Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

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.

red line

NEVER MISS A STORY

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our free weekly newsletter!

red line

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

LATEST HEADLINES

Subscribe to Geographical!

Adventure Canada

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Hung out to dry
    Wetlands are vital storehouses of biodiversity and important bulwarks against the effects of climate change, while also providing livelihoods for mill...
    When the wind blows
    With 1,200 wind turbines due to be built in the UK this year, Mark Rowe explores the continuing controversy surrounding wind power and discusses the e...
    Mexico City: boom town
    Twenty years ago, Mexico City was considered the ultimate urban disaster. But, recent political and economic reforms have transformed it into a hub of...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PEOPLE...

Explorers

The biological wonders of Mozambique’s mountains have only recently been…

I’m a Geographer

Lloyd Figgins is founder of LFL Global Risk Mitigation consultancy,…

Development

From plastic-eating enzymes and oil-sucking polymers to ‘deep learning’ robots…

Explorers

Children on the summit of Aconcagua are a rare sight.…

Explorers

A pioneering expedition in 2019 will search for the lost…

Explorers

In this exclusive extract from his newest book, founder and…

Cultures

Growing demands for dairy products from an increasingly wealthy China…

Cultures

Diamonds are perhaps the least modest of all jewels. But,…

I’m a Geographer

Kristy Leissle is a scholar of the global cocoa and chocolate…

Explorers

The southwest corner of Western Australia is bursting with unique…

Cultures

Influencing international peace through street art

Explorers

Mountain biking through mountainous Lesotho, Dan Milner found stunning landscapes,…

Refugees

New Zealand becomes the first country to propose humanitarian visas…

Explorers

An eight-day survival course in the tropical Pearl Island archipelago…

Cultures

Instead of gradually leaving Africa in a single wave, new…

Development

Iceland has become the first country in the world to…

I’m a Geographer

Daniel Hume is a naturalist and wilderness adventurer. He was…

Development

Human rights investigators have discovered widespread use of forced labour…

Development

In Thailand, women are playing an ever-increasing role in environmental…

Cultures

A British Overseas Territory, the home-in-exile of General Napoleon Bonaparte,…