoiced “s”, there is a single “s” and a double “s”. And then there is the “ß”. So it’s actually three realisations.
LG: So if we have a single “s” and a double “s”, why do we actually need a third form?
FR: We don’t need it, but then, with the orthography reform, it was actually debated if we should get rid of the “ß” or if it has sense to keep it. And I don’t quite remember what rules there were before that, but there were different rules. And I think they are now much clearer of when to use a sharp “s”.
LG: Since the spelling reform in 90s, it’s easier to know when to use the “ß” and when to use an “s” or a double “s” instead. Firstly, at the start of a word or a syllable, you would use a single “s”, you would never see a German word start with a double “s” or an “ß”. But what about at the end of a word or a syllable?
FR: You would use the “ß” if you have a long vowel, so like in Fuß you would use the “ß”. Then you have the Fluss, and you would use “ss”. And before the reform you would write Fluss with an “ß” as well [like: Fluß]. So now, with the new rules, with the rules after the reform, it’s clear that you only use the “ß” after a long vowel.
LG: In this way, you have words like Schoß, which is your lap, which are written with a “ß” because the vowel is long. But then you have schoss, the past tense of schießen, ‘to shoot’. Because it has a short vowel, schoss is written with a double “s”, not a “ß”. This is a pretty straightforward rule that learners can stick to in order to make it easier to get to grips with this letter. Still, despite this, the other problems don’t go away. There’s still the issue that most keyboards don’t include the “ß”, and even keyboards in the German-speaking world don’t include the capital “ẞ”. There’s the issue of ambiguity with the letter “B”, and the confusion surrounding what to do when writing in all caps. These aren’t problems in every German-speaking country, though.
FR: In Switzerland actually there used to be an “ß”, but I think it was some decades ago that they got rid of it. They decided they don’t want it anymore in their German. It is used in Germany and Austria. It is not used in Switzerland anymore, they have abolished it. Maybe they decided so because it’s not very international, as you know. It’s one letter that only exists in German. And, as you see, it doesn’t exist in all of the countries where German is spoken.
LG: In other places where German is an official language, like East Belgium or South Tirol in Italy, you will still see the “ß” being used according to the rules followed in Austria and Germany though. So what does the future hold for the “ß” in the places where it is still used?
FR: There’s always a chance the “ß” will be abolished, but actually I don’t see that in the near future. Because the reform was only, well, 24 years ago now, and they have decided to keep it, to make rules about it that are actually learnable. And I don’t think that they will go and get rid of it in the near future. So, it has a long, long history. It does not make sense in every context, but I don’t think that it will be abolished quite soon.
LG: Thank you so much to Frauke Rüdebusch for coming back and joining me for this episode. As I mentioned last time, you can check out her work and her articles by visiting the website of the Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache, gfds.de. I will also put some information and links on the podcast website, yellowoftheegg.com, so definitely check that out. As always, if you want to get in touch with me, I’m on Instagram @YOTEPodcast, that’s Y-O-T-E-Podcast, or you can send an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. And of course as always I’d be over the moon if you could share this podcast with your friends and colleagues, and give it a 5-star rating and review. That would really help to boost the podcast, I really appreciate it. So with all that being said, thank you so much for listening, and until next time, machts es gut, servus aus Wien.