Can you decipher this secret code?
“Kdzqmhmf Fdqlzm hr etm!”
(Hint: We substituted each letter for the previous letter in the alphabet.)
Did you crack the code?
If you decode it correctly, you can read the secret message: “Learning German is fun!”
Here’s an easier code to crack: ß.
That single character stands for “ss” in German.
Yes, we know, it looks like a fancy B. But don’t let that fool you. This special German character is called the eszett, and it sounds just like an English letter s.
This special character can often confuse German beginners, but don’t worry. We’ll let you in on the secret code. Keep reading to find out more about the eszett and how you can incorporate it into your daily German speaking and writing.
ß Is for… What?! Cracking the Code to the German Double S
Why Does ß Mean “Double S” in German?
In German, the letter ß is known as the eszett or scharfes (sharp) S. It’s a special character, similar to the German umlaut you’re probably used to seeing by now. But unlike those two dots above a, o or u, the eszett is written as a capital B-shaped character with a tail: ß.
Technically, the eszett is shorthand for “ss” just as the umlaut is shorthand for “ae,” “oe” or “ue.” However, it’s not always grammatically correct to replace the double s with an eszett. We’ll get further into the details of when you can and can’t use the eszett to replace a double s structure later, but for now, just know that the eszett sounds just like how you’d pronounce a single or double s in English, as in the words “sail,” “silly” or “lesson.”
History and Current Usage of the German Eszett (ß)
The eszett character was actually taken from the Gothic alphabet. Used in Germany, Luxembourg and Austria, the eszett has gone through many reforms throughout the years. In some countries it’s no longer used, while in others the use of the eszett is somewhat controversial. It’s a bit like the Oxford comma in that way.
When we say controversial, we mean that the eszett has even caused issues for the German government.
How, you ask?
Well, German passports are required by law to use all capital letters. Unfortunately, not everyone agreed on—or knew—how to write the capital eszett. That’s why passports will use the convention of a double s instead of bothering with the eszett. In fact, subbing out the eszett for a double s is acceptable in informal German writing as well.
So in reality, it’s not the end of the world if you use a double s instead of an eszett. But it sure is cool when you can tell your friends about this German special character. It’s just one more reason to continue your lifelong language-learning journey toward fluency!
So, let’s learn when and how to use that fancy ß!
When and How to Use the Eszett (ß)
On to the tricky part. We know that eszetts replace the double s structure, but in what instances? And hey—what about the single s?
Differentiating Between “s” Sounds in German
If you hear a spoken word in German, how do you know if it should use a single s, double s or eszett?
On its own, a German s can make two sounds: hard and soft. A hard s is like the noise a snake makes (sss!) or like the s in “same.” A soft s sounds more like the letter z, like in the English word “as.”
A single s in German can be hard or soft. For example:
sanft (soft) is pronounced “z-an-f-t” (Soft)
die Reise (the trip) is pronounced “r-aye-z-uh” (Soft)
das Haus (the house) is pronounced “h-au-s” (Hard)
A double s, on the other hand, will always make a hard s sound. For example:
die Tasse (the cup) is pronounced “t-ah-s-uh”
die Klasse (the class) is pronounced “k-l-ah-s-uh”
hassen (to hate) is pronounced “ha-s-en”
das Messer (the knife) is pronounced “m-es-er”
die Esse (the chimney) is pronounced “e-s-uh”
The eszett also always makes a hard s sound, whether it comes in the middle of the word or at the end:
groß (large) is pronounced “g-r-o-s”
der Ausmaß (extent) is pronounced “ow-s-mar-s”
heiß (hot) is pronounced “h-ei-s”
der Abreißpunkt (the cut-off point) is pronounced “ab-rye-s-poo-nkt”
mäßig (moderate) is pronounced “may-s-ig”
With us so far? Good! Let’s move on…
How to Differentiate Between “ss” and Eszett (ß)
If eszetts make the same sound as the double s structure, how do you know when to use one or the other?
First, it’s important to know that the eszett never appears at the beginning of a word. You’ll only find it near the middle or at the end.
Another hard-and-fast rule about the eszett: it never comes after a short vowel sound. For example, the word anschließen (to connect) is grammatically correct when written with an eszett, because the “ie” pairing in anschließen sounds like “ee.” However, the noun der Anschluss (connection) isn’t written with an eszett. This is because the letter u in der Anschluss sounds like “uh”—a short vowel sound.
You’ll frequently see the eszett after diphthongs. A diphthong is a pair of vowels that creates a completely new sound. The pairing “ei” is an example. Alone, the e would sound like “eh,” and the i would be pronounced “ih.” Together, however, “ei” is pronounced “aye,” as in “Aye, aye, captain!” The word beißen (to bite) is a good example of a diphthong followed by the eszett.
A lot of being able to differentiate between “ss” and ß will come from practice and exposure. The more you see German words written out, the more you’ll begin to memorize which words use which characters.
FluentU is a great resource for doing this kind of immersive work. FluentU takes real-world videos—like movie trailers, music videos, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into language-learning experiences. Each video features native German speakers, so you’ll learn German as it’s spoken in the real world.
Plus, each FluentU video comes with interactive subtitles, so you can read along as you listen and watch. Come across a word you don’t know? Simply click on it to easily find a definition and example sentences, or to add it to a vocabulary list. Because you’ll be reading and listening at the same time, you’ll quickly start to differentiate between common words that contain “ss” and those that contain ß. For more targeted practice, you can use the FluentU flashcard feature or take the comprehension quizzes that come with each video.
Why not check out FluentU’s free trial?
How to Type the Eszett (ß)
Beyond speaking the eszett aloud and seeing it in text, you’ll probably want to learn to type it as well.
The absolute easiest way in almost any program is to look for the “Insert Symbol” function and search for the ß manually. However, there are ways you can type the eszett if you don’t have the “Insert Symbol” function available.
If you own a PC, simply hold down the alt key and type 0223. For Macs, on the other hand, hold down Option-S.
If neither of these options work, remember that you can simply type the letters “ss” instead of worrying about the special character. This should really only be used in isolated cases where you have no other option, but your meaning will be understood either way.
Sso, are you sstaring to ssee how the German double ss workss?
Wait, wait—there’s no need to go overboard!
We hope we’ve helped to crack the code of the German double s.
Rebecca Henderson holds a degree in German and Creative Writing. She’s the editor behind The Kreativ Space and hopes to shift your world perspective through her words, because looking out the same window every day hardly makes for an interesting life.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn German with real-world videos.