Long S

In re: http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a1_110.html, one might point out a few further facts.

Modern Greek has a distinct final form for lower-case sigma, the initial/medial form looking like an “o” with a little horizontal tag extending off the top right, and the final form looking like a top-heavy “s”.

Hebrew has distinct initial/medial and final forms for several letters.

Arabic has distinct initial, medial, final, and isolated forms for every letter.

When I was taught copperplate hand in the 50’s, it included a distinct final “t”, although my teachers didn’t insist on it.

Unicode, the 16-bit code that is slowly replacing ASCII, includes long “s”.

If you look at the long S carefully, you’ll see that, at least in most type fonts, the cross stroke extends only to the right of the vertical stroke, rather than on both sides as in the lower case F. In a few fonts, there is no cross stroke at all. In still others, the bottom of the letter extends below the line and has a curved tail extending to the left, so the letter has the same form basic as a captial S.

If you think the medial S is weird, what about the double lower case F used in place of a capital F at the beginning of some pretentious English names. “ffrench” instead of “French.”

Also note the peculiar holdover in some German signs and nouns of the double “S” that looks like a Greek beta, which I believe is derived from the long S and the short S being combined (fs).

Can someone explain Slug’s illustration? Why is the Bible salesman holding a crescent moon, and why is the crescent moon saying, “Oh shit!”?

The German letter ß is actually an “sz”, although it is now treated as though it were “ss”. Think of how you make a cursive “z”.

Initial “ff” is used because “FF” and “Ff” both look even worse.

Could it be that middle forms were used for double occurences of the same character? I know that when writing manuscripts scribes were always saving space and work, hence all kinds of shortcuts were used.

Ancient (Attic) Greek uses the two forms of sigma as well.

**cecil wrote: but we might note that having terminal and middle letterforms is not inherently any dumber than having every sentence start with a capital letter, a comparatively recent invention **

i for one think having sentences start with a capital letter aids in reading, especially from (f’rinstance) a podium where the distance between eye and text can make it a bit difficult to see punctuation. AND AS ANYONE WHO GETS A LOT OF EMAIL KNOWS ALL CAPS ARE RELLY ANNOYING. some folks feel the same way about all lowercase, but i digress.
the rhetorical tradition , a nifty textbook, outlines how early languages (greek included, i believe) didn’t use spaces and were therefore reallyhardtoreadandworsecouldmakewordsendupwrong. some other ancient languages started a new line’s first letter under the last letter of the previous, which made a mess that looked like


so for a lot of reasons, i like capitals. and spaces, too.


Linkie no workie. :frowning: Me fix. :slight_smile:


There was a comma after the html.

I don’t get the illustration either.

One thing nobody seems to have mentioned - perhaps it is obvious to everyone, but is wasn’t to me! - is that the characters are different not so much because of where they occur in a word, but because of the way they are pronounced.

The “s” letter has a “z” sound, while the “f” letter has an “ess” sound.

So, if you are reading an ancient tombstone and see the words “She possessed many amiable domestic qualities” (As you might if you ever visited Bristol Cathedral), it would be lettered “She posseffed many amiable domeftic qualities”.

I wonder if John Kennedy’s copperplate ending ‘t’ was intended to be a similar pronunciation hint?

…or maybe there was no particular rhyme or reason behind these variations, just style (of the individual or the language) and expediency (as Pez points out about medieval calligraphy): the pre-printing press equivalent of “fonts”.

Even today, in both print and handwritten forms, we have two common but distinct lowercase forms for the letters “a” , “g” and “z”.

I think Slug’s illus. is meant to convey the Cross of Confusion rather than a half moon. The link is to a thread we did two weeks ago.

The “crescent moon” is actually the medieval symbol for “Saturn.” It’s a cross with a scythe on the end. Slug’s drawing presents it in a different position.

What the ultimate meaning of his illus. is, I leave to higher powers.

K43 said:

I have never encountered this.

I think it’s called a “schloss”; at least that’s how we refer to it here.

Modern transcriptions of ancient Greek use two forms of lower-case sigma, but real ancient Greek used only what we today would call uppercase, just as real ancient Latin did.

The lowercase letters of both alphabets evolved in post-classical times, as the pen came to replace all other methods of writing, and as Christianity gave a push to high-speed copying. The use of both the ancient and the medieval letters in a two-case system dates from the Renaissance, or thereabouts. No matter how “natural” it seems to us, most alphabets get along just fine without it. (Note that virtually all the lower-case Cyrillic forms are merely minature versions of the upper-case. I smell yet another instance of Peter the Great’s Westernizing policy.)

In general, separate initial, medial, final, and/or isolated forms are the result of handwriting considerations. That is why Arabic, written always in cursive, has a fully developed four-form system.

For what it’s worth, ancient writing was more difficult to read; but then, “reading” – as we know it – hadn’t even been invented yet. Augustine of Hippo, one of the most brilliant men of his time, comments in awe on the extraordinary ability of Ambrose of Milan to read silently, so that you couldn’t hear what he was reading even if you stood really close to him.

The “pronunciation” theory doesn’t hold water. Consider “possible” and “rules”.

The ess-tset is a full member of the German alphabet and is used in a wide range of words. There are rules for when the ess-tset should be used and when “ss” should be used (unless you’re using a typeface in which the ess-tset is completely unavailable).

It’s called an “ess-tset,” which is German for “S-Z.”

Not anymore IIRC. The German speaking nations agreed on a spelling reform a couple of years ago and abolished it, which means that a streetname formerly spelt Schloßstraße is nowadays Schlossstrasse.

There has been a spelling reform, but it does not entirely replace ß. (It is also not due to be completely in effect until 2005, and there has been considerable resistance to doing it at all.)

And while we’re at it, I’m pretty sure that “ff” at the beginning of a name is Welsh, not English.

By no means was the ß abolished. The spelling reform set different rules for the use of ß and SS, depending on the preceding vowel. If the vowel is long, then one is the correct letter; if it is short, then the other. Far from abolishment, it actually made SS incorrect in certain uses.

Unfortunately I don’t know enough about the spelling reform to be absolutely confident about its implications; but if memory serves, then ß is appropriate before long vowels and SS is appropriate before short vowels. Therefore, I think the correct spelling for the word given above would be Schlossstraße.