Spelling Reform: Double-s Words - German Language - Eszett

close up boy reading
Gary John Norman / Getty Images

Is it daß or dass?

A unique feature of the German alphabet is the ß character. Found in no other language, part of the uniqueness of the 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. Just how attached can be seen in the raging controversy over spelling reform (Rechtschreibreform) that has shaken the German-speaking world since the reforms were introduced in 1996. 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. But 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 beginners in German 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?

The rules for when to use the "ß" rather than "ss" have never been easy, but while the new "simplified" spelling rules are less complex, they still seem to continue the confusion. The German spelling reformers included a section called Sonderfall ss/ß (Neuregelung) - "Special Case ss/ß (New Rules)" that says (in German): "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 do 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 "improved" rules mean that the conjunction formerly known as daß ("that") should now be spelled dass (short-vowel rule), but the adjectivegroß ("big") stays groß (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(street) but Schuss (shot), Fleiß (diligence) but Fluss (river). The old mixing of different spellings for the same root word also remains: fließen (flow) but floss (flowed), ich weiß (I know) but ich wusste (I knew). The reformers were forced to make an exception for the oft-used prepositionaus, which otherwise would now have to be spelled auß. However, außen, "outside," staysaußen. Alles klar? Gewiss!

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 ten 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 August 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.

My personal opinion: The new rules are a step in the right direction but do not go far enough. The current reform, for example, should have dropped the ß completely (as in German 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 of the opponents' arguments have been demonstrated to be false and seem to put emotion over reason.

But it's a fact that most people in the German-speaking countries are against the reforms. The revolt by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in August 2000 and later by other German newspapers is yet another sign of the widespread unpopularity of the reforms. But schools and government are still subject to the new rules. Time alone will tell how the spelling reform story ends.

Also see:

Spelling Reform Poll
This poll is closed now, but what did people think about Rechtschreibreform?

Related Pages

The best overall links for spelling reform info:

IDS - Die neue deutsche Rechtschreibung
Information from the Institut für deutsche Sprache.