What's the deal with F and S in old manuscripts?

On old printed manuscripts the characters for F and for S are very similar, almost interchangeable on some. I remember that there is an explanation for this but I can’t remember what it is. Cecil did a column on this at some point IIRC but it’s difficult to look for since F and S are too short to use as search terms.

Anyone know off hand?

The term you’re looking for is long or medial s.

ETA: And here’s the column.

Thanks pulykamell!

I mentally read text using the medial s with something approximating Sylvester’s speech impediment.

Fthufferin’ fthuccotafth!

Cecil says in the article “[T]he long/medial s was supposed to be used in the middle of a word, while the terminal s was used to finish one off. … The two versions were phonetically equivalent and derived from the same Roman letterform. Why folks figured they needed two varieties when they could have scraped by with one is beyond me …”
Wouldn’t this have derived from the Greek sigma, which also has two forms. The terminal sigma looks kind of like our terminal s, and the medial/initial sigma has a “nubbin” like the long/medial s.

“The purfuit of happineff?”

No, it would be “purſuit of happineſs”. “s” is used at the end of words.

The letters are different. When I took German, 1954-57, all our reading materials were in fraktur (the old type often mistakenly called Gothic) and I had to learn to read it. The medial s is not crossed like the f; otherwise the letter shapes were identical.

Was it used in Latin? If so, then maybe they got it from Greek. If not, then it was probably their own invention.

It is not uncommon for letters in other alphabets to have a distinct final form. Hebrew has several letters that do. I have read that in Arabic, letters can have up to four different forms: initial, medial, final, and stand-alone. Even we, when handwriting use different forms of letters depending on the context. The r in or is distinctly different from the one in ar.

Funfact: ſs = German ß (even though I learned it was called “ſz”).*

And while we’re on letter diverſity:


Wouldn’t it be cool if we had the same rules for those? “Waitreſs! Someone is throwing the eggs onto the lava!”

*I love unicode

Why is this? Was the final form pronounced differently? Was it just to help distinguish the end of the word? Just curious.

The ancient Romans didn’t have minuscule letters.

Remember that handwriting came first and the more people wrote, the more they tended to find variant forms that were easy to write as well as easy to read. They weren’t so interested in lock-step standardization.

A manuscript is not printed.

Quite possibly the latter. Many ancient languages didn’t put spaces or punctuation between words. (Some modern ones still don’t.) Having separate word-initial and word-final letterforms would overcome any resulting ambiguity.

I have an old copy of Shakespeare’s plays and yep, he is “Shakfpeare” in that edition (the first “e” we expect was not used in this version’s spelling…)

The fact that the long f, barely crossed, often looks more like an l, caused me to misread an old gravestone once as ‘here lies Mary Jones. Her husband and four children are suffering great lols.’

Seemed a bit too honest.

Tsk tsk. You need a better grounding in the classics.

True, although IIRC by late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, scribes and others writing in Latin did devise and use minuscules.

Wasn’t “s” also used for the second of two ‘s’ type letters together, medially? So for example a court document might mention “witneſses”. Or am I confusing this with German Fraktur usage?

Am I a bad person for having expected a Rocky quote?

There is some inconsistency, but the general rule is that medially you’d use a double long s.