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Ralf Herrmann

Capital Sharp S notes: the ligature or letter dichotomy

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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”. 


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:



“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. 

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