German Spelling With a Double S or Eszett (ß)

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A unique feature of the German alphabet is the ß character. Found in no other language, part of the uniqueness of ß—aka "eszett" ("s-z") or "scharfes s" ("sharp s")—is that, unlike all other German letters, it exists only in the lower case. This exclusivity may help explain why many Germans and Austrians are so attached to the character.

Since being introduced in 1996, spelling reform (Rechtschreibreform) has shaken the German-speaking world and caused raging controversy. Even though the Swiss have managed to live peacefully without the ß in Swiss-German for decades, some German-speakers are up in arms over its possible demise. Swiss writers, books, and periodicals have long ignored the ß, using double-s (ss) instead.

That's why it's all the more puzzling that the International Working Committee for [German] Spelling (Internationaler Arbeitskreis für Orthographie) chose to keep this troublesome oddity in certain words while eliminating its use in others. Why not just toss out this troublemaker that non-Germans and German beginners often mistake for a capital B, and be done with it? If the Swiss can get by without it, why not the Austrians and Germans?

Double S Reforms From Rechtschreibreform

The rules for when to use the ß rather than "ss" have never been easy, but while the "simplified" spelling rules are less complex, they continue the confusion. German spelling reformers included a section called sonderfall ss/ß (neuregelung), or "special case ss/ß (new rules)." This section says, "For the sharp (voiceless) [s] after a long vowel or diphthong, one writes ß, as long as no other consonant follows in the word stem." Alles klar? ("Got that?")

Thus, while the new rules reduce the use of the ß, they still leave intact the old bugaboo that means some German words are spelled with ß, and others with ss. (The Swiss are looking more reasonable by the minute, aren't they?) The new and improved rules mean that the conjunction formerly known as daß or "that" should now be spelled dass (short-vowel rule), while the adjective groß for "big" adheres to the long-vowel rule.

Many words formerly spelled with ß are now written with ss, while others retain the sharp-s character (technically known as the "sz ligature"): Straße for "street," but schuss for "shot." Fleiß for "diligence," but fluss for "river." The old mixing of different spellings for the same root word also remains fließen for "flow," but floss for "flowed." Ich weiß for "I know," but ich wusste for "I knew." Though reformers were forced to make an exception for the oft-used preposition aus, which otherwise would now have to be spelled auß, außen for "outside," remains. Alles klar? Gewiss! ("Everything clear? Certainly!")

German Response

While making things slightly easier for teachers and students of German, the new rules remain good news for the publishers of German dictionaries. They fall far short of true simplification, which many disappointed people had anticipated. Of course, the new rules cover much more than just the use of the ß, so it's not difficult to see why Rechtschreibreform has sparked protests and even court cases in Germany. A June 1998 poll in Austria revealed that only about 10 percent of Austrians favored the orthographic reforms. A huge 70 percent rated the spelling changes as nicht gut.

But despite the controversy, and even a Sept. 27, 1998 vote against the reforms in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, the new spelling rules have been judged valid in recent court rulings. The new rules officially went into effect on Aug. 1, 1998, for all government agencies and schools. A transitional period allowed the old and new spellings to coexist until July 31, 2005. Since then only the new spelling rules are considered valid and correct, even though most German-speakers continue to spell German as they always have, and there are no regulations or laws that prevent them from doing so.

Perhaps the new rules are a step in the right direction, without going far enough. Some feel that the current reform should have dropped ß completely (as in German-speaking Switzerland), eliminated the anachronistic capitalization of nouns (as English did hundreds of years ago), and further simplified German spelling and punctuation in many other ways. But those who protest against spelling reform (including authors who should know better) are misguided, trying to resist needed changes in the name of tradition. Many counterarguments are demonstrably false while placing emotion over reason.

Still, though schools and government are still subject to the new rules, most German speakers are against the reforms. The revolt by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in Aug. 2000, and later by other German newspapers, is yet another sign of the widespread unpopularity of the reforms. Time alone will tell how the spelling reform story ends.