Germans Capital Eszett
‘Meow’ means ‘Woof’ in cat.
— George Carlin
The Eszett (‘ß’) is a letter in the German alphabet (not used in Switzerland or Liechtenstein) that represents a sharp ‘s’ sound. It derives from a combination of the old “long s” (‘ſ’) and ‘z’ letters, which you might have been able to deduce from the name “Eszett”. I won’t delve further into where it comes from or whatever. If you do care about that, you can check out the Wikipedia page.
For the longest time the German alphabet had an… interesting problem to say the least. It had more lowercase letters than capital letters! As you can probably tell already, the capital letter that was missing was the capital ‘ß’.
For those of you familiar with the German language, you may wonder why a capital ‘ß’ would even be necessary. The letter itself never appears at the beginning of any word, so in normal written text it never needs to be capitalised. While that may be partially true, there are still moments when we do need to capitalise it. Take the header of this page for example; it is written in small-caps. What if I wanted to create a page with a title in German using the ‘ß’? You might also want to uppercase all of your letters when writing down an address on an envelope, a surname on a government document (we will get to this one later), or SIMPLY WHEN EMPHASISING TEXT!
So how did people capitalise ‘ß’? Well, by simply replacing it with either “SS” or “SZ” with the former being the most common. This would mean that a word like “Straße” would get capitalised into “STRASSE”. This is an issue because you are now creating what is effectively a one-way function. When uppercasing text we can go from A to B, but we cannot go back to A.
There is also the issue of conflicting words. One example of this is “Buße” meaning “Penance” and “Busse” meaning “Busses”; both would be capitalised to “BUSSE”. Many people will claim that this is a non-issue as we can usually resolve conflicts using context, but we now live in a world where we need to worry about not only people but also computers. Imagine a program that counts how often a word appears in a file, how is it supposed to count the occurrences of conflicting words that appear in uppercase?
Thankfully, after far too long the German language finally got a capital eszett (‘ẞ’) in 2017. While the current rules say that both ‘ẞ’ and “SS” are allowed as an uppercase form for ‘ß’, the new ‘ẞ’ character is strongly recommended (although adoption is of course, very slow). This means that while we can still uppercase “Straße” to “STRASSE”, we can now also uppercase it to “STRAẞE”!
As mentioned earlier, sometimes surnames are written in capital letters on government documents. The effects of this and the lack of a capital ‘ß’ are noticeable in my own lastname. My lastname is “Voss”, but it probably is not going to shock you to find that I also have relatives with the surnames “Vosz”, “Voß”, and even somehow “Vohs”. So what happened here? Well I cannot say anything with 100% certainty, but from what I’ve been told by some relatives I met in Germany (who themselves are called “Voß”), it was just simply not agreed upon in the past how to uppercase “Voß”, and so we ended up with 4 branches of the family with 4 different surnames. With the new rules however this is no longer an issue, the family members I met can now write their name as “VOẞ” when needed instead of having to deal with potential ambiguity problems!