Jump to content
Typography.Guru
Sign in to follow this  
Ralf Herrmann

Capital Sharp S notes: the ligature or letter dichotomy

Recommended Posts

Ralf Herrmann

I already debunked this in the past with a full article, but since it just came up again in a Medium article about the Capital Sharp S, I feel the need to say it even more clearly. 

There exists a common misconception in our field, that the terms “letter” and “ligature” would form a dichotomy. The linked article is an example of this problem. It claims there would be two different “schools of thought” regarding what the Capital Sharp S “is”—either a ligature or a “separate character”. 

DEr5Z1SXcAEwpID.jpg-large.jpeg

But this is just wrong. There are no “school of thought” regarding this matter. It’s not necessarily one or the other. That’s a false dichotomy—usually based on an improper understanding of the terms. And in the specific case of the ß it just ignores the facts. 

The ß is a letter of its own because of its use in the German orthography. That’s what makes it a “letter of the alphabet” (unlike typographic ligatures like fi for example). Luckily, Germany even has a state-controlled orthography today. So we can’t get any more official regarding our letters and I can demonstrate the truth of my claim by just quoting the official German orthography:

lautbuchstaben.png

Quote

“German uses an alphabetic writing system and every letter exists as lowercase and uppercase letter.  
a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z ä ö ü ß
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Ä Ö Ü ẞ”

There you have it! ß (now including its uppercase version) is defined by the German orthography as a letter of the alphabet and of course it is used as such. It'Fs just a fact. And whoever insists it can’t “be” a letter, because it’s supposedly a ligature is just wrong. There is no room for other opinions. These are the facts. 

 

The term ligature just describes a different aspect of symbols. Ligature literally just means there is some kind of connection: a visual connection, a technical connection (e.g. two letters on one metal body), a semantic connection, a historical connection—or combinations of these options. The classic example is the letter “w”. It carries its origin still in its name: double-u. But it would be absurd to deny the w its status as a letter just because someone knows its origin. It has a distinct orthographic role (which is independent from and not interchangeable with the separated historical parts uu/vv) and that makes it a letter. Exactly the same has been true for the ß for more than 100 years. No so-called “school of thought” can deny these facts. 

 

And by the way:  Seeing the ß only as ſs ligature doesn’t just make little sense today. It’s also not a good description of the character’s history. It’s rather a bold assertion based on sloppy research. Just because someone has seen a ſs ligature in Italian renaissance writing manuals doesn’t mean you can just call that the definitive origin of the German(!) letter ß, which looks similar. But that’s a topic for another post. 

  • Like 2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

Sign in to follow this  

×

Important Information

As most websites, we have placed cookies on your device to help make this website better. You can adjust your cookie settings, otherwise we'll assume you're okay to continue.