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I encountered Ssiwasch in the novel Der Zug war pünktlich and it is mentioned in a few other places on the internet. It clearly refers to the Syvash which Wikipedia claims is called Sywasch in German, so presumably Ssiwasch is an older spelling which has been abandoned.

How did the word come to have such a strange spelling? Is it something to do with translating Ukrainian words into German, or is it some sort of misprint which was perpetuated through time? Are there any other German words that begin with two esses?

Side note: The 1892 Baedecker for Russia has many other placenames that begin with a double s, such as Ssewastopol.Scan of the page featuring *SSEWASTOPOL*


Addendum:

In the meantime I have found a source which seems to apply that з -> s and с -> ss was one way of transliterating Russian words, and it makes sense. (Although amusingly, it does not recommend transliterating сс as "ssss", because it "doch wohl unthunlich erscheint.") This is from the introduction of "Der Russische Feldzug nach Chiwa" by H. Stumm in Google books. The book actually uses only a single s for a Russian c at the start of a word, but it seems to imply that some people used a double s for a Russian c everywhere in a word.

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    Wild guess: The employed transliteration scheme may use an ß at the beginning of syllables to denote a voiceless s (/s/). And then, given the historical rareness of a capital ß, ẞyvach became Ssyvach. – Wrzlprmft Jan 21 '16 at 22:02
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    @hiergiltdiestfu: I think this edit should be an answer. – Wrzlprmft Jan 28 '16 at 8:04
  • @Wrzl could be. I just wanted it out of the comments w/o bothering anyone about it. Let's see if we can get OP to post it as an A. – hiergiltdiestfu Jan 28 '16 at 8:42
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German does not feature a 100 % phoneme to letter mapping. Some letters or their combinations can represent multiple phonemes: See lebendige which features three different phonemic varieties that are all written as e (/e/, /ɛ/ and /ə/).

One of those cases is (much like in English) the letter s, which can be both voiced /z/ or unvoiced /s/.* Single s in word-initial position or between two vowels is rendered as /z/ while word-final s and double s are generally /s/. (I intentionally left out other occurrances of s here.) Many other languages clearly distinguish between /s/ and /z/ in all positions by using different letters — Russian is an example with с and з, but also those Slavic languages written with the Latin alphabet usually consequently employ z for /z/ and s for /s/. Thus pronouncing it /zi'vaʃ/ could well be misunderstood as a different place: Зиваш.

So to make sure that Germans who read the novel or encyclopedia entry pronounce the place correctly, the authors/editors obviously decided to add a second s just to be sure. Other pronunciation guides consequently use ß for any occurrance of /s/. I couldn’t imagine a variant with double s ever being an official spelling — not the least because why should Germany, Austria or Switzerland decide how to officially spell not-so-significant places outside of their boundaries?


To answer your side question, there are no originally German words that begin with a double s.


*: One may argue that the distinction is only phonetic in word-initial position; however, once we consider word-central positions the distinction is definitely phonemic (/'mu:zə/ and /'mu:sə/) and thus the two should be considered phonemes.

‡: This is not true for the entire dialect continuum. Bavarian, as one example, only uses /s/ for all positions. Thus, the minimal pair Muse versus Muße can be considered merged.

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    Yes, I think you are right. In the meantime I have found a source which seems to apply that з -> s and с -> ss was one way of transliterating Russian words, and it makes sense. (Although amusingly, it does not recommend transliterating сс as "ssss", because it "doch wohl unthunlich erscheint.") – Flounderer Jan 21 '16 at 22:57
  • @Flounderer care to share that source? :) – hiergiltdiestfu Jan 22 '16 at 8:08
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    Bavarian, as one example, only uses /s/ for all positions. Thus, the minimal pair Hasen versus Hassen can be considered merged. – I was informed that you have /z/ → /s/ and /s/→/sː/ for Southern dialects. Moreover, you can still distinguish Hasen and Hassen by the length of the a. – Wrzlprmft Jan 22 '16 at 9:09
  • Just a note: s. the name transliteration of a famous Soviet pair skater Зайцев into German. – Eller Jan 22 '16 at 9:15
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    @Flounderer can you please compile the two comments you made here in this thread into an answer in its own right? – hiergiltdiestfu Jan 28 '16 at 8:43

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