I’ll bet you thought (if you ever gave it any thought) that short s (the s we know today) was used at the ends of words and long s (the one that looks like an f to us: ſ) everywhere else. Well, I’m here to tell you it’s not nearly that simple, and I know because Andrew West of BabelStone wrote a long, long post about it back in 2006 (now updated with n-grams!) providing all the information you could possibly want about usage not only in English but in French, Italian, Spanish, and other languages, with many images. Enjoy (if, of course, this is the sort of thing you enjoy)!


  1. Pretty much everyone I know who knows BabelStone (by his blog, of course) feels ashamed in face of his sea of erudition. Me included.

  2. I have seen rotunda ‘r’ in Fraktur documents but never knew it had its own name and rules. Cool! And I’m always up for a round of discussion of whether eszett is long ‘s’ + short ‘s’ or long ‘s’ + ‘z’…

  3. I geekily enjoyed that immensely, thank-you! I was especially chuffed to discover where the ‘ß’ comes from (ſs ligature, of course) – makes so much sense, but had never occurred to me before it was pointed out.

  4. As part of a 6 month sojourn in Eastern Europe last year, I spent 5 days in Berlin. One of the first things I noticed on street signs were the two different ligature forms of “ss”. The ß form and another which I can’t see how to reproduce here but looks like ſ and ʒ joined together where the top of the ʒ joins to halfway up the ſ . Here is what I said in my blog at the time:
    Here is a linguistic curiosity (about written rather than spoken German): ss can be written as a single letter ß. For example street = strasse = straße. And football = fussball =fußball. I knew that, but I soon came across street signs in Berlin which initially threw me. If you look carefully at my photo of the Sunflower hostel you will see that one street sign says Helsingforser Straße, while the other one says Pillauerstraſʒe, except that the ſʒ is written without the space in between. Both forms are really ligatures, that is two letters joined together to form one character, in this case s and z. ſ = long s, and ʒ = z. Although one correct way is to write ss, the more old fashioned way is to write s and z, but joined together. Confusing. This character still lives on in German, despite a spelling reform of 1996 that was intended to reduce its frequency (but never intended to eliminate it altogether).
    Perhaps someone can correct my non-expert account, and explain why it seems like German “ss” used to be “sz”?

  5. iching — do you have any pictures of those street signs? Sounds like just two typefaces with different ß’s…

  6. In many of its uses, the esszet is just fancy spelling, but in words like straße it serves a real purpose, because 2 rules of German spelling come into conflict.
    1. Since voiced and unvoiced s are in complementary distribution in German except intervocalically within a word, the rule is to spell voiced intervocalic s with a single s and the unvoiced one with a double ss.
    2. However, there is another rule that says that double consonant letters signal that the preceding vowel is short.
    So Strasse with its long vowel before 2 orthographic consonant letters fails rule 2, and Strase with one orthographic s fails rule 1.
    The esszet is a way ot of this conundrum.

  7. I’ll just add that one of the purposes of the still-very-unpopular-but-IMHO-unstoppable 1996 orthographic reform was to replace ß with ss where it is irregularly preceded by a short vowel: thus dass rather than daß. Traditionally, every syllable-final ss was ß. At the same time, unvoiced (as opposed to devoiced) final s became ss, with a few highly frequent exceptions like das and es.
    Note that Switzerland has traditionally written German with ss rather than ß (there being no voiced sibilants there), and the orthographic reform preserves this.

  8. Yes, Modesto. Here is my snap of the street signs outside the Sunflower Hostel in Friedrichshain, Berlin (the last photo in the 3rd block of photos). As you say, it is just a case of an esszet with two different typefaces. But until seeing the second type, I had never realised that ß was a ligature for sz. It just looked a bit like a Greek β, though I never questioned why. The part that looks a bit like the number 3 is to me obviously a z, probably because I am familiar with the Cyrillic letter з, and also because I learnt the Copperplate handwriting style when I first went to school in Australia in the mid-50s. Wikipedia tells me that Americans are familiar with Copperplate chiefly because it is the style in which the body of the Declaration of Independence is printed. We used ink-wells built into our desks back then, and wooden pens with steel nibs. Looking back it seems like something out of Charles Dickens. The earth-shattering technological breakthrough came a few years later with the advent of the fountain pen.

  9. Thanks! That is a great photo.

  10. Interesting timing, this. I had quite the back and forth with my editor and the book designer for my novel because of the long s, which is used in some quotations I had copied down from primary material from the 17th century. Based on what I had read in those letters and manuscripts I had pretty much figured out these rules for myself, but it’s good to know.

  11. kimchikraut says

    If I remember correctly, there appeared some Fraktur graffiti in the film Untergang with Bruno Ganz that contained a long s error.

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