Swiss High German has one fewer letter than Standard High German. But why?

When prowling through various orthographies, and their changes throughout modernity, I came across a particularly interesting case study on the use of the letter “eszett” (or scharfes es) in relation to the surrounding vowels, the letter s, and the digraph ss. These changes somehow disproportionately applied to Standard German, particularly those used in Germany and Austria.

But there is another particularly significant German-speaking community right next door — that of Switzerland. The Standard German used there, as we will refer to as Swiss Standard German or Swiss High German, is used by a slight majority of the residents there, about 63% of the total Swiss population. Yet, looking at their alphabet revealed a rather interesting discrepancy. No, the umlauts are still there, although coded differently from the German German keyboard. This difference came to be the complete lack of the eszett, or the ß (Alt+0223). It is perhaps the most identifiable letter in the German language, being featured in commonly used words like Straße (street) or Fußball (football). But there is no such letter in Swiss Standard German. This definitely begged the question, why?

Firstly, we need to highlight the importance of the eszett in German orthography, before going into the reasons why this was scrapped in Switzerland, and how this might or might not introduce some ambiguity in pronunciations.

The orthography reform I was making particular reference to in the introduction pointed towards the German orthography reform of 1996, also known as the Reform der deutschen Rechtschreibung von 1996. It was based on an international agreement signed in Vienna by the governments of German-speaking countries, which were Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. And Luxembourg, although it did not participate as a signatory due to its position that it was a “non-German-speaking country not to be a contributory determinant upon the German system of spelling”. It did eventually adopt this reform, however.

On a minor note, this reform also stated that triple consonants (yes, triple) preceding a vowel are no longer reduced. This made the triple s appear more often than other triple consonants, like what was previously Mißstand is now Missstand (grievance), and what was previously Flußschiffahrt is now annoyingly spelt Flussschifffahrt (ship journey). Hyphenation could be used in these cases nonetheless, but this definitely looked like someone held the s and f key for a tad too long and did not realise it.

Well, the eszett today primarily serves an important role in distinguishing vowel length. In Standard High German, long stressed vowels are followed by single consonants, while short stressed vowels are followed by double consonants (like “ss”). However, the letter “s” can adopt two sounds, the “s” and “z” sound, depending on its position in the word. With the need to distinguish between these sounds given the vowel patterns, the eszett was created, and has gone through several reforms. In fact, we do have an entire post about the brief history of this letter here.

But Switzerland does not really speak Standard High German, does it? It has its own Swiss Standard German, which has several phonological differences from Standard High German. This includes the allowance for single consonants following short stressed vowels, and doubled consonants after long vowels. Does that mean that given the lack of requirement of distinction, the Swiss basically did not see a need to continue using the eszett?

Another thing we would have to consider is the historical timepoint where Swiss Germans phased out the use of the eszett — the 1930s. This brings up yet more theories on why Swiss Standard Germans lacks the eszett today, which may not really be related to languages nor linguistics.

A more technical perspective is the extensive use of typewriters during that time. Switzerland has four main languages spoken within its borders, with French and German having more special characters. French has its various diacritics from the accents to circumflex, while German has the umlauts and the eszett. While the umlaut could be encoded or wired the same way as the trema in French, the eszett required its own separate key. However, we would have to ask if it was too much of a hassle to squeeze in an extra key into their typewriters. And fast forward to today, Swiss keyboards have an interesting encoding method for the various diacritics French and German have, and this would raise another question, if adding an extra eszett to the mix would make it more troublesome to encode and learn.

However, we also have a more political hypothesis — the 1930s was also the time the Nazis came to power in Germany. Switzerland was, and still is a neutral nation since the Treaty of Paris in 1815. Given the notoriety the Nazis had in Europe, there would have been an increasing interest for people to distance themselves from German-speaking people throughout Europe. In Switzerland, the primary response to the rise of Nazi Germany was the Geistige Landesverteidigung, or the spiritual national defence. Its main aim was to strengthen Swiss values and customs to create a defence against totalitarian ideologies, such as what was going on in Germany in the 1930s. While first directed towards National Socialism and fascism, this political-cultural movement also took a stance against communism during the Cold War.

So, what does this have to do with the eszett? Well, given the negative sentiment against Germans at the time, there would be a need or drive to discontinue something that made the German language German. And this would be the most defining letter of the language, the eszett. As such, by dropping the letter in Switzerland, alongside promoting customs and values perceived to be Swiss, it showed its drive to reject anything related to Nazi Germany.

Overall, there is not really a concrete reason why Swiss Standard German dropped the eszett, but we have been presented by linguistic, mechanical, and political perspectives that aim to suggest why the cantons of Switzerland have done so in the 1930s. Another thing interesting to note is that the Liechtensteiners also followed the Swiss and dropped the eszett from their alphabet as well. However, like the Swiss, there is not quite a convincing theory why Liechtenstein has done so.

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