For a long time Germany has been playing around with the letters 'ss' which are sometimes, but not always, written as a separate letter ß. This letter has undergone some changes but even after modern reforms, hasn't been abandoned. Sometimes it's ß, sometimes ss, sometimes ſs, and sometimes ſz (long-S variants).

My question is, what's the real necessity for a distinct letter, as a purely linguistic matter, that can't be expressed with ss at all times? Is there some ambiguity or problem if it's not used at all? Or is it just the desire to preserve historic tradition? What would happen if it were completely dropped in favor of the simple s-s?

Note: I tagged this with "blackletter" since the letter comes from old scripts with the long-S.

Is it just a nod to some tradition, or an actual linguistic need?

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    If I remember correctly, the ß was removed from Swiss-German alphabet some time ago and AFAIK they're doing fine. Just some more ambiguous words, where one has to get the meaning from context (Masse, Busse). – Arsak Feb 25 at 6:40
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    The letter v could also be replaced everywhere by f or w. But why should it? – Carsten S Feb 25 at 7:42
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    Don't assume that phonemena in languages are generally based on "necessity". They have developed as they have, for various reasons and circumstances, but there is rarely a "necessity". - What necessity is there for the spelling of beard, weird, wear, tier, tear, beer, bear etc. in English (and their respective pronunciations)? – Christian Geiselmann Feb 25 at 9:02
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    @CarstenS Because there are people who believe that their personal idea of beauty is very, very important, and that the world should adapt to it. (Guess how we got the last orthographic reform.) – Uwe Feb 25 at 12:58
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    @geneb.: I am not saying it’s a duplicate. I am saying it’s related. At least some of the answers will in part answer your question. – Wrzlprmft Feb 25 at 17:26

You can't call it a need, since Switzerland dropped ß at the beginning of the 20th century and has, apparently, not yet collapsed.

But ß does have a function. In intervocalic position, there is a triple opposition:

Füße [fyːsə]
Küsse [kʏsə]
Düse [dyːzə]

Here, ß and ss both stand for voiceless [s], with ß signalling a preceding long vowel and ss a short vowel.

Both ß and s signal a long vowel, with ß standing for voiceless [s] and s for voiced [z].

  1. A double consonant, such as ss, marking a short vowel is characteristic for the German spelling system.

  2. Marking the distinction between [s] and [z] is unnecessary in other contexts: Initially, there is only <s>, pronounced [z]; and in final position, there is only [s], written as <s>, <ss> or <ß>, depending on what happens when a vowel is added: Gras - Gräser long vowel + [z], Fuß - Füße long vowel + [s], Kuss - Küsse short vowel + [s].

  3. Note that the sound [z] cannot be represented by <z>, since the latter is used for [ts] initially or after a long vowel or diphthong: Notiz(en) [noˈtiːts], Kreuz(e) [kʁɔɪ̯ts]. After a short vowel, <tz> is used instead of <zz>: Witz.

Note that this triple opposition in intervocalic position has not been affected by the 1996 spelling reform. Rather, the reform removed ß after short vowels at the end of a syllable (where all consonants are devoiced and [z] cannot occur).

Fuß [fuːs] remained Fuß
Kuß [kʊs] became Kuss

The effect is that now, at the end of a syllable, ß signifies a long vowel. This can be used to indicate pronunciation differences.

Tschüß. [yː]
Tschüss. [ʏ]

Note that the offical post-reform spelling is tschüs. But my feeling is that people use the spelling with ß in order to indicate a long vowel.

In the old rules, ß in final position helped to make compounds more readable.

Schlußsatz instead of Schlusssatz

One caveat: Saying that ß has the function of marking a preceding vowel as long does not imply that German strictly requires vowel length to be marked. For instance:

nach [a:] - Dach [a]
Nische [i:] - Frische [ɪ]

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    "You can't call it a need, since Switzerland dropped ß at the beginning of the 20th century and has, apparently, not yet collapsed." - not sure this conclusion is so simple. It's well possible that the standard German pronunciation from Germany needs to distinguish some different sounds where the standard German pronunciation from Switzerland uses the same sound, anyway. – O. R. Mapper Feb 25 at 10:17
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    And with that said, discussing whether something is "necessary" is somewhat pointless without specifying for what. For making words identifiable? tatso konen fir noc mer pocstapen einsparen ;) It's all a question of what spelling you're used to, the rest is up to context-specific pronuncation rules. For having an unambiguous mapping between writing and pronunciation? For that purpose, on the other hand, ß is indeed necessary (albeit not without alternative solutions). – O. R. Mapper Feb 25 at 10:21
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    @O.R.Mapper I was under the impression that the elimination of ß in Switzerland had typographic reasons. As to your second point, I deliberately avoided need and talked about function instead. – David Vogt Feb 25 at 10:48
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    @O.R.Mapper You're right to be cautious, but the pronounciation rules for standard German do not vary between Switzerland and Germany. In practice, the variation is just by local dialect (in both countries). ß is essentially a typographic accident that survived various spelling reforms in Germany, while it fell out of use in Switzerland because the typewriter keys were more urgently needed for French accented letters. – toolforger Feb 25 at 14:42
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    I'd have upvoted for the first sentence alone. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Feb 25 at 23:07

Your reference to ſz is somewhat misleading, since this is more a typographical aspect, how ß is represented, in the age of Unicode surely not a problem.

From purely practical point of view, ß is a sort of convenience, like the uppercase of substantives. In reformed orthography it helps for pronounciation, and in general assists disambiguation:

Masse (spoken [ˈmasə]] <-> Maße (spoken [ˈmaːsə])

are completely different words (unfortunately both related to physical properties of an object), and using the same representation requires more context for decision, what is actually meant.

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    As a practical example, without the ß it would be impossible to decide the meaning of "Alkohol in Massen trinken". – firefrorefiddle Feb 25 at 15:01
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    Yeah, but is there a vocal distinction there as well, or just a written one? – gene b. Feb 25 at 15:01
  • @geneb.: Updated answer, by adding pronounciation; this is the reason, why I argued, that ß assists in pronounciation. – guidot Feb 25 at 15:08
  • @firefrorefiddle do you decide the meaning of that when it's spoken? I'd expect this to be a source of puns. – Sassa NF Feb 25 at 23:49
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    @firefrorefiddle but of course, it's vain to think that this would save us of ambiguity. Depending on the Region, either “Alkohol in Maßen trinken” or “Alkohol in Massen trinken” could also mean “Alkohol aus Maßkrügen trinken”. – leftaroundabout Feb 26 at 17:16
das Mass, pl. die Masse = measure
die Masse = mass 

This is the word where it really matters in written language. "Massstab" looks not only a bit funny (triple letter), it looks like something else: "mass" (kg), instead of "measure". But that thing would be called "Massenstab". So it works.

And yes the "aber ich geniesse Alkohol immer nur in Massen" is a pun, but only works in writing. Spoken there is a big difference, almost as big as the semantic difference. When a tailor takes them, it sounds like "Maahsse", quite the opposite of "Massse", with very short "a" and very sharp "ss".

I just remembered my family on holidays back in California. We had lived there for some years. My sister - 10 years old - came back totally excited from a public toilet saying (in german):

"Wow they tell you how many times you can shit with one roll of paper: 2000 times!"

We argued that can't be - she insisted it is written there. It was written, somehow:


(That is what I call a linguistic collapse)

if I remember ... the ß was removed from Swiss-German alphabet some time ago

Yes: I went to school there and learned to write deutsch end of the 70s. The Esszett (or what you call it) hardly gets mentioned in school, even later. You don't learn how to write it. Computer keyboards do not have it, they have just the three umlaute and the french aigues and c with cedille.

Swiss-German is rarely written - never in public or officially. And when, then with the regional flavor and some humor. In Switzerland, the German alphabet itself has been simplified. For, and because of, the romands (and also the ticinesi), and maybe because the "schwiizer-dütsch" speaking have always had other problems, being at the southern end of a linguistic continuum. Like they decided: OK so we'll use that foreign hochdeutsch for writing, but please without that "B" which is just two "S"...

ß is a real shibboleth for Germans and Swiss-Germans.

No real "necessity", but enough reasons to keep it around a bit.

I cross-checked my german "Ilias" (Reclam, 1979, printed 2012). On the back cover it has the words "Groß-Epos" on line 3 and "Maßstäbe" on line 10 (of twelve). Two examples why it can be useful or very useful.

But in the translation things are not as clear. For one, the translator explains that in German it is more about emphasis and not length as in the Greek verses.

The third verse ends on "hinabstieß" (=down-pushed) . This should be "ab"=long and "stiess"=short. But "-ieß" is not short at all: long "i", distinct "s". The verse works because you can naturally pronounce "hinAPPstis".

Much better is line 13:

"...mit unermeßlichem Bußgeld" 

mit UNN-erMESSlichem BUUSgeld

"MESS" has a short "E", but almost three "S". "BUUSgeld" has a long "U".

You can write "Bussgeld". It still has a long "U" and no room for two "S". But you can not pronounce or write "Busgeld": that would be the "money for the bus".

This is actually another "tri" situation:

der Busen     =bosom "BUUSen"
die Bussen    =atonements "BUUSSen"
in den Bussen  =in the busses "BUSSen" 

And down south it is "BUUSE", "BUESSE" and "BÜSS".

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I don't think ß is necessary as such, at least in the sense that the German language would be more difficult to read or write without it, but it is "traditional". It is called "eszett" - literally "sz" - and in Fraktur it looks like it is clearly a ligature of of those two letters. I know too little about German etymology, but it is tempting to think that this reflects an older spelling - like grosz etc.

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