Esszett or not to esszett – that is the question!

The letter „ß“ as a ligature of „ſs“ in an Antiqua type and as a ligature of „ſz“ in Textura und Gothic types.

„How do you know when,in German, a word with an ‚ß‘ needs to have an ‚ß‘ or ’ss‘?“

I recently stumbled across this interesting question on Quora, so I sat down, did some research and compiled this answer:

You have opened a big can of worms here. All the other answers are correct, but they don‘t mention the upheavals – both grammatically and culturally – that have been triggered by the sensless debate about „ß“ versus „ss“.

In the early days of printing , letters that occurred together frequently were combined into a single symbol, a practice called „ligature“ (from the Latin ligare „to bind together“). The monks of the Middle Ages  sometimes used ligatures to save time when copying books by hand.

Some survive to this day, for instance a and e („æ“) or O and E („Œ“) in English. In German the so-called „long s“(written „ſ“) is often followed by the letter z, which used to be spelled „ʒ“. Hence the resulting ligature „ſʒ“. Over the course of time they got stuck together and became „ß“.

In most written European languages, ligatures aren’t normally considered part of spelling, but of a document’s optical or aesthetical design. In other words, they’re nice to have, but not really necessary. The German “ß” is the big exception.

There is actually no sane reason to continue to use the archaic letter „ß“. Phonetically, „ss“ does the same job. But the elder generation tends to consider „ß“ as part of German cultural heritage. This is bullshit, of course, but habits are hard to change.

The German-speaking part of Switzerland got rid of „ß“ years ago.

In Germany, however, spelling is taken very seriously, and so it is regulated by the government. There have been a number of very official „Right-Writing Reforms“ („Rechtschreibereformen“), for instance in 1994, 1996, 2006 and 2017, each aimed at simplifying things and instead causing a new round of chaos. Government employees and students are compelled by law to stick to these rules, but everybody else just sort of ignores them.

Newspapers and magazines follow their own systems. For instance,“SPIEGEL“ and „Focus“, the two major news magazines, are devided on whether or not to follow the official guidelines.

Last year, the German Ministry of Culture decided to make things even more confusing by adding a new letter to the German alphabet – a capital „ß“, spelled „B“. This is so ridiculous that almost everybody has chosen to ignore it, except for a few old-biddy type German teachers and a couple of overpaid and underworked government officials.

Personally, I tend to follow the Swiss and use „ss“ when in doubt. But hey, it‘s a free country, so use as many Esszetts or Esses as you want, if they make you feel more comfortable.



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