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Five fascinating facts you didn’t know about the letter ß in German

Tom Ashton-Davies
Tom Ashton-Davies - [email protected]
Five fascinating facts you didn’t know about the letter ß in German
Two streets in Berlin with the famous ß character. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

The letter ß (eszett) is an integral part of the German language, but continues to leave non-native speakers bewildered.

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Although the eszett may look like the letter ‘B’, it is actually shorthand for the double ‘ss’, yet still has its own unique sound.

Below are five facts you need to know which should help you when dealing with the ß.

ß is not interchangeable with ‘ss’ 

The German ‘s’ has two sounds: hard, like in the English word ‘same’, and soft, like the ‘z’ sound in ‘as’.

In German, ‘die Reise’ exemplifies a soft ‘s’ (r-aye-z-uh), while ‘das Haus’ uses a hard ‘s’ (h-au-s).

A double ‘ss’ will always make a hard ‘s’ sound, regardless of whether you use ‘ss’ or ‘ß’, so when should you actually use ‘ß’? 

The eszett never appears at the beginning of a word, only near the middle or end and it should never come after a short vowel sound. 

For instance, ‘Spaß’ (sh-pahs) uses ‘ß’ due to the long vowel, while ‘Fass’ has a short vowel sound (short a), so takes the double ‘ss’. 

The eszett also appears after diphthongs - a pair of vowels that creates a completely new sound, for instance ‘ei’.

Together, ‘ei’ creates an ‘aye’ sound, hence the eszett in the verb ‘beißen’.

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There was no capital letter for ‘ß’ until 2017 

When it came to writing in uppercase, the eszett was usually replaced with ‘SS’; for instance, ‘Straße’ would become ‘STRASSE’ in all caps. 

For many people with an ‘ß’ in their names, their legal documents would essentially have one letter in the middle in lowercase, ultimately making their names unrecognisable - the equivalent to SMITH looking like SMiTH.

The Council for German Orthography ultimately decreed that the eszett deserved its own capital - ‘ß’ became ‘ẞ’, ending the debate akin to the English Oxford comma.

The 1996 German spelling reform changed the common usage of ‘ß’

The reform aimed to simplify German orthography and make language learning easier, resulting in changes to the usage of specific letters.

Under the reformed orthography, the standard spelling for many words switched to ‘ss’, as a short stressed vowel would never be followed by ß.

Ultimately, the reform established more consistent rules, thereby rendering spelling more accessible.

READ MORE: The reform that changed the German language as we know it

The letter is not used everywhere in the German-speaking world

Switzerland, unlike other German-speaking countries, doesn’t use the eszett. 

Some cite the Swiss keyboard for this reason, as it is adapted to the French alphabet, rather than the German one.

The Swiss always write the double s, making words like Masse/Maße and Busse/Buße, indistinguishable by spelling alone.

In contrast, the eszett continues to be in use in other German-speaking nations, such as Austria and some parts of Belgium.

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‘ß’ dates back hundreds of years 

The earliest documented use of the eszett dates back to the 15th and 16th centuries. 

Originally, it functioned as a digraph (two letters representing one sound, think ph and ey), referred to as ‘sz’, with its distinct shape derived from the merging of the individual forms of ‘s’ and ‘z’.

The eszett frequently appeared during the era of early printing practices, which ultimately revolutionised information dissemination and language/writing standardisation, solidifying its place in the German alphabet

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