Word of the week

Word of the week: Eszett

In recent weeks I have noticed a couple of instances of “ß”, the German letter known as an Eszett. As you may know, it is pronounced like a double “s”, and it has appeared in relation to two things that take up much of my time: sport and TV quizzes.

Pascal Groß is a German-born footballer who plays for Brighton and Hove Albion here in the UK. The BBC website spells his name with the Eszett, as you can see if you check the Line-ups tab towards the end of this match report from Brighton’s defeat to Manchester United in the EFL Cup last month.

Also on the BBC last month, a contestant with the surname Kloß appeared on “University Challenge”. He was part of the Wolfson College Cambridge team that lost heavily to Merton College Oxford, so we won’t be seeing him again in this series. As usual I had subtitles on while watching the show, and although his nameplate read “Kloß”, the subtitles rendered his name as “Kloss”.

If you have never studied German you might be unfamiliar with the Eszett, also called “scharfes S”. It doesn’t exist in any other language, and is not even used in Switzerland, which has German as one of its official languages. I have just learnt this from a very straightforward page on GermanVeryEasy.com which tells us: “Switzerland decided to use keyboards designed for specific letters from the French language, thus eliminating the Eszett from its alphabet”.

Unlike the rest of my family, I did study German, up to O Level, and even managed to get a “A”, but until reading that page just now did not realize that you use “ß” and “ss” in different contexts. “ß” only appears after long vowel sounds, in words like “Straße” (street), or where there is a dipthong, in words like “heißen” (to be called). If there’s a short single vowel, as in “essen” (to eat) or “Wasser” (water), you use “ss”.

The only German book that I have to hand is a Bible, a “Gute Nachricht Bibel”, or Good News Bible, which sits alongside French, Spanish, Italian and (although I can’t make head or tail of it) Russian versions on the shelf in front of me. The line in Verse 2 of Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my Shepherd”, or “Der Herr ist mein Hirt”) that translates as “[He] … leads me beside still waters” features both “ß” and “ss”:

“…läßt mich ruhen am frischen Wasser”

You will note that the first “a” in that line has an umlaut over it. But that’s another story, or (as I think they say in Germany) “das ist eine andere Geschichte”.

 

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