July 14, 2017

German linguists worry about the girth of a new letter


Language is a notoriously slippery beast. As people continue to insist on using words, they also continue to insist on using them, and spelling them, in their own, sometimes weird, ways. These initially eccentric usages build up over time and eventually become standardized. Hence, the word “literally” literally no longer means “literally,” and making love means something very different to us than it did to Jane Austen. Usually these changes take place over the course of many years. Unless, apparently, you speak German, where a council can literally create new letters overnight.

According to The Local’s Jörg Luyken, as of the end of June, the German Spelling Council has added ẞ to the language’s alphabet. For those who, like me, who don’t know any German whatsoever, that is the capital version of ß, the letter known as eszett, which sounds like “s” and is used after a long vowel. Previously, if you wanted to capitalize your eszett you had to write “SS.” This didn’t come up all too often, since in German eszett can never appear at the beginning of a word. But it complicated all-caps writing, and had apparently become confusing on official documents. Lyken writes: “[O]n German passports, names appear in uppercase, meaning that until now, someone with the surname Großmann has had to put up with the humiliation of being confused with a Grossmann.”

Luyken also explains that German scholars are far from united about the change: “[T]he progressives among German orthographers see the decision as a great leap forward. But conservatives refuse to accept it on aesthetic grounds, claiming that the new letter’s unwieldy girth make it the SUV of the letter world.”

Really, the main things to take note of here are that Germans take their language very seriously, and we English speakers don’t care enough about the girth of our letters. I would also like to propose the creation of an English Spelling Council. Its first order of business will be eliminating the letter “C” from our alphabet, replacing it in every instance with either “S” or “K,” suksesfully streamlining the language.



Peter Kranitz is an intern at Melville House.