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The letter ß is called Eszett, literally meaning s z.

However, when the letter is not available (or when a word is in all caps), ß is almost always substituted by the digraph ss rather than sz (e.g. STRASSE rather than STRASZE).

While this fact is well documented (e.g. on Wikipedia), and it’s also documented that substitution by sz used to be more common, I have never seen an explanation for why the change in rules happened, or indeed for why ss is even considered to be a valid substitution for Eszett at all.

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Just as a sidenote (and henceforth comment): Nowadays, there is no need anymore to substitute ß by SS in capitalized text as a capital ß does exist. –  Toscho Feb 12 at 18:25
Besides the given answers: I think "ß" should still be substituted by "sz". In my opinion, the "ss" way has just evolved out of ignorance. No offense, but "ss" is simply a different tone. I really did not know that the rule has changed meantime. In my opinion this change is baseless. –  fachexot Feb 12 at 21:00
@Toscho, that's correct, but noone ever does that in Germany unfortunately. The capital ß exists since a longer time already, actually. Still, you wouldn't find it on german keyboards. –  Turion Feb 13 at 10:41
@fachexot: Not offended :) But still: assuming that by "tone" you mean "sound" or phoneme, it's actually the same. What's different is the preceding vowel. –  Mac Feb 13 at 12:09
@Turion: That’s not exactly correct. T2, T3 and Neo have the ẞ. Anyway, see this question regarding the capital eszett. –  Wrzlprmft Feb 13 at 12:13

2 Answers 2

To attack the premise of the question: What are the arguments for substituting ß with sz?

A lot of things happened to German spelling since the appearance of the letter eszett. In particular, the aspects of German spelling due to which it made sense to use sz where we now use ß ¹ are long gone. So, while the eszett bears the letters s and z in name, this does not exactly refer to the letters s and z as they are used by modern German spelling, but to those letters as they were used centuries ago.

With other words: Apart from the linguistic and typographical history, the relation of eszett to s and z is by name only – the same way that the letter w is uu by name only in English. Thus the name somewhat is the only argument for substituting it by sz. In the same way, one might ask, why the letter ç is not substituted by cz, since that is its origin.

In modern German, the combination sz is only used in a few loanwords (e.g., Disziplin, Szene or lasziv), where it represents different sounds than the letter ß does (see also Toscho’s answer). On the other hand, the ss always represents the same sounds as ß, and only differs by indicating a different length of the preceding vowel: ß is preceded by long vowels, ss by short ones. (In the old spelling (before 1996), the difference is a little bit more complicated, but the argument is essentially the same.) Therefore, ss is the substitution that is closest to German spelling conventions.

¹ and which eventually gave rise to the sz ligature (more precisely: ſz), which rose to letter status and on which eventually the modern ß was based

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The origin of the ß is also a ligature of sz. –  Turion Feb 13 at 10:45
@Turion: I am not sure what you are aiming at. Yes, that’s the origin of the letter, but that this origination happened hundreds of years ago, in a different orthographical setting is my main point. –  Wrzlprmft Feb 13 at 11:53
I had the feeling that this was not immediately clear from your answer. –  Turion Feb 13 at 12:09
@Turio: Yes, I took that for given and now made a note regarding this. –  Wrzlprmft Feb 13 at 12:20
“Szene” is actually an interesting example since its original pronunciation (the one I learned in school) uses the same sound as “ß”. For whatever reason, it has very recently changed to the /s-z/ pronunciation. –  Konrad Rudolph Jun 24 at 11:45

If you read a capitalized text, you don't expect to substitute letters in your head: you just read the letters.

If you see -SS-, you read it in the same way as -ß-: as a voiceless s [s].

If you see -SZ-, you read it as a combination of -s- and -z-: [sts].

So STRASZE wouldn't be read as it should and this confuses. The SS inSTRASSE is read in the same way as it should be. Alas, the preceding vowel is could be read differently (short instead of long).

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any idea as to the "why"? I think that was the actual question –  Emanuel Feb 12 at 11:48
Actually if you go by "Die neue Rechtschreibung" you would never read Strasse the same as Straße. When we read old books (Goethe, Schiller, Kafka) in school I often stumpled on words which I usually see with a ß. The same counts for the opposite. When I see Schloß, I won't read it Schloss, it will sound like Kloß. It's really a big difference if you're not used to the Alte Rechtschreibung or if you want to pronounce words clearly. –  Leo Pflug Feb 12 at 13:50
@LeoPflug That is indeed correct. The preceding vowel is read differently. The consonant (group) itself is read in the same way. –  Toscho Feb 12 at 18:22
This argument does not hold water, as you do not "just read the letters" in German (or really any language for that matter). By your logic, it should be spelled "SCHTRASSE". Actually, no, even that is nonsense, as SCHT would have to be pronounced /st͡sht/ and not as /ʃt/. In short, you are perfectly fine with "substituting letters in your head" elsewhere, including elsewhere in this very word. You have happily accepted whatever conventions you were presented with. If the convention were to replace ß with LMP, then you would be just as perfectly happy with writing and reading "STRALMPE". –  RegDwight Feb 13 at 22:03

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