A new letter in the German Alphabet… or how to cover design news.

It is unusual for the Irish Times to cover matters of design or typography, but last week they had an article under the headline German alphabet makes room for a new letter of the law.

Their correspondent, Derek Scally, reported from Berlin on how ‘an addition to the German alphabet emerged blinking into the daylight after a campaign lasting 130 years – to a hail of indifference’.

He continued:

The nervous debutante is the big sister of the letter ß. Known in German as the ” eszett ” or “sharp s”, the ß is the bane of German language students, who encounter it in their very first lesson when they try to say their name: ” Ich heiße Derek .” The only consolation was that the ß didn’t have a capital version, meaning that it could be dispensed with in headlines, signs or any place where letters attract attention.

He noted:

It comes to us thanks to the German Norms Institute (DIN), the people who brought us the paper size standards A4, A3 and so on. They proposed a capital ß to the International Organisation for Standardisation and, on Monday, the letter became standard – with ISO 10646.

DIN says the ß has an active lobby group but declines to name its powerful friends. The German standards organisation is anxious to disassociate itself from the capital ß, seeing its role more as midwife than mother.

“It’s not about forcing people to use the letter. Our priority was to establish a standard to make it mechanically possible to use,” says Roman Grahle of DIN. “Whether it will be used or not is another matter.”

There are practical problems.

On the current German keyboard, ß shares a key with “?” but that flat share might have to end now that ß has a big sister.

Leading keyboard manufacturer Cherry says it is already working on a solution. It hasn’t ruled out another “€” solution, forcing the capital ß to camp out on another letter’s key.

The capital ß faces another technical hurdle: convincing font designers to come up with a capital ß for their particular design family of letters. That’s why the new letter can’t even appear in this article.

And there appears to be a less than whole-hearted welcome from the German language lobby:

“We are not responsible for letters, but for keeping an eye on spelling and to make sure rules are followed,” says Dr Kerstin Günter of the German Language Council.

“Whether there is a need for this letter is a question that remained unanswered for centuries. It’s likely to remain that way for a while to come.”

Now compare and contrast this, which is – essentially – colour story, with the following from The Local, a German news website:

The German alphabet is getting a new letter, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) confirmed on Wednesday.

Until now, the letter “ß,” called the “Eszett,” has only been a lower-case figure, forcing typographers to find creative ways [to render] the letter in advertisements and street signs where words are all capitalized, for example.

But the big “ß,” which makes a double “s” sound phonetically, is now anchored in the international character set number ISO-10646 and Unicode 5.1.

The new big “ß,” used in words like Spaß, (fun), has often been written as “SS” in all-caps situations, but there has been discussion for some 130 years about creating a capitalized version.

The official German Rechtschreibung spelling and grammar rules won’t be affected by the change, though. The council in charge of determining these rules, Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung told news agency DPA, that “ß” will continue to be written as “SS,” and said they don’t plan a language reform for the new letter. However: “The people will decide whether they want to use it,” council head Kerstin Güthert told DPA.

Whether, and how, the new character will be integrated on German computer keyboards remains unclear.

It is treated as an informational piece and in the accompanying image, which is reproduced here, examples are given of the new letter. Reading the Irish Times article one is given the impression that this is an essentially unwanted and quixotic move by unnamed groups. But note that by contrast The Local article points to the status quo ante ‘forcing typographers to find creative ways [to render] the letter in advertisements and street signs where words are all capitalized, for example’.

Wikipedia notes that for the ‘sharp s’:

Also, the es-zett or scharfes S (ß) is used. It exists only in a lowercase version since it can never occur at the beginning of a word (there are a few loan words starting with an s followed by a z (e.g. Szegediner Krautfleisch but that is not the same as the es-zett which counts as one letter).

In all caps it is converted to SS, while in Switzerland ß is not used at all, but ss instead. This gives rise to ambiguities, albeit extremely rarely; the most commonly cited such case is that of “in Maßen” (in moderation) vs. in Massen (en masse). For all caps usage, an uppercase ß had been postulated since 1879 and was officially introduced in 2008 into Unicode 5.1 as U+1E9E (HTML: ẞ), although a definite form hasn’t been found yet.

So while not a matter of the utmost urgency it does have a relevance to actual design problems.

That this move also has significant economic implications is glossed over in an attempt to be humorous. Firstly there is the necessity to rework alphabets to incorporate the new letter, a process that while far from difficult will take time. Secondly there is the ‘integration on German computer keyboards’ that will be a corollary of any such incorporation. Again, that too will take time. Even today well over half a decade since the introduction of the euro the integration of that character on keyboards and, more importantly, software is remarkably inconsistent. So whatever decision is taken ultimately about the implementation of this it seems likely that it will remain a source of contention to some degree for some years to come. But this is hardly unexpected. Language and alphabets have an organic vitality about them as they change through custom and usage. The illusion that they are static is just that, an illusion. And herein lies a paradox, because this attempt to provide a ‘solution’ for the “sharp s” ß is in itself both a bid to provide what Quentin Newark has described as ‘a rationalisation…fulled by the modernist drive for universality’ and a means of – in the short to medium term – producing a chaotic disruption to the already prevailing rationalisations. It is not quite a typographic example of the concept ‘that in order to save the village we had to destroy it’, indeed a better case could be made for the idea that ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’. But it does demonstrate the effective truth that Ferdinand Saussare pointed to (and that Newark restates) when he argued that shape of letters and the sounds they represent are locked in an entirely arbitrary relationship. And without question this relationship expands to encompass the use and application of those letter forms.

And with those thoughts in mind, isn’t it reasonable to point at the underlying narrative in the Irish Times article? In this instance, as with other examples, this narrative proposes that design is essentially a frivolous endeavour only of interest when it has a clear cut economic or humorous element. Surely this diminishes consideration of these matters and does design and design issues a significant disservice.


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