German double s and eszett

German double s and eszett

by Sandra Köktaş

Updated September 20, 2022

What do you think of the German double s? And for those of you who are new to German: We don’t mean two s as in Fluss. We are talking about the letter double s also known as Eszett or scharfes s in German. Example: Fuß, gießen. Non-natives often mistake the German ß for the Greek β (beta). As you can see, they look similar, but not the same. And they make a different sound. As the name indicates, the scharfes s makes a sharp, hissing “s” sound, much like a “double s”. 

Are you still with us? If you wonder why on earth Germans need an “ß” if they can use “ss”, then you are not alone. The Swiss must have had the same thought because they canceled the eszett altogether. But if you go to Germany or Austria, you will have to use it. Here is how.

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What is the German ß and what does it sound like?

The meaning of ß in English is eszett. This indicates we have to deal with a special s sound here. There are four ways to make two different s sounds in German:

  • s at the beginning or in the middle of a word makes a soft s sound as z in English; example: sehen (to see), reisen (to travel) 
  • s at the end of a word makes a sharp sound like the unvoiced English s; 

Example: Haus, Eis

  • ß and ss both make a sharp sound like the unvoiced English s no matter where in the word they occur; 

Example: nasse Straße, Fuß, Fluss

If the German eszett and ss make the same sound, why do we have a ß in the German alphabet? The reason for this dates back to the 7th and 8th centuries and has to do with how we use ß and ss.

History of eszett

So what is ß and where does it come from? In the 7th and 8th centuries the second Germanic consonant shift came up with two different sounds for the Germanic ​/⁠t⁠/ and /t:/, a fricative and an affricate consonant. Both were initially written as zz. To avoid confusion, the Old High German gave the fricative sound as sz, the affricate sound as tz. The ss on the other hand goes back to the Germanic /⁠s/. The ss, too, is a fricative but was originally produced in a slightly different way than the sz. The sounds developed into one over time, while both written forms were still in use.

In blackletter script, the sz was a combination of the blackletter long s (ſ) and the blackletter z (ℨ).

With the invention of the letter press in the 15th century, the ligature ſʒ was invented to represent this often used combination. Another influence on the formation of ß might have come from the Tironian notes for sed and ser and the combination of long s and round s in the Antiqua typeface class to represent ss. 

In short, over a few hundred years, the initially slightly different sounds for sz and ss became one in pronunciation, while in written form there still were different options for sz and ss.  

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When and how to use eszett

To no one’s surprise, confusion around eszett is widespread – and not only among German learners. This could explain why the Swiss opted out of the eszett circus in 1974 and finalized the decision in 2006 with the ban of the ß from official documents. 

There were attempts to give some guidance for the usage of ß as opposed to ss throughout linguistic history. There were even times of hope to get rid of the eszett once and for all, but there was considerable resistance throughout the population (probably not from school children and German learners, though), so we are still stuck with the problem of when to use ß and ss. The spelling reform of 1996 set the latest rules:

  • Use ß after a long vowel or a diphthong (as long as no other consonant follows in the word stem): Straße (street), beißen (to bite).
  • Use ss after a short vowel: Pass (passport), hassen (to hate)

Hear the difference between Fuß (foot) and Fluss (river)?

The rule is pretty simple, but if you feel insecure, use a dictionary or a grammar checker to see if you got it right. You could also just memorize the right spelling when learning vocabulary.

There are exceptions to the rule, though. Aus (Out) still has no ß, despite the diphthong preceding the s sound.

Note: There is never ß at the beginning of a word. This probably explains why we didn’t have an uppercase eszett for the longest time. As this caused problems in the German passport, where names are written in capitals, an uppercase ß was introduced in 2017 to differentiate between Herr Strauss and Frau Strauß who would probably have been mistaken for a married couple STRAUSS at the airport before 2017.

How to type eszett on a keyboard

If you have to use eszett in an email for example, search the “Insert symbol” function for ß. Alternatively, press ALT and type 0223 on your PC or hold down Option-S on your Mac. If you have a German keyboard, you will find the key for ß to the right of 0 (zero). 

The German eszett, ß and double ss – a guide

What is the letter ß? The German double s is an s sound. The meaning of ß in English is eszett. The letter has historically developed out of sz and tz sounds and makes the same voiceless s sound as a double ss which looked similar in the Antiqua typeface class. No wonder it is hard to decide when to use ß or ss. The rule of thumb is to use ß after a long vowel or diphthong, and to use ss after a long vowel. When in doubt, pretend to be Swiss and use ss.

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Sandra lives in Istanbul, together with her kids, cat and dog. As a historian she thrives exploring this ancient city with her two- and four-legged loved ones. Together, they also love to go on adventures through all of Turkey and its neighboring countries. The perfect opportunity to put all the language learning into practice. If she’s not on the road, Sandra is busy putting her experiences into writing as a freelance copywriter for the travel industry and everything related to language, culture and family. Her particular interest lies in providing information on animal welfare with her website contentrundumstier.de.

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