German language For Members

Why is the German letter 'ß' not used in Switzerland?

The Local Switzerland
The Local Switzerland - [email protected]
Why is the German letter 'ß' not used in Switzerland?
Two streets signs in Berlin, Germany. The letter ß is not used in Switzerland. Photo: Bill Kasman from Pixabay

The letter 'ß' (eszett) is an integral part of the German language. But did you know that it's not generally used by Swiss Germans?


What is the 'ß' anyway?

Although the eszett may look like the letter ‘B’, it is actually shorthand for the double ‘ss’ in German. 

Although it's used in many German words, such as der Straße  (street) it still can be confusing to non-native speakers. 

What do I need to know about the 'ß'?

It's a huge part of the German language.

The German ‘s’ has two sounds: hard, like in the English word ‘same’, and soft, like the ‘z’ sound in ‘as’.

In German, die Reise’ exemplifies a soft ‘s’ (r-aye-z-uh), while ‘das Haus’ uses a hard ‘s’ (h-au-s).

A double ‘ss’ will always make a hard ‘s’ sound, regardless of whether you use ‘ss’ or ‘ß’.

READ ALSO: Five places to learn Swiss German for free in Zurich

What's the history of the letter?

The origin of 'ß' is not clear, but research suggests it dates as far back as the 13th century.

However, up until the 19th century either an 'ss' or the letter sequence 'ſs' was usually used instead of the ß. Many linguists, such as the Brothers Grimm, favoured the spelling 'sz'.

In the Orthographic Conference of 1876 to organise greater agreement in the German spelling system, it was recommended that the letter sequence 'ſs' be used in Antiqua typesetting (legible typesetting created for letterpress printing).

It wasn't until the Orthographic Conference of 1901 that the 'ß' became the official standard.


... But you won't find it in Switzerland

Switzerland, unlike other German-speaking countries, doesn’t use the eszett. 

Although the 'ß' was briefly introduced in Switzerland after the font changeover from Fraktur to Antiqua, it was abandoned again shortly afterwards.

A sign for Bahnofstrasse in Zurich.

A sign for Bahnofstrasse in Zurich. Switzerland. uses 'ss' instead of 'ß'. Photo: Roland zh/Wikimedia Commons

From January 1938, it was no longer taught in many schools, including all cantonal primary schools in the canton of Zurich. The 'ß' was only dropped from all official correspondence following the 2006 reform. The Swiss newspaper NZZ last used the 'ß' in 1974.

Meanwhile some historians say Switzerland's multilingualism plays a part in the decision not to embrace the eszett.


The letter only exists in German, not in French and Italian - two other official languages of Switzerland. In the course of the introduction of the typewriter, the letter could simply have been left out. 

The Swiss always write the double s, making words like Masse/Maße and Busse/Buße, indistinguishable by spelling alone.

That can of course lead to comprehension problems with the written word. After all, it makes a difference whether you drink beer and wine in moderation (Maßen) or in large quantities (Massen).

In contrast to Switzerland, the eszett continues to be in use in other German-speaking nations, such as Austria and some parts of Belgium.

READ ALSO: 15 ways to swear like a Swiss German

When will you see the ‘ß’? 

The eszett never appears at the beginning of a word, only near the middle or end and it should never come after a short vowel sound. 

For instance, ‘Spaß’ (sh-pahs) uses ‘ß’ due to the long vowel, while ‘Fass’ has a short vowel sound (short a), so takes the double ‘ss’. 

The eszett also appears after diphthongs - a pair of vowels that creates a completely new sound, for instance ‘ei’.

Together, ‘ei’ creates an ‘aye’ sound, hence the eszett in the verb ‘beißen’.

With reporting by Tom Ashton-Davies 


Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also