In Maßen essen means to to eat in moderation – in Massen essen means to to eat a lot.

Are there other words whose meaning totally changes if I substitute ß with ss?

If there’s a list of similar word pairs, it would be helpful, but the question is to validate whether other words like Massen and Maßen exist.

  • I’m voting to close this question as off-topic because questions asking for lists of words are usually not accepted on Stack Exchange. – Jan Oct 2 '15 at 11:19
  • @Jan Only if it would be a long list. We had kind of such questions before, I think. – Matthias Oct 2 '15 at 11:21
  • Change the question accordingly but it's necessary to know if there are rules and whether this is an isolated case =) – alvas Oct 2 '15 at 11:21
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    @alvas: What do you mean by the usage of ß→ss? There is ß and ss – they are distinct graphems with separate usages (except in Switzerland or when ß is not available). See also Jan’s answer. – Wrzlprmft Oct 4 '15 at 11:50
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    The linguistic term you are looking for is minimal pair or, in German, Minimalpaar. One important way to determine the phonemes and graphemes of a language is to find words that differ in one “position” only, these make minimal pairs. There are some, but not many, for ‹ß› vs. ‹ss› (and ‹ß› vs. ‹s›) with the current orthography. That means, ‹ß› forms (probably) a grapheme of its own. – Crissov Oct 4 '15 at 12:36

I am not aware of any such list, but I don't think it would be very long. Here are the few words that I can contribute:

  • Busse (plural to Bus) vs. Buße (penitence; in Switzerland also a fine, but spelled Busse there)
  • ein Muss (a "must") vs. ein Muß Mus (mush, this was a mistake by me, but i keep it as an example for an ambiguity between ss and s)
  • Rußen (sooting, turned into a noun) vs. Russen (Russians)
  • If there was ever a guy called "Otto Lüftung", and they would name a street for him, this would be the Lüftungstraße, in contrast to Lüftungstrasse

To me it looks like a random phenomenon. I don't see a pattern there or rules, beside the one that is commonly known: when to use ß (link to German page). And don't forget that there is no ß in Switzerland, so you only have Masse and Busse there and need to decide from context or listening which meaning is intended.

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    @alvas Sure, and I am not aware of any such person, but there are all kind of funny names. It is a made-up example, but I wanted to include it because I am really bothered by all the Strassen I have to see written outside of Switzerland (where it is the legal spelling). – Matthias Oct 2 '15 at 11:42
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    The last example technically works with everything. If it is misspelt, I consequently will pronunce Bahnhofs-Trasse rather than Bahnhof-Straße. – Jan Oct 2 '15 at 11:52
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    @Jan Replace 'Westtrasse' by 'Zentrumstrasse', and you get double success for the same effort. Nice exampe :-) – Matthias Oct 2 '15 at 12:37
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    By the way, why does it say fine for Buße only in the Swiss case? Germany also knows the Geldbuße. – Jan Oct 2 '15 at 20:52
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    To add to this list: flössen (Konj. II of fließen) and flößen (from einflößen, z. B.: “Sie flößen ein”); Schoß (lap) vs. schoss (past of schießen); Ass (ace) vs. (past of essen). The last two differ in captialisation but all words are capitalised at the beginning of a sentence and similar. – Wrzlprmft Oct 4 '15 at 12:15

The premise of the question is skewed. Words containing ss and words containing ß usually have nothing to do with each other etymologically. Similarly to the English homophones knight and night where it would be pointless to ask ‘do the meanings of other words beginning in n change if I add a k?’

The distinction between ß and ss is a phonemic one that stems from the distinction of short and long vowels (and that of voiced and unvoiced s). It only originated this way because that is how our script originated from its Latin original. Modern Latin usually distinguishes between long and short vowels by adding a macron onto the former (and maybe a brevis onto the latter) but that distinction was not present in classical Latin. German handwriting can be dated back to Charlemagne and even earlier making it a rather old script that follows many more traditional rules rather than logical ones, not unlike English or French.

Other languages whose writing systems were formalised much later, such as Czech (around 1400 by Jan Hus) and Finnish (around 1500 by Mikael Agricola) chose more logical distinctions between long and short vowels that did not affect the spelling of following consonants — acute accents in Czech and vowel doubling in Finnish. German by then had gotten used to the doubled consonants following short vowels that the system was kept.

So of course, you can go around in different languages, asking, e.g. ‘Are there Czech words whose meaning dramatically changes when a vowel looses its accent?’ or ‘Are there Finnish words whose meaning drastically changes, if a single vowel is written instead of a double one?’* But I really don’t think either of those questions is in any way good. In fact, they would be better described as:

Can I change a phoneme of a word to a different one to change the meaning?

And the obvious answer is of course!

There is one counterexample to the general rule where two words obviously derived from the same precursor: Floß and floss (although one is capitalised, being a noun, and the other is not). Both somehow derive from the verb fließen (to flow).

There is one single case I know of that breaks the relationship of ‘either ß or ss is correct, but never both’: The word Geschoss when meaning floor or storey. The ground floor can be both Erdgeschoss and Erdgeschoß. But this is because there are two possible pronunciations of the word, one with a short o, one with a long o.

Also note that this entire answer covers normal texts in Germany, Austria, Luxemburg and places in which a German-speaking minority has close ties to one of these. In Switzerland and Liechtenstein, ß doesn’t exist and ss is always written where the others distinguish between ss and ß. Also, spelling rules dictate for any variety of German that when capitalising (this includes small caps), every ß is replaced by SS.

*: In fact, Finnish does have a distinction which is closer to relevant: a verb ending in a long vowel is third person singular present (e.g. tulee he/she/it comes/is coming) and a short vowel is second person imperative (e.g. tule come!). But in spoken Finnish, these forms have merged.

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    +1 for telling me about Geschoss / Geschoß. And apparently it is the other way around with Spaß: according to the Duden it can also be spelled Spass in Austria (and Switzerland, of course). – Matthias Oct 2 '15 at 21:10
  • There is one important aspect where this questions goes beyond a simple “Can changing a phonem change a meaning?”: The fact that ß is replaced by ss is some cases, namely in small caps, all caps and Switzerland. – Wrzlprmft Oct 4 '15 at 8:30
  • @Matthias: In northern Germany Spaß is also often pronounced with a short a. Another example that was mentioned in our recent äöüß-all-in-a-single-word question is Löß. – chirlu Oct 4 '15 at 9:15
  • @Wrzlprmft Added a note on Switzerland/Liechtenstein and all caps/small caps. – Jan Oct 4 '15 at 12:48
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    Erdgeschoß pronounced with long "o" is new to me, I must admint. -- Regarding capitalization of ß, the DUDEN suggests specifically for ambiguous cases (such as Masse/Maße) to use SZ for ß instead of SS. That being said, I object strongly against the idea of introducing a capital ß as well as against the often observed leaving ß as-is ("MAßE") – Hagen von Eitzen Oct 4 '15 at 13:06

25 years back, a very similar question was everyday business when we learned spelling at school: “When do I have to change ß to ss when building the plural form, corresponding verb, composed word, etc?” The reason is, that up until 1996, there was a spelling rule that banned ss at the end of the word or preceding consonants.

E.g. Kuss (a kiss) was spelled Kuß (pronounced with a short u nevertheless), but the plural Küsse and the corresponding verb küssen were spelled with ss also back then. Another example is Adresse (old: Adresse) and Adressbuch (old: Adreßbuch).

So considering the situation today, changing ß to ss always changes the meaning (at least I cannot think of a counterexample right now), but 30 years back, there was quite a list of words where it didn’t.

Btw.: The new rules didn’t apply to names. You can still find a street called Schloßstraße in several cities, while according to the new rules Schlossstraße is correct.

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    Hi and welcome to German.StackExchange.com. Feel free to take a tour of the site and visit the help center for any questions on how it works. Actually, your 'comment' makes for a good answer in itself; you might just want to edit it slightly, explaining the pre-1996 and post-1996 differences. – Jan Oct 2 '15 at 16:18

These were the Old German Orthography rules about ss versus ß:

  1. An unvoiced s preceeded by a short emphasised vocal is to be written as ss
  2. If ss according to item 1 is at the end of a word, at the end of a composite word, or before a consonant, it turns to ß.
  3. An unvoiced s preceeded by a long emphasised vocal is to be writen as ß.

The New German Orthography only dropped item 2.

The only point is, that Swiss dialects never wrote and never write ß (since 1906), it is always ss. This, of course, leads to possible double-readings and double-meanings as in Massen (because a can be long or short, and both words exist), same as in Busse

Maybe you are lucky and find a more less complete list of these words, however, these are the rules. There are real rules rather than a random list.

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  • Note that we already have a question about the spelling rules for ss and ß here. If you think that your answer adds to the existing ones, feel free to post it there. Also note that I removed the part of this question that asked about the ß→ss substitution, which your answer probably addressed, as it was already addressed in the linked question. – Wrzlprmft Oct 4 '15 at 8:55

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