The story of Eszett (ß)

You only see this letter being used in German today, but not just any German, more rather, the German typically spoken in Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, and parts of Belgium. You might see this on street signs, or basically everywhere. For learners, you might have first encountered it in the very first lesson of a beginner’s textbook. Apart from the umlaut vowels, the eszett is perhaps the most iconic letter in the German alphabet (except Swiss German, they write things a bit differently), and German is the only language today where this letter is used. So let’s explore a little history behind this rather unique character!

As the name suggests (or does not, if you call it the scharfes S), ß is a combination of the letters “s” and “z”. Curiously, there is actually a capitalised version of this letter, although it only officially existed since 2017. In several cases, it is interchangeably used with the digraph “ss”, and in Switzerland and Liechtenstein, this letter is completely replaced with the diagraph. So the word Straße could also be written as Strasse.

The eszett originated as a digraph unsurprisingly called “sz” in late medieval and early modern German orthography. It later became a ligature of the letter “long s” or ſ, and the “tailed z” or ʒ. But the creation of this letter has to be in response to something, right?

It turns out that in High German’s history, there was a consonant shift that started sometime between the third and fifth centuries, and concluded around the eighth century. Old High German developed a sound that was spelled “zz” or “z”, but pronounced as [s], and also a sound proposed to be spelled “s” but pronounced as [⁠ɕ⁠] or [ʒ].

The issue was, the letter “z” also represented the sound [ts], as it still does today. And so, speakers of Old High German had to come up with something to differentiate between these sounds. Thus, the sound for [s] in this case was spelled “zss” or “zs”, as in wazsser, or Wasser today (water).

A few centuries later, in the 13th century, a phonetic shift happened. The difference between [z] and [s] was lost in the beginning and the end of words across nearly all dialects. The Old-Middle High German “s” was pronounced as [z], while the “z” continued to be pronounced as [s]. In some texts, however, this [s] sound was quite often spelled as “sz” or “ss”.

This is where we find the first signs of the eszett, literally “sz”. Born as a ligature of the two letters, the eszett was initially written by combining the long “s” with the tailed “z”. The earliest known appearance of this particular letter is from a manuscript from the year 1300, of the poem Wolfdietrich. In fact, the way this letter was employed back then was based on phonetics than etymology, and by the early 16th century, more words began to be distinguished from each other, notably das (meaning “the”, or pronoun “that”) and daß (meaning the conjunction “that”).

Towards the advent of Modern German, several spelling changes were made. [z] was now represented by “ss”, “ß”, and in some cases, “s”. This modern use of the eszett was not really codified until the 18th century, and made official for all German-speaking countries in 1901. From then on, several orthographical propositions were made, some passed, while some did not.

Across the 20th century, several movements to abolish the eszett were made, particularly gaining success in Switzerland and Liechtenstein, which abolished the letter in the 20th century. In 1941, the Nazi German government also planned to abolish the use of the eszett. Similar proposals were made by West Germany in 1954 as well, although it was met by opposition by German-language writers like Hermann Hesse.

Finally in 1996, a new orthographical reform for the German language was passed, which reduced the use of the eszett in the language, allowing its use under particular cases. However, some remarked that a complete abolition of the eszett outside of Switzerland and Liechtenstein remained an unlikely thing.

Interestingly, this ligature has also been spotted in several manuscripts in other languages, but never made it into conventional use. This includes Latin and French, which used the Roman-type. But there is a slight difference in use — the ligature in the Roman-type is a “ſs” ligature which resembled “ß”, but it was not really used for “sz”. This little quirk fell out of use towards the end of the 18th century, only rarely featuring in italic types.

With a rich linguistic history, the letter eszett has sort of become the defining feature of the German language. But why did Switzerland (and Liechtenstein) drop this letter? Find out next Saturday, where we will attempt to answer the question!

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