If you read text in Fraktur, Kurrent or Sütterlin letters you’ll stumble over four different types of “s”: capital s, long s, round s and the EssZett. Yes, that’s right, four of them… bloomin’ complicated Germans, eh?
Different forms of “s”
Let’s have a look at the different “s”-forms in a Kurrent font:
The capital “S”
Not much to say about that. Its use is the same as for every other capital letter in the German language. I actually like its form, it’s beautifully rounded and easy to write fluently.
The lowercase “round s”
This letter has eventually developed into the modern form lowercase “s”. Nowadays its position in a word doesn’t matter any more.
That was different when Fraktur, Kurrent or Sütterlin fonts were used. Whenever a word or a syllable ended on an “s” you’d use the “round s”. Of course that meant you’d know and recognize syllables correctly. So don’t expect every scribe to be absolutely consistent in its use. But most of the time the “round s” is a good indication of the end of a word or syllable. Quite useful if you have a text where you can’t really decide where one word ends and the next begins.
Most scribes wrote the “round s” in Kurrent and Sütterlin as you can see above. At first a loop, then an ending arc. There are slight variations of the ending arc. Sometimes it’s just a slightly curved line up, sometimes it’s very curled or even forms a loop.
The lowercase “long s”
This letter does not exist any longer, not in this form at least. It starts with a diagonal upstroke, then has a long vertical downstroke. You need to actually stop at the top, then go down again. To connect it with the next letter you’d use another diagonal upstroke from the lowest point. Same there: stop at the lowest point, then go up. Both ends are kind of dead ends, very important!
On the right side you see the lowercase letters “f”, “s” and “h” in comparison. First line is a modern print font, second line print font Fraktur, third line handwriting font Kurrent and last line handwriting font Sütterlin.
- The “long s” can easily be mixed up with the lowercase “f”. The only difference might be a tiny horizontal bar or a swirl to indicate the “f”.
But be careful in Fraktur font: a teeny-tiny remnant of a long-s-upstroke (on the left side of the downstroke) might also look like the bar or swirl of a lowercase “f”. Do you see than mean little remnant on the middle letter of the second line? That’s actually a “long s”! Talk about complicated!
- The Kurrent and Sütterlin “long s” can also be mixed up with the lowercase “h”. Compare the middle and right letters on the third and fourth line. If the writer is careless and doesn’t actually stop at the top and/or bottom but uses a small loop there, the “long s” might resemble a lowercase “h”. If the writer sticks to the (not-really-chiselled-in-stone) writing rules, there should be neither a loop at the top nor the bottom of a lowercase “long s”! Remember the dead ends…
Why did they use two regular forms of the “s”?
There’s a nice saying (and I’m a sucker for nice sayings…) : “Why use one word when two will do?” Or in other words: why use one letter when two will do? It’s stupid! Doesn’t make sense at all… does it?
Actually using two letters for one sound does make sense in some cases… Let me explain.
- In German we have the word “arbeitsam” which means industrious or hard-working. It consists of the substantive “Arbeit” (work) and the ending -“sam” which turns the substantive into an adjective. That’s also how you pronounce it: “arbeit-sam” with a small break before “-sam”.
- Then we have the German word “Arbeitsamt” which means labor office or job center. Again it consists of two words: the substantive “Arbeit” (work) and the substantive “Amt” (office). And that changes the pronounciation to “Arbeits-Amt” with a small break before “Amt”.
Now compare the words “arbeitsam” and “Arbeitsamt” in a modern font (first line). How would you tell to put the tiny break into the pronounciation? Unless you know it already you wouldn’t be able to tell just from the spelling, would you?
Much easier in one of the old German fonts, lines 2-4: “arbeit-sam” has a “long s” which means it’s not at the end of a syllable, while “Arbeits-amt” has a “round s” which means that it’s at the end of a syllable.
Even though it’s rare nowadays there are still a few examples where it would help to have two different lowercase “s”:
Look above: Kreischen and Kreischen for example.
- The first word means the substantive screeching (Kreischen – pronounced with an “sch”).
- The second word means a small cirle (“Kreis” with the diminuitive ending “chen”, pronounced “s-chen”),
Now let’s see if you can see the difference – and tell what the word means:
- Wachstube = guard room (substantive “Wach[e]” + substantive “Stube”)
Wachstube = tube containing or made of wax (substantive “Wachs” + substantive “Tube”)
- Versendung = sending (prefix “ver” + verb “send” + suffix “ung”)
Versendung = ending of a verse (substantive “Vers” + substantive “Endung”)
- Lachsturm = salmon tower (substantive “Lachs” + substantive “Turm”), I don’t know if any tower is named after salmons but it’s possible at least.
Lachsturm = storm of laughter (substantive “Lach” + substantive “Sturm”)
Here are the correct answers (I hope…), just highlight the following (white) text with your cursor:
( (Wachs-Tube / Wach-Stube, Vers-Endung / Ver-send-ung, Lachs-Turm / Lach-Sturm))
Do you see the reasoning behind the use of two versions of a lowercase “s”? It’s not as stupid as it seems in the first place. Even if it’s rare, sometimes it would help nowadays.
Are you able to tell if I used the correct lowercase “s” in these words below? I’m a meanie, I know…
The words are:
- Schweinshaxen (knuckle of pork, Schwein + Haxen) [+]
- Zeitgeist (spirit of the age, Zeit + Geist) [+]
- Hausmeister (maintenance person, Haus + Meister) [+]
- Schnapsidee (dumb or crazy idea, often caused by too much booze, Schnaps + Idee) [+]
- Kummerspeck (excess weight caused by emotional overeating due to depression or sadness, Kummer + Speck) [-] → Kummer-Speck, no end-of-the-syllable-round-s
- Bratwurst (fried sausage, Brat + Wurst) [-] → Brat-Wurst, no end-of-the-syllable-round-s
Highlight the entire text line with the explanations to see the answer. [+] means the lowercase “s” in this word is correct, [-] means I used the wrong lowercase “s”.
… sometimes a “long s” and a “short s” are just two lowercase “s” right after another, like in “Mi∫si∫sippi” (I admit that I cheated a bit with that word, but it shows what I mean). For more explanations and history and even more rules and exceptions please have a look at the Wikipedia entry. But be warned: even to me it’s a tad confusing!
Have you already found (German or English) words with “round s” and/or “long s” which confused you to no end? Were my examples helpful to you?