WHAT'S ALL THE FUSS

Germany has ended a century-long debate over a missing letter in its alphabet

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Picture your last name written in all caps. Now imagine one letter in the middle is in lowercase. Now imagine this is the only way for you to write your name, that shrunken middle letter dwarfed by its neighbors. All your legal documents glare at you:

SMiTH
WOLFsON
CHUnG

Until very recently, this was the reality for anybody in Germany with the unique character ß in their last name. Schade, Herr Schoßig!

In German, the ß character is called eszett. It’s used in “Straße,” the word for street, and in the expletive “Scheiße.” It’s often transliterated as “ss,” and strangely enough, it’s never had an official uppercase counterpart.

The letter “a” has “A” and “b” has “B,” while ß had…nothing. If it ever needed to appear as a capital, the correct way to write it was by substituting in “SS,” so one would write the all-caps “STRASSE,” or else stick with the mangled “STRAßE,” like writing “STrEET” in English. Finally on June 29, the Council for German Orthography, the country’s official spelling authority, decreed that ß deserved its own capital: ẞ.

According to the council’s 2017 spelling manual:

When writing the uppercase [of ß], write SS. It’s also possible to use the uppercase ẞ. Example: Straße — STRASSE — STRAẞE.

And so a century-long debate over Germany’s typographic equivalent of the Oxford comma has ended.

ß does not exist everywhere that German is spoken—the Swiss dropped it years ago. But its purpose is to help readers figure out pronunciation: A ß signals that the preceding vowel is pronounced long, instead of short, and that you should make an “ss,” not “z,” sound. It’s also written to signify “ss” after a diphthong.

The character tells you that the Berlin road “Torstraße” is pronounced:

tore + straah + suh

and not:

tore + strah + zuh

The evolution of German printing played a big part in ß’s lonely journey. Until the 20th century, Germany used typefaces called blackletter, which had extremely ornate uppercase letters. Words printed in all-uppercase were nearly illegible in blackletter, so they were rarely printed that way. And since ß always comes after a vowel, no German word starts with ß, so there was rarely a need to print an uppercase ß.

Here’s “Berlin” in Alte Schwabacher regular, a blackletter font, in all caps:

Berlin Alte Schwabacher Regular
(Quartz/Thu-Huong Ha)

Germany eventually adopted Roman typefaces, in which ALL CAPS was more common, leading designers to debate how an uppercase ß should look. At a 1903 typography conference, attendees decided that they would use lowercase eszett and substitute “SZ” for uppercase instances of the letter, until they could figure out a proper design for it. But use cases were rare, and the rule stuck, and so the system with 30 lowercase letters and 29 uppercase letters became the default.

Since the all-powerful German passport is issued with names in all caps, the Wießes and Nußbaums of Germany, knowing their names would not be recognized, essentially have had to spell their own names wrong when they filled out their forms, opting for “SS” instead of ß.

Signs for “Fußball” (“foos + ball”) were reduced to “FUSSBALL” (fuhss + ball). Stephen Hawking’s book The Universe in a Nutshell was printed as both Das Universum in der Nussschale and Das Universum in der Nußschale.

Now that the council is officially on board with capital eszett, debate is raging in the font designer community on the ideal design for the uppercase version. Should it be hard and angular, or soft and curvy? Or both? And where will it go on the standard German keyboard?

More than a decade before ẞ was officially sanctioned by the spelling authorities, German font designers recognized the need for it and included it in their fonts. Type designer Andreas Stötzner proposed recognition for the lonely ẞ in 2004, in an appeal to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which issues unicodes. He was rejected. In 2007, the German Institute for Standardization (DIN), the same body responsible for the standard A4 paper size, applied again to the ISO on behalf of ẞ. The following year, the Unicode Standard version 5.1 came out, and it included a capital ß: U+1E9E.

But even with graphic design and computer programming speeding along, it still took time for the German spelling council to catch up. “‘A to Z’ is a synonym for completeness, ‘That is all,'” says Stötzner. “Now to invent or introduce an addition to this apparently complete set of the alphabet, that is new—and, yeah, somehow, disturbing.”

He adds: “People ask why we haven’t had this for centuries: ‘What’s the need for that? It’s never been; it cannot be.’ Some people claim it cannot be, because it never has been!”

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