The “Eszett” (sz) is one of the letters of the Latin alphabet that officially has no capital form and is never used to begin a word. It is used in Germany, Austria, and Luxembourg; however, not in Switzerland nor in Lichentstein, where German is also an official language.

The letter “ß”, also known as the Eszett or a sharp S, is a letter from the Gothic alphabet incorporated into the German alphabet, which is Latin based. The pronunciation based on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is ['εstsεt] and [ʃarfəs εs], and aesthetically, it is similar to the letter beta (B, β) from the Greek alphabet; however, the two letters are not identical as their pronunciation is very different. The Eszett represents the phoneme [s], like in “Fußball”, for example.

The Eszett was first found at the end of the 18th century in a Gothic book and also in a book from 1541 in Cologne (Germany). The different forms of this letter have various origins. It is a combination of [ſ] and a short [z]; more precisely [ȝ], which forms [ſȝ]. From the 15th century on, another combination of the long [ſ] with a round [s] emerged, which forms [ſs]. Today the letter Eszett is used on street signs in Berlin (Germany), written with [ſȝ]. However, an exact clarification of the origin of the letter “ß” does not exist today. The letter Eszett is only used in Germany, Austria and Luxembourg, and officially does not have a capital form. Nevertheless, there is a movement that created the “Versal-Eszett”and would like to see it integrated into the German keyboard.

After various spelling reforms, the Eszett disappeared in 1996 from its position after a tonic vowel and was subsituted by “ss”, like in the word “Schluß” (end), which changed to “Schluss”, for example. However, the new rules also received criticism and words with the same three consonants emerged, like Esssaal (previously Eßsaal) and Basssolo (previously Baßsolo). To make things easier, these words are also written with a hyphen, like Ess-Saal and Bass-Solo. The Eszett, however, continues to be used after long vowel and with diphthongs, like in the words “schließen”, “heiß”, “draußen” and “Straße”.

Take a look at the following image from the Creative Mornings event in Berlin about the different uses of the letter “ß” made by the German designer Nadine Roßa entitled “20 Minutes of Fun with ß” (in English).