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The German letter/grapheme: ⟨ß⟩, is either called “Eszett” or “scharfes S”.

The name “Eszett” is just a combination of the names of the letters ⟨s⟩ and ⟨z⟩: “Es” and “Zett”. But I don’t really like this name because the modern German ⟨ß⟩ is usually transliterated as ⟨ss⟩ rather than as ⟨sz⟩.

The other name: “scharfes S” / ”Scharf-S”, translates as “sharp s”. But I don’t understand what this is supposed to mean; the grapheme: ⟨ß⟩, doesn’t look sharp, the phoneme it represents: /s/, doesn’t sound sharp. In what sense is ⟨ß⟩ “scharf”/“sharp”?

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  • It looks like the grapheme of old-style "s" and old-style "z" written together. The term "scharf" is perhaps a misnomer and should be better called "stimmlos", i.e. spoken without tone. In English, the starting sound of "zone" would be stimmhaft while the starting sound of "sand" would be stimmlos (scharf). Commented Jan 2 at 11:47
  • Have a look [here|(de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:Deutsche_Kurrentschrift.svg) to how "s" and "z" had been written in isolation. You see that for the lower case "s", there are two graphemes: The first one is for an "s” inside the word, the second one is for an "s" at the end of the word. Commented Jan 2 at 11:49
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    Siehe german.stackexchange.com/q/26857/35111.
    – David Vogt
    Commented Jan 2 at 12:12
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    "doesn’t sound sharp". I'm not a linguist and maybe linguists would agree with you, but to me it does sound sharp. I guess it depends on how you define a sound being sharp. To me the "z" sound that a normal s makes is like a buzzing. And to make a "s" sound (ß) you need to use more force and that way you are "cutting" the buzzing away. Therefore it's sharp.
    – Ivo
    Commented Jan 3 at 8:03
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    A tongue-in-cheek introduction to the letter just has been published (german/french) by French-German video magazine Karambolage. Note the two informal names "Rucksack-s" and "Buckel-s" mentioned.
    – ccprog
    Commented Jan 12 at 21:51

3 Answers 3

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In what sense is ⟨ß⟩ “scharf”/“sharp”?

The only phonological feature that comes to mind is voicelessness. Indicating voiceless [s] between vowels is the purpose of <ß>:

Füße [s] − Düse [z]
aßen [s] − Hasen [z]
weiße [s] − weise [z]

Scharf is an older, impressionistic term; one may wonder whether the underlying impression was that voiceless [s] is characterised by a "sharp" hissing noise created by the obstruction in the mouth, whereas for [z] the more mellow (sanft, weich) buzzing of the vocal chords is perceived as dominant. This may, however, just be a modern-day rationalisation; in older texts, scharf seems to have been used in the meaning of voiceless (see below).*

As an example for an older text discussing the role of <ß> in German spelling, we have Heinrich Bauer, Systematisches Handbuch der deutschen Sprache, Berlin, 1846, p. 45:

Am Ende der Sylben und Woͤrter ſchreibt man ſtatt dieſes langen ſ immer das ſogenannte kurze, runde oder ſcharfe s, das dann, wie jeder Conſonant als Auslaut, d. h. als Sylben= oder Wortſchluß, hart, ſtark oder ſcharf ausgeſprochen werden muß: Krebs, es, Halstuch, haͤuslich; […] ſobald indeſſen in ſolchem Worte durch ſeine Veraͤnderung (,Biegung u. ſ. w.) dieſer Ziſchlaut aufhoͤrt, Auslaut zu ſein, und zum Anlaut, d. h. Sylbenanfang wird, tritt auch wieder das ſ und deſſen ſanfte Ausſprache ein: (ich) las, (wir) laſen, Glas, […] (des) Gla—ſes, dem Gla—ſe, (die) Glaͤ—ſer, Hauskauf, Haͤuſerkauf.

[…]

Weſentlich von dieſem Doppelconſonanten ſſ iſt das ß dadurch unterſchieden, daß es eben kein doppelter, ſondern ein einfacher Conſonant iſt, der ſich vom ſ nur dadurch unterſcheidet, daß er ſcharf, alſo wie das s ausgeſprochen wird. Es iſt demnach dies (wahre, eigentliche) ß nichts als ein einfaches geſchaͤrftes ſ oder s, und ein ſolches eignes Schriftzeichen war unſrer Sprache nothwendig, um einen ſcharfen Ziſchlaut hinter einem gedehnten Vocal zu bezeichnen, da man dieſen weder durch s oder ſ noch durch ſſ ausdruͤcken konnte: reißen, Spaß, Spaͤße.

I have attempted to reproduce the orthography of the original; relevant terms have been highlighted in bold by me. Note that the characterisation of <s> as scharf, i.e. voiceless, holds for Bauer's orthography; he has <ſ> initially. Also, Bauer uses scharf for other voiceless consonants besides [s]: das ſogenannte kurze, runde oder ſcharfe s, das dann, wie jeder Conſonant als Auslaut, d. h. als Sylben= oder Wortſchluß, hart, ſtark oder ſcharf ausgeſprochen werden muß.

* Unfortunately, the term scharf is also used in other contexts, for instance when talking about Silbenschnitt.

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    So “sharp” really is describing the sound — /s/ is a “sharp” sound, as opposed to /z/ which is a “soft” sound. I certainly wouldn’t have chosen these words to describe these sounds, but I guess that’s just due cultural biases. Commented Jan 3 at 15:28
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The "ß" is a so-called ligature: two letters which are often used together are combined into a single "letter". Here it is the "long s" and the "round s". In English there is for instance "æ", combining the letters "a" and "e".

Up to the 20th century, german books were mostly printed in "Fraktur" (blackletter) and not in Antiqua, (more about that here). Fraktur had two different letters for "s" and they were used depending on the place in the syllable. One looked similar to an "f" but without the crossing stroke and one looked similar to the Antiqua-s. This helped determine how a word was constructed, for instance:

Kreischen: Kreis-chen (circlet) vs. Krei-schen (to scream)
Wachstube: Wachs-tube (wax tube) vs. Wach-stube (police station)

two ways to write "s"

German is special in this regard, because the letter "s" is often the last letter of a word (it is a genitive marker and also used to combine compounds, like "Haushalt" - "Einkommen": "Haushalt-s-einkommen", compound words are numerous in German) and, because of often occurring combinations like "st" or "sch", the first letter of a word. Here is a Wiki-link for long s.

Coming back to the "ß": it is a ligature of a "long s" and a "round s". It is called "scharfes s" because it is pronounced stronger than a single "s". The difference to "ss" is that it doesn't shorten the preceding vowel. For instance:

Maserung (texture) (spoken with a long "a" and a soft "s")
Maß (measure) (spoken with a long "a" and a strong "s")
Masse (mass) (spoken with a short "a" and a strong "s")

That begs the question why it is called "es-zett" then. The reason is there is no capitalized version of this ligature and therefore, when writing in all-caps, it has to be transliterated — which is traditionally done as "SZ". For instance:

Fuß (foot) - FUSZ

This is to avoid using "SS", which would — see above — shorten the preceding vowel.

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  • So, “sharp” means “strong”? Commented Jan 2 at 13:38
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    i'm confused about FUSZ, this would be wrong in german language, i've never seen it, and it's actually FUSS...
    – Edgar
    Commented Jan 2 at 14:18
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    I have never seen it spelled out as SZ, always as SS. And I went to school in Germany in the 1970s. Commented Jan 2 at 22:57
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    @bakunin - from context. I (born in 1966, went to school in Baden-Württemberg) never saw the SZ, only ever SS until some years ago, when I was involved in digitizing old technical documents, have of which had been created in Ingolstadt/Bavaria, the other half in Wolfsburg/Niedersachsen. All of the former ones used SS while the latter ones used SZ. So my (totally unscientific and anecdotial) guess is there was a regional split until some reform where the south used SS and the north used SZ. Commented Jan 2 at 23:17
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    Yep, from context. As for the North/South divide: I'm from Lower Saxony, and never ever saw SZ. Commented Jan 3 at 9:33
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Eszett

Historically, the letter »ß« in the German language goes back to a ligature of the letters »ſ« (pronounced: »es«) and »ʒ« (pronounced »zett«), so they together are pronounced as »eszett«:
ſʒ→ß

  • ſ (»long s«; In German: »langes S«)
    The letter ſ is known as a "long s" and is not specific to German. It has also been used in other languages, including English (Wikipedia). The long s and the round s (i.e. the "normal" s) both developed from the Latin letter S. When Blackletter fonts were common for printing German texts, there were typographical rules to determine when to use the long s and when to use the round s, but these rules were always typographical rules, not orthographic rules, as they depended on the use of blackletter fonts. Long s and round s are allograph forms of the same letter, like the two allograph forms of the letter a (»banana« vs. »bɑnɑnɑ«). The long form simply fell into oblivion and was no longer used when blackletter ceased to be fashionable.

    There is no uppercase form of »ſ«.

  • ʒ (»tailed-z«; in German: »Schleifen-Z« = »loop-z«)
    This is also another allograph forms of a letter, that is today used in another form: It's an old form of the letter »z«. The tailed version was the preferred form in blackletter fonts. Now the symbol »ʒ« is used as a symbol that is different from »z« in the international phonetic alphabet (ezh)

    The tailed z exists in an uppercase and a lowercase form. Uppercase: »Ʒ« lowercase= »ʒ«.

But that's only half the truth. Many languages did use the long s, and they used it also in Antiqua fonts (including German), and all those languages contained many words with double-s. The combinations: round-round (»professor«), long-long (»profeſſor«) and long-round (»profeſsor«) were in use, and all three were considered to be correct, but then rules were created on when to use which version, and soon a new ligature became existent for »ſs«, which looked a little bit different than the ligature for »ſʒ«. But both ligatures looked so similar, that soon they were mixed. In some fonts the Eszett ligature, that was developed for »ſʒ« was also used for »ſs«, and the Eses ligature, created for »ſs« was also used for »ſʒ«.

And still today there exist allograph forms of the letter ß, one goes back to the »ſz« ligature, and deserves to be called »Eszett«, while the other form is an »ſs« ligature without a »Zett« in it.

two allograph forms of »ß«


Scharfes S

I live in Austria and heard the name »Eszett« for the first time in my life when I was about 30 years old, in the 1990s, when the first private television channels from Germany could be received via satellite in Austria. The name »Eszett« is not taught on Austrian schools and is even today, in 2024 extremely uncommon here. Instead we call this letter »scharfes S«. But as far as I know, »scharfes S« is not very common in Germany. The preferred name in Germany is »Eszett«.

The adjective »scharf« (»sharp«) describes a property of pronunciation: Whenever an ſʒ- or ſs-ligature was used in the past, it was pronounced a little bit stronger and with a little bit more hissing (i.e. sharper) than the other form, that was called »weiches S«. In Austria there are also the pairs B/P and D/T where B and D are named »weich« (»soft«) (»weiches B«, »weiches D«), but the corresponding letter is named »hart« (»hard«) (»hartes P«, »hartes T«). So, the adjective »scharf« has a very specific meaning when it is used as attribute for the letter S, and this origin comes from pronunciation.

In modern pronunciation you don't hear any difference between ß and s, and this is probably even more true in Austria than in Germany. The word »Sonne« (sun) is pronounced with a voiced S as first sound in Germany: [ˈzɔnə], but not in Austria. In Austria it's [ˈsɔnə] with an unvoiced S at the beginning. Every s is unvoiced in Austria. (The noticeable usage of voiced s's is the main property by which we Austrians can tell within seconds, that the speaker is from Germany with a very high probability.)

In Germany people use the voiced s (IPA-Symbol: [z]) only when the S is at a position where it can't be written as ß. So, every ß is unvoiced in Germany and in Austria. The "normal" round s can be voiced or unvoiced in Germany, but in Austria it is always unvoiced.

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    If you "don't hear any difference between between ß and s" I wonder how you pronounce "Maße" and "Maserung". In the former, the "s" is more stressed than in the latter. It is not "Mase"
    – bakunin
    Commented Jan 2 at 15:08
  • @bakunin: Both with [s]: »Maße«: [ˈmaːsə]. »Maserung«: [ˈmaːsəʁʊŋ]. I had to look up both words in wiktionary to find out, which of them might be the one you pronounce with [z] in Germany. Commented Jan 2 at 15:16
  • I suppose the part that I still don’t understand is why a “hissing sound” would be described by the word “sharp”. Commented Jan 2 at 16:16
  • 'But as far as I know, »scharfes S« is not very common in Germany.' - presumably, that should be restricted to Northern Germany or a similar location. Growing up in Baden-Württemberg, I was taught exclusively the term "scharfes S", as well (with the colloquial variant "Dreierles-S"), with only my grandparents from Northern Germany using the term "Eszett". Commented Jan 2 at 17:52
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    Using long ſ and round s in the same script is not restricted to printing, they appeared in parallel for the first time in (late) Carolingian Minuscule, and continued to be used in handwriting through Bastarda and Kurrent up to 20th century Sütterlin. (That does not imply the use was consistent in detail before 1901.) So rules when to use which are not only typographic in nature, but also calligraphic.
    – ccprog
    Commented Jan 3 at 4:52

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