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I do not speak German but during a discussion with some German friends we ended up chatting about the evolution of the way German is written (I am French and I mentioned some changes we went through too). It was mostly around ß→ss, ö→oe, ü→ue, ...

Sometime later I happened to look at the German Wikipedia page about Carl Friedrich Gauß and to my surprise, there is no ß is his own handwritten signature. What is at the end does not look like the handwritten version one can expect.

enter image description here

Is there an explanation for that?

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3 Answers 3

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Gauss’s signature on Wikipedia does not use an ß ligature because it is written in roman script, and an ß ligature in roman script did not yet exist at the time.

Historically, German ß originated in blackletter type (or handwriting based thereupon like kurrent) as a ligature of long ſ and ʒ, the blackletter form of z. This ligature only existed in blackletter type (e.g. fraktur), but not in roman type.

There was no ß when German was written in roman type (or handwriting based thereupon like round hand), which became increasingly common since the late 18th century. Instead, the blackletter type ß was often imitated by using roman type ſs, even after long ſ had become uncommon in roman type around 1800. Alternatively, simple ss could also be used (a usage that has persisted in Switzerland). Another option, sz, was propagated by the Grimm brothers, but it never caught on (neither did their use of small letters). The roman type ligature ß was only introduced in a 1876–1902 spelling reform.

In Gauss’s correspondence, we can observe that he used different signatures:

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  • You write Gauss with ss, in your links and in most publications it is Gauß. Is there a reason you prefer this variant?
    – mtwde
    Commented Dec 24, 2020 at 12:04
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    @mtwde: It is because I am from Switzerland.
    – mach
    Commented Dec 24, 2020 at 12:56
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Historically, the "ß" originated from a ligature between two originally separate letters.

There are two important ligatures to mention: One is the ligature between a "long s" and a lowercase "z". The "long s" was a letter that isn't used anymore. It looked a bit like a lowercase "f". This part of the origin of "ß" can still be found in the letter's name, "Eszett".

The second ligature that went into the "ß" is a ligature between a long s and a lowercase "normal" s. This part of the origin of "ß" can still be seen in the letter's shape:

ſ + s becomes ß (the long s isn't diplayed here very well)

And those two letters, ſ and s, seem to be what Gauß wrote in his signature.

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  • Ha, this is interesting, I did not realize that ß was a ligature but now that you pointed it out it is quite clear (both letters combine nicely to an ß)
    – WoJ
    Commented Dec 22, 2020 at 17:08
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    Note that English, and most other European languages, used the ſ at the time as well. It still exists as the modern integral sign. The normal s was used as well, but generally only at the ends of words.
    – RDBury
    Commented Dec 22, 2020 at 20:26
  • Wrong, German ß did not originate from an ſs ligature, but from a blackletter ſʒ ligature. Like the Wikipedia article you have linked to explains.
    – mach
    Commented Dec 23, 2020 at 8:26
  • @mach The answer does.acknowledge that ſʒ is also often mentioned. The Wikipedia article makes it much more complex than you seem to imply. Also, the Gauſs signature clearly ends with a cursive s. Commented Dec 23, 2020 at 19:37
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    @VladimirF: The answer begings by explicitly declaring that the historical origin of ß was a ſs ligature. That is wrong.
    – mach
    Commented Dec 23, 2020 at 20:22
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You wrongly assume, that handwriting rules and conventions were unmodified since Gauß, which is not the case.

For a start you may look in Wikipedia, especially the section Lateinische Schreibschrift.

Gauß used a quite usual way writing ß for that period.

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