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Letter ß in various typefaces

In the German alphabet, the letter ß, called "Eszett" (IPA: [ɛsˈtsɛt]) or "scharfes S", in English "sharp S", is a consonant that evolved as a ligature of "long s and z" (ſz) and "long s over round s" (ſs). It is pronounced [s] (see IPA). Since the German orthography reform of 1996, it is used only after long vowels and diphthongs while ss is written after short vowels. The name eszett comes from the two letters S and Z as they are pronounced in German.[1] In German, it is also called scharfes S (IPA: [ˈʃaɐ̯.fəs ˈʔɛs, ˈʃaː.fəs ˈʔɛs], meaning "sharp S". Its Unicode encoding is U+00DF.

While the letter "ß" has been used in other languages, it is now only used in German. However, it is not used in Switzerland, Liechtenstein or Namibia.[2] German speakers in Germany, Austria, Belgium,[3] Denmark,[4] Luxembourg[5] and South Tyrol, Italy[6] follow the standard rules for ß.


The earliest occurrence of ß is in the "Wolfdietrich fragment", which was written around 1300 AD. In blackletter texts it was used as a ligature of "long s and small z" (ſz), more precisely tailed z. In some of the fonts emerging in the fifteenth century, it was a ligature of "long s and round s" (ſs). By the time Antiqua for German texts began to be applied, the development of the language and use of "ß" had changed again (see Antiqua–Fraktur dispute). There remains no clear clarification of the origin of the letter "ß".

Roman typeface[edit]

Essen with ſs-ligature reads Eßen (Latin Blaeu Atlas, set in Antiqua, 1650s)
The combination of long s and s is also seen in Early Modern English (example from the US Bill of Rights)

In the late 18th and early 19th century, when more and more German texts were printed in Roman type, typesetters looked for a Roman counterpart for the blackletter ſz ligature, which did not exist in Roman fonts. Printers experimented with various techniques, mostly replacing blackletter ß in Roman type with either sz, ss, ſs, or some combination of these. Although there are early examples in Roman type of a ſs-ligature that looks like the letter ß, it was not commonly used as Eszett.[citation needed]

It was only with the First Orthographic Conference in Berlin in 1876 that printers and type foundries started to look for a common letter form to represent the Eszett in Roman type. In 1879, a proposal for various letter forms was published in the Journal für Buchdruckerkunst. A committee of the Typographic Society of Leipzig chose the so-called Sulzbacher Form. In 1903 it was proclaimed as the new standard for the Eszett in Roman type.[7]

Since then, German printing set in Roman type has used the letter ß. The Sulzbacher Form, however, did not find unanimous acceptance. It became the default form, but many type designers preferred (and still prefer) other forms. Some resemble a blackletter sz-ligature, others more a Roman ſs-ligature.

To the reader unfamiliar with German, the ß's "s" origin may be obscure or nearly undetectable, particularly in the Sulzbacher Form. Long s itself was frequently confused with "f," which led to its demise in English writing around 1800. Unlike German, ß per se has apparently never been used in English. Rather, various other forms are seen for ss in pre-modern literature and handwriting. A double long-s [ſſ] is seen in places such as scans of the original Geneva Bible of 1560. Scans of British census sheets of the 19th century may show a simple unligatured long-s short-s or something that looks to the modern eye as a long-ascendered p. Where the latter case is seen, the pre-modern English handwritten p differs from its ſs generally both by the p's shorter ascender as well as the p's bowl being drawn with a space left at the bottom versus the s of the ſs being drawn in more completely at the bottom.

Adelung's and Heyse's rules[edit]

Johann Christoph Adelung (1732–1806) and Johann Christian August Heyse (1764–1829) were two German lexicographers who tried to establish consistent rules on the application of the letter s.

In Austria Heyse's rule of 1829 prevailed from 1879 until the second orthographic conference of 1901, where it was decided to prefer Adelung's rule over Heyse's. The German orthography reform of 1996 reintroduced Heyse's variant, yet without the long s.[8]

Rules of Adelung and Heyse
Fraktur according to Adelung Waſſerschloſʒ Floſʒ Paſʒſtraſʒe Maſʒſtab Grasſoden Hauseſel
Fraktur according to Heyse Waſſerschloſs Floſʒ Paſsſtraſʒe Maſʒſtab Grasſoden Hauseſel
Antiqua in the 20th century (Adelung) Wasserschloß Floß Paßstraße Maßstab Grassoden Hausesel
Antiqua in the 21st century (Heyse) Wasserschloss Floß Passstraße,
Maßstab Grassoden Hausesel
Translation moated castle raft pass road scale (grass) sod domestic donkey

In order to display its elements correctly, the ligatures of the Fraktur typesetting are not shown. Therefore, the modern Antiqua-ß was used for the Latin orthography since the 20th century.

Heyse's argument: Given that "ss" may appear at the end of a word, before a fugue and "s" being a common initial letter for words, "sss" is likely to appear in a large number of cases (the amount of these cases is even higher than all the possible triple consonant cases (e.g. "Dampfschifffahrt") together).[9] Critics point out that a triple "s" in words like "Missstand" feature less readability than spelling it "Mißstand". Even though the second word of a compound does not start with "s", "ß" should be used to improve the readability of the fugue (e.g. "Meßergebnis" over "Messergebnis" (measurement), which suggests the unrelated word "Messer" (knife), and "Meßingenieur" over "Messingenieur" (measuring engineer), which suggests the unrelated word "Messing" (brass)).[10]

This problem of Adelung's rule was solved by Heyse who distinguished between the long s ("ſ") and the round s ("s"). Only the round s could finish a word, therefore also called terminal s (Schluß-s resp. Schluss-s). The round s also indicates the fugue in compounds. Instead of "Missstand" and "Messergebnis" one wrote "Miſsſtand" and "Meſsergebnis". Back then a special ligature for Heyse's rule was introduced: ſs. Amongst the common ligatures of "ff", "ft", "ſſ" and "ſt", "ſs" and "ſʒ" were two different characters in the Fraktur typesetting if applying Heyse's rule.

Alternative representations in Antiqua[edit]

Different forms of antiqua ß

There have been four typographical forms of the Antiqua ß. Currently, most Antiqua ß are shaped according to the second or the fourth form. The first and third form are seldom found.

  1. letter combination ſs (not as a ligature, but as a single type)
  2. ligature of ſ and s
  3. ligature of ſ and a kind of blackletter z that looks similar to an "ʒ" (ezh) or a "3", though it might rather be described as a "Z with a hook" (ȥ) (this form resembles the original blackletter ligature)
  4. The Sulzbacher Form
Three contemporary handwritten forms of ß demonstrated on the word , "(I/he/she/it) ate"

Usage in the reformed orthography of 1996[edit]

In the orthography of the German spelling reform of 1996, both ß and ss are used to represent /s/ between two vowels as follows:

  1. ß is used after diphthongs (beißen [ˈbaɪ̯sn̩] ‘to bite’)
  2. ß is used after long vowels (grüßen [ˈɡʁyːsn̩] ‘to greet’)
  3. ss is used after short vowels (küssen [ˈkʏsn̩] ‘to kiss’)

Thus it helps to distinguish words like Buße (long vowel) 'penance, fine' and Busse (short vowel) 'buses'. It is also consistent with the general rule of German spelling that a doubled consonant letter serves to mark the preceding vowel as short (the consonant sound is never actually doubled or lengthened in pronunciation).

In words where the stem changes, some forms may have an ß but others an ss, for instance sie beißen (‘they bite’) vs. sie bissen (‘they bit’).

The same rules apply at the end of a word or syllable, but are complicated by the fact that single s is also pronounced /s/ in those positions. Thus, words like groß ('large') require ß, while others, like Gras ('grass') use a single s. The correct spelling is not predictable out of context (in Standard German pronunciation), but is usually made clear by related forms, e.g., Größe ('size') and grasen ('to graze'), where the medial consonants are pronounced /s/ and /z/ respectively. Many dialects of German however have an even longer vowel, or an audibly less sharp s, in cases single s is used.

Usage in the traditional orthography[edit]

In the traditional orthography, ß is always used at the end of a word or word-component, or before a consonant, even when the preceding vowel is short. For example, Fuß ('foot') has a long vowel, pronounced /fuːs/, and so was unaffected by the spelling reform; but Kuß ('kiss') has a short vowel, pronounced /kʊs/, and was reformed to Kuss. Other traditional examples included Eßunlust ('loss of appetite'), and wäßrig ('watery'), but Wasser ('water').

The spelling reform affected some German-language forms of foreign place names, such as Rußland ("Russia"), reformed Russland, and Preßburg ("Bratislava"), reformed Pressburg.[11] The orthography of personal names (first names and family names) and of names for locations within Germany proper, Austria and Switzerland were not affected by the reform of 1996, however; these names often use irregular spellings that are otherwise impermissible under German spelling rules, not only in the matter of the ß but also in many other respects.

The traditional orthography encouraged the use of SZ in place of ß in words with all letters capitalized where a usual SS would produce an ambiguous result. One possible ambiguity was between IN MASZEN (in limited amounts; Maß, "measure") and IN MASSEN (in massive amounts; Masse, "mass"). Such cases were rare enough that this rule was officially abandoned in the reformed orthography. The German military still occasionally uses the capitalized SZ, even without any possible ambiguity, as SCHIESZGERÄT (“shooting materials”). Architectural drawings may also use SZ in capitalizations because capital letters and both Maß and Masse are frequently used. Military teleprinter operation within Germany still uses sz for ß (unlike German typewriters, German teleprinter machines never featured either umlauts or the ß letter).

Substitution and all caps[edit]

Further information: Capital ß

If no ß is available, ss or sz is used instead (sz especially in Hungarian-influenced eastern Austria). This applies especially to all caps or small caps texts because ß does not have a generally accepted majuscule form. Excepted are all-caps names in legal documents; they may retain an ß to prevent ambiguity (for instance: STRAßER, since Straßer and Strasser are both possible names).

This ss that replaces an ß has to be hyphenated as a single letter in the traditional orthography. For instance STRA-SSE (‘street’); compare Stra-ße. In the reform orthography, it is hyphenated like other double consonants: STRAS-SE.[12]

Switzerland and Liechtenstein[edit]

In Switzerland, ss usually replaces every ß. This is officially sanctioned by the reformed German orthography rules, which state in §25 E2: In der Schweiz kann man immer „ss“ schreiben ("In Switzerland, one can always write 'ss'"). Liechtenstein follows the same practice.

In Switzerland, ß has been gradually abolished since the 1930s, when most cantons decided not to teach it any more and the Swiss postal service stopped using it in place names. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung was the last Swiss newspaper to give up ß, in 1974. Today, Swiss publishing houses use ß only for books that address the entire German-speaking market.

Upper case[edit]

Main article: Capital ß
Upper case ß on a book cover from 1957

ß is nearly unique among the letters of Latin alphabet in that it has no traditional upper case form. It never occurs initially; no native German word starts with a sound pronounced [s], and loanwords that do start with that sound retain their original spelling, usually starting with an "s".

However, there have been repeated attempts to introduce an upper case ß. Such letterforms can be found in some older German books and some modern signage and product design. Since 4 April 2008, Unicode 5.1.0 has included it as U+1E9E latin capital letter sharp s.[13]

Graphically similar letters[edit]

Lowercase beta[edit]

"ß" should not be confused with the unrelated lower-case Greek letter "β" (beta), a homoglyph, which the so-called Sulzbacher form closely resembles, particularly to the eyes of non-German or non-Greek readers. Any typeset material should use the ß.

The differences between "ß" and "β" in most typefaces are:

  • β reaches below the line while ß does not (except in some italic versions and in German handwriting, with the ß written very similarly to β, reaching below the line with the bottom loop connected to the vertical line).
  • β connects the vertical part on the left with the end of the horizontal near the bottom; ß does not.
  • β is often slightly slanted to the right even in upright fonts, while ß is exactly vertical.

However, the reverse substitution of using German "ß" as a surrogate for Greek "β" once was common when describing beta test versions of application programs for older operating systems, whose character encodings, most notably Latin-1 and Windows-1252, did not support easy use of Greek letters. Also, the original IBM DOS code page, CP437 (aka OEM-US) conflates the two characters, assigning them the same codepoint (0xE1) and a glyph that minimizes their differences.

Uppercase B[edit]

Non-German speakers unfamiliar with German orthography may also confuse ß with B (the Latin letter which is derived from the Greek beta), which is also incorrect. This effect is used for comic value in the film National Lampoon's European Vacation, where Clark Griswold reads a sign for Dippelstraße as Dippelstrabe.


The ß key (and Ä, Ö, Ü) on a 1964 German typewriter
The ß character (and others including Ä) accessible using AltGr+s on a modern US-International keyboard

In Germany and Austria, the letter ß is present on computer and typewriter keyboards, normally to the right on the upper row. In other countries, the letter is not marked on the keyboard, but a combination of other keys can produce it. Often, the letter is input using a modifier and the s key. The details of the keyboard layout depend on the input language and operating system.

Option+s on US, US-Extended, and UK keyboards
Microsoft Windows
Alt+0223 or Alt+225 or Ctrl+s or (if not used otherwise) Ctrl+Alt+s, on some keyboards such as US-International also AltGr+s
X-based systems
AltGr+s or Compose, s, s
GNU Emacs
C-x 8 " s
AltGr+s or Ctrl-Shift-DF or (in GNOME versions 2.15 and later) Ctrl-Shift-U, df
Alt+S for all keymaps on native Amiga keyboards.
Plan 9
Alt or Compose, s, s.
Alt+s or AltGr+s

The Vim and GNU Screen digraph is ss.

Other languages[edit]

'ß' is used by some in romanizing the Sumerian language, to mean 'sh'. Some Sumerian scholars use 'sz' or '$' instead.

It was also in use for Latin during the Medieval and Renaissance time, until the 18th century. E.g.: clarißimus - clarissimus - the brightest; eße - esse - to be; amavißet - amavisset and so on.

'ß' was used to mean 'š' (cognate to Polish sz) in a German-influenced spelling system for the Lithuanian language which was used in Lithuania Minor in East Prussia: the page section Prussian Lithuanians#Personal names has some examples of Prussian Lithuanian surnames containing 'ß'.


A one-way sign, displaying one form of ß
A street sign in Berlin displaying another form of ß
A street sign in Erfurt displaying a different form of ß
A street sign in Nürnberg displaying yet another form of ß

In alphabetizing German words, ß is treated as double "s". Thus, Ruß comes before Russe, which comes before rußen, which comes before Russland.

ß is sometimes used in German writing to indicate a pronunciation of /s/ where /z/ would otherwise be usual (in standard German, initial s before a vowel is pronounced /z/). The novels NeuLand and OstWind by Luise Endlich, for example, use an initial ẞ to approximate the local dialect in Frankfurt (Oder); thus ẞind ẞie? ("Sind Sie?").

The HTML entity for ß is ß. Its codepoint in the ISO 8859 character encoding versions 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 13, 14, 15, 16 and identically in Unicode is 223, or DF in hexadecimal. In TeX and LaTeX, \ss produces ß. A German language support package for LaTeX exists in which ß is produced by "s (similar to umlauts, which are produced by "a, "o, and "u with this package).

Also, ß (as well as ä, ö, ü) is widely not considered part of the standard alphabet. If asked how many letters in the alphabet, most Germans would answer 26 instead of 30. Sometimes even 29 may be heard if it is forgotten that the dots of ä are an old e placed over the vowel, but ß is still remembered as a ligation of sz or ss.

In modern browsers, "ß" will be converted to "SS" when the element containing it is set to uppercase using text-transform: uppercase in Cascading Style Sheets. The JavaScript in Google Chrome will convert "ß" to "SS" when converted to uppercase (e.g. "ß".toUpperCase()).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ In Hungarian, whose orthography has been influenced by German, the digraph sz is likewise used for [s].
  2. ^ Leitfaden zur deutschen Rechtschreibung (English: Guide to German Orthography), 3rd edition 2007 (German) from the Swiss Federal Chancellery, retrieved 22-Apr-2012
  3. ^ Deutschsprachige Gemeinschaft in Belgien: Zuständigkeiten (German) retrieved 22-Apr-2012
  4. ^ Website of the German-language Danish newspaper „Der Nordschleswiger“ (German) retrieved 22-Apr-2012
  5. ^ Mady Delvaux-Stehres: Communiqué – Reorganization of the German orthography in the Luxembourgian educational system 3. August 2005 (Luxembourg Ministry of Education) (German) retrieved 22-Apr-2012
  6. ^ Example of South Tyrol usage in a newsletter: Landmaus Nr 12 (German) retrieved 22-Apr-2012
  7. ^ Zeitschrift für Deutschlands Buchdrucker, Steindrucker und verwandte Gewerbe. Leipzig, 9. Juli 1903. Nr. 27, XV. Jahrgang. Faksimile in: Mark Jamra: The Eszett (no date) http://www.typeculture.com/academic_resource/articles_essays/ (checked 17 April 2008)
  8. ^ Busch, Wolf. "Heysesche s-Schreibung in Frakturschrift" (in German). Retrieved 1 January 2012. 
  9. ^ Ickler, Theodor. "Laut-Buchstaben-Zuordnungen". Mein Rechtschreibtagebuch (in German). Forschungsgruppe Deutsche Sprache. Retrieved 1 January 2012. 
  10. ^ Theodor, Ickler (1997). "Die sogenannte Rechtschreibreform – Ein Schildbürgerstreich" (PDF) (in German). St. Goar: Leibnitz-Verlag. p. 14. ISBN 3-931155-09-9. Retrieved 1 January 2012. 
  11. ^ (in German) Wortschatz, Uni Leipzig, Searches for 'Rußland' and 'Preßburg'. Accessed March 20, 2008
  12. ^ Peter Gallmann (1997): "Warum die Schweizer weiterhin kein Eszett schreiben. Zugleich: Eine Anmerkung zu Eisenbergs Silbengelenk-Theorie". In: Augst, Gerhard; Blüml, Karl; Nerius, Dieter; Sitta, Horst (Eds.) Die Neuregelung der deutschen Rechtschreibung. Begründung und Kritik. Tübingen: Niemeyer (= Reihe Germanistische Linguistik, Vol. 179) pages 135–140.[1], p. 5.
  13. ^ Unicode 5.1.0

External links[edit]