The German Capital Letter Eszett

written by Christoph Koeberlin · translated by Norman Posselt, with friendly help by Max Phillips (@SignalType)

Den deutschsprachigen Artikel finden Sie hier.

On June 29, 2017, the Council for German Orthography endorsed the optional use of a capital sharp s. That means the most controversial of letters, and (within the type design community) one of the most extensively discussed, is now part of the official spelling rules.

For years, there’s been a heated dispute between those who strive to promote the use of ẞ and those who dismiss it as unattractive and unnecessary. Below, we’ll try to summarize essential information on the topic for both users and designers of the letter.

The Topic

The German ß goes by a number of names: sharp s, eszett, rucksack-s, and others. And there are a number of opinions about what it is and how to deal with it (see Controversy ☟). Here are the two main schools of thought:

  1. ß is a ligature composed of ſ and s.
    Since there is no uppercase version of the long s (ſ), Maße becomes MASSE when capitalized. This cannot be distinguished from the word MASSE/Masse, which can make for problems, especially with proper names.
  2. ß is a separate character.
    Since ß is a single character, it can (and must?) exist in both lower- and uppercase form. In this scheme, Maße becomes MAẞE when capitalized, which makes it distinguishable from the word MASSE/Masse. 
    As a result, family names containing ß remain uniquely identifiable when printed all in caps, as on ID cards.

Additionally to (2) it is now possible to write it like (3). (4) is wrong in any case.

Note: the uppercase ß is only used for setting all-caps text. No words begin with ß. (see Kerning ☟)

The Big Questions

Do I have to use it?

No,
but you’re now officially allowed to do so.

Does my typeface have to contain it?

No.
If your typeface includes ä ö ü ß Ä Ö and Ü, it supports the German language.

Design

The biggest question with is probably how to design it. How do you turn a lowercase letter into an a uppercase letter?

In principle, many forms are possible, but in the last few years some common forms have emerged. However, some type designers are still hoping for a more convincing solution (see Controversy ☟)

Four designs of the capital eszett (Image: Adam Twardoch): »Dresden« (1) and »Leipzig« (2) by Andreas Stötzner, »Frankfurt« (3) and »Berlin« (4) by Adam Twardoch.
More examples: typography.guru.

Proceed with caution, though; a capital eszett can seem unfamiliar even to native speakers. Moreover, many designs, especially the ones in system fonts, make a mockery of the most commonly accepted forms:

The capital eszett in Geneva, Baskerville SemiBold Italic and Baskerville Bold. (MacOS)

Ambiguities

The eszett is often confused with the Greek letter beta or — especially in capitals — with B. And the uppercase eszett is often confused with B as well.

How do I type the character?

There’s no capital eszett on the keyboard, which leaves the usual rocky paths for inserting an inaccessible glyph:

Copy/Paste

The easiest way is to copy and paste

Linux

Compose-Key+S+S (in a row) or shift+alt gr+S (at the same time).

MacOS

Open the “emoji und symbols” panel with ctrl+⌘+space. Then enter U+1E9E in the search field and hit return. (You can add it to your favourites for future use.)
Or you download and us our Alfred App Workflow.

MS Windows

Depending on the version of MS Windows you use there are different ways to enter the glyph.
alt gr+h
alt gr+Umschalt+ß
left alt+7838 (numeral keys)

MS Word

Enter the Unicode, then press Alt+c.
 1E9E, Alt+c

Which fonts contain the character?

In the last years many typefaces with a capital eszett have been released. Some excellent foundries have taken the character into their standard glyph sets, e.g.:

At MyFonts you also can search for fonts that contain the glyph. But beware: the quality of both fonts and characters varies greatly. Moreover, sometimes the codepoint is just set with SS or wildcards.

Controversy

In addition to the question of whether there should be any uppercase variant of the ß, there is heated disagreement over whether the glyph simplifies or complicates German orthography.
Switzerland chose the opposite path from Germany, and completely eliminated the sharp s. They now consistently use ss, which many see as a better solution, and which is also more understandable internationally.
The design of the glyph is another sticking point, as many typographers find it unconvincing. Ralf Herrmann, who has been pressing for the introduction of the new character for years, is working on his website to refute its critics.
And yet it remains a sensitive issue. As Indra Kupferschmid points out, Germans have their very own history with the letter combination SS.

For type designers and foundries

It is still common to capitalize the ß as SS, and most programs do this automatically. But what happens with small caps? And what should the OpenType feature code look like?

With small caps it is basically the same like with caps: (2) and (3) are both allowed, but (2) should be the standard. (4) is wrong.

feature smcp{
 sub germandbls by germandbls.smcp;
} smcp;

If there is a capital eszett in the font, a small cap variant should be drawn, which is then activated via c2sc:

(1) works just like all-caps. If the user chose the cap eszett, it should also be preserved in small caps (2).

feature c2sc{
 sub uni1E9E by uni1E9E.c2sc;
} c2sc;

This is how glyphs should look like in fonts:

Additionally, you should duplicate uni1E9E.c2sc as (e.g.) germandbls.smcp.ss01, so that the user can use a Stylistic Set to turn on the cap eszett in small cap context, too.

feature ss01{
 sub germandbls.smcp by germandbls.smcp.ss01;
} ss01;

If you want to prevent the use of the small eszett in all-caps setting and change it automatically with the cap eszett, e.g.:

feature calt{
 sub @uppercaseLetters germandbls' @uppercaseLetters by uni1E9E;
} calt;

Kerning

The kerning requirements for the cap eszett are simple. Since the character never appears at the beginning of a word, and only in all-caps setting, on the left side it must only be kerned with other uppercase letters, whereby potentially difficult combinations like Tẞ Vẞ and Wẞ do not occur in the German language

Rather take a close look at combinations like:

FUẞBALL GROẞASPACH REIẞVERSCHLUSS GROẞYACHT WEIẞWURST STOẞTRUPP …

and punctuation at the ends of words:

ẞ“ ẞ« ẞ’ ẞ* ẞ? …

— — —

Used Typefaces

Header: Harrison Serif (Jakob Runge & Lisa Fischbach, TypeMates)
Small Caps samples: Mallory (Tobias Frere-Jones, Frere-Jones Type)


Originally published in German at typefacts.com.