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Capitalising for linguistic peace

  • Written by  Alice Sloman
  • Published in Cultures
A street sign for Marktstraße, a popular shopping area in the Karolinen district, Hamburg. One of Germany’s many place names which features the lower-case eszett (Image: PhotographyByMK) A street sign for Marktstraße, a popular shopping area in the Karolinen district, Hamburg. One of Germany’s many place names which features the lower-case eszett (Image: PhotographyByMK)
19 Jul
2017
After years of debate, the German alphabet has got a new letter, but not everybody is happy about it

At the end of June, the Council for German Orthography (Rechtschreibrat) decided that Germany’s unique character ß, called the ‘eszett’ or the ‘sharp s’ required official action to be taken in order for names containing a double ‘s’ and those containing the ß to be distinguishable. As a result, the upper-case eszett is now an official part of German orthography and although its use is not compulsory, it may now be written as ẞ.

Defined at origin as a ligature, as opposed to an official German letter, the eszett was not given upper-case form when it was introduced – instead ‘SS’ would represent its capital form. On German passports, for instance, names appear in upper-case meaning that without the capitalisation of the eszett, the surname ‘Großmann’ would be written ‘GROSSMANN’. Annoying? Yes, but also problematic as once capitalised, names are not easily converted back to mixed-case letters (Grossman and Großmann are both individual names that exist in Germany). Linguistic progressives therefore argued that there was a clear gap in the German alphabet.

passportshutterstock 570513313The German passport is an officially recognised document for proof of identification for German citizens, and illustrates the use of upper-case text (Image: absolutimages)

The eszett’s primary function concerns the pronunciation of words. Replacing ß with two other letters when the case changes jeopardises the ‘strong s’ sound the eszett implies. With around 444 cities in Germany that use an eszett, it appears in millions of postal addresses, meaning that when eszett-inclusive addresses are entered in web forms using an ‘SS’, technically the place name is incorrect and it may not be recognised as a correct address. For some Germans, whose name or hometown features the eszett, it is an important part of their identity, causing them to shun the use of the ‘SS’ and instead use the lower-case ß in an upper-case spelling, causing much debate about the eszett’s correct usage.

However, because the eszett can never appear at the beginning of a word or, as part of the 1996 spelling reform, should never appear after a short vowel (although it can appear after long vowels), conservatives deem the capitalisation unnecessary and an offence to German heritage. The German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, has voiced its disdain for the aesthetic bulkiness of the new character calling it ‘the SUV of letters’. It seems the only thing going against the upper-case eszett is its newness.

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