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Letter ß in various fonts

The letter ß (Unicode U+00DF) is a ligature in the German alphabet typically used to replace a double "s" in a word. Its German name is Eszett (pronounced [ɛsˈtsɛt], lexicalized expression for sz) or scharfes S (IPA: [ˈʃaʁfəs ɛs], sharp S), and is pronounced as an unvoiced s (IPA: [s]).


Adelung versus Heyse

There are two ways to determine where to use ss and where to use ß. The standard system was set by Johann Christoph Adelung (1732–1806). In the 1820s, a revision was proposed by Johann Christian August Heyse (1764–1829); it was adopted in the German orthography reform of 1996.

Rules of Adelung and Heyse
Fraktur as to Adelung Waſſerschloſʒ Floſʒ Paſʒſtraſʒe Maſʒſtab Grasſoden Hauseſel
Fraktur as to Heyse Waſſerschloſs Floſʒ Paſsſtraſʒe Maſʒſtab Grasſoden Hauseſel
Antiqua in 19th century Wasserschloss Floss Paſsstrasse Maſsstab Grassoden Hausesel
Antiqua in 20th century (Adelung) Wasserschloß Floß Paßstraße Maßstab Grassoden Hausesel
Antiqua in 21st century (Heyse) Wasserschloss Floß Passstraße,
Maßstab Grassoden Hausesel

Origin of long s and s as ligature in Roman type

Essen with ſs-ligature reads Eßen. (Latin Blaeu Atlas, set in Antiqua, 1650s)

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 solutions, 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.[1]

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. This is the main reason ß is not used in English.

Alternative representations of ß in Antiqua

Different forms of antiqua ß

There have been four typographical solutions for the form of the Antiqua ß. Currently, most Antiqua ß are shaped according to the second or the fourth solution. The first and third solution 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 solution resembles the original blackletter ligature)
  4. The Sulzbacher Form
Three contemporary handwritten forms of ß demonstrated on the word , "(he/she/it ate")

Current usage in German

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

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

Note that 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, 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.

Usage before the spelling reform of 1996

Before the 1996 spelling reform, ß was always used at the end of a word or word-component, or before a consonant, even when the preceding vowel was 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 examples included Eßunlust ('loss of appetite'), and wäßrig ('watery'), but Wasser ('water').

The spelling reform affected some German-language forms of place names, such as Rußland ("Russia"), now Russland, and Preßburg ("Bratislava"), now Pressburg [2].

The pre-1996 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 abandoned. 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 MASZE and MASSE are frequently used. Military teletype operation within Germany still uses sz for ß.

Substitution and all caps

If no ß is available, ss is used instead. 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, e.g., HANS STRAßER.

This ss that replaces an ß had to be hyphenated as a single letter before the 1996 reform. For instance STRA-SSE (‘street’); compare Stra-ße. After the reform, it was hyphenated like other double consonants: STRAS-SE.[3]

Switzerland and Liechtenstein

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

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

More recently, ß has experienced a resurgence in use in these countries for SMS communication. Because of space limitations of the medium (each text message contains a maximum of 160 characters), ß (one character) becomes preferable to ss (two characters) where it is appropriate.[4]

Other German dialects

In the usual spelling of the Ripuarian dialect of German, double eszett occurs, for example in page names in the Ripuarian Wikipedia, and[5] aanjeshtüßße, and in "(Watt ėßß datt?)" ("What is that?", Ripuarian for "(disambiguation)" in Wikipedia page names).

Capital ß

Upper case ß on a book cover.

ß is nearly unique among the letters of Latin alphabet in that it has no traditional upper case form. This is because it never occurs initially, and traditional German printing in blackletter never used all-caps.

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 April 4, 2008 Unicode 5.1.0 has included as U+1E9E LATIN CAPITAL LETTER SHARP S.[6]

ß vs. β and B

"ß" should not be confused with the lower case Greek letter "β" (beta), which it closely resembles, particularly to the eyes of non-German or non-Greek readers, but is unrelated to. Any typeset material should use the ß; where that letter is unavailable, the substitution of "ss" for "ß" is correct, and clearly preferable to the use of Greek "β".

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

  • β reaches below the line while ß does not (except in some italic versions).
  • 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.
  • β has a 3-shaped right part while ß normally looks like an "s" put underneath a ſ.

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), which was designed by English speaking persons with limited knowledge of German spelling customs, conflates the two characters, assigning them the same codepoint (0xE1) and a glyph that minimises their differences. Though the difference between ß and β is usually obvious in some ornate serif and most sans-serif typefaces (where its "s" origins are more emphasized), a few fonts still use the Sulzbacher design, which renders both characters as near-homoglyphs, with the only noticeable difference being the descender on beta: ß β.

Also note that in German handwriting and in Fraktur, the ß is written very similar to β, reaching below the line with the bottom loop connected to the vertical line.

English 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.

On keyboards

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.

Mac OS X
Option+s on US and UK keyboards, Option+b on French keyboard
Microsoft Windows
Alt+0223 or Alt+225 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
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.

ß in other languages

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

For using one letter fewer in the Short Message Service, some Swiss Germans also use it for any 'ss' in a mobile phone text message.

'ß' was used to mean 'š' 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 in Berlin displaying one type of ß.
A street sign in Eisenach displaying another type of ß.
A street sign in Erfurt displaying a different type of ß.
A street sign in Nürnberg displaying yet another type of ß.

When ordering German words alphabetically, the collation rules say that "ß" should be treated as if it were a double "s". So, for example: "Ruß" < "Russe" < "rußen" < "Russland".

In word processing contexts, the "ß" is sometimes associated with the umlaut, for a purely practical reason: both the "ß" and letters with umlauts (ä, ö, ü) are not in ASCII. Thus they tend to cause the same kinds of problems in all sorts of legacy digital text processing applications. Historically, the development of "ß" is not related to the umlaut, and they are not associated outside of character encoding contexts.

The ß is sometimes used in German writing to indicate a pronunciation of /s/ where /z/ would otherwise be usual (in Standard German, initial <s> 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 &szlig;. 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.

Additionally the "ß" (as well as Ä, Ö and Ü) is widely considered not to be part of the standard alphabet. When asked about the number of letters in the alphabet, most Germans would answer 26 instead of 30.

See also


  1. ^ Zeitschrift für Deutschlands Buchdrucker, Steindrucker und verwandte Gewerbe. Leipzig, 9. Juli 1903. Nr. 27, XV. Jahrgang. Faksimile in: Mark Jamra: The Eszett (no date) (checked 17. April 2008)
  2. ^ (in german) Wortschatz, Uni Leipzig, Searches for 'Rußland' and 'Preßburg'. Accessed March 20, 2008
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ section "In der SMS-Kommunikation" in German Wikipedia's ß article
  5. ^ 1 September 2005 entry in ksh:Wikipedia:Et Nöüßte fun de Ripoarisch Wikkipedija
  6. ^ Unicode 5.1.0

External links

The basic modern Latin alphabet
Aa Bb Cc Dd Ee Ff Gg Hh Ii Jj Kk Ll Mm Nn Oo Pp Qq Rr Ss Tt Uu Vv Ww Xx Yy Zz

history palaeography derivations diacritics punctuation numerals Unicode list of letters ISO/IEC 646


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

Wikipedia has an article on:




German Wikipedia has an article on:

Wikipedia de


  1. An Eszett (s z), a German ligature representing long s (ſ) and z. Sometimes called scharfes s (sharp s), and sometimes replaced by SS in capitalized spelling and in alphabetic ordering.
    Origins of ß.
    Ich glaube nicht, daß das alles ist.
    Ich glaube nicht, dass das alles ist.

Simple English

Redirecting to Schutzstaffel

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