Matthew, my American friend who is living in Germany now, has drawn my attention to another linguistic tidbit (this time, in the German language), which I wasn’t aware of: the German Spelling Council has added a capital ß (Eszett) to the language. The letter is a ligature (a combination of two letters) of s and z having their respective alphabetic reading <es> and <tset>. Hence, the official name of this letter. The Eszett is pronounced in words as <s>, which coincides with the pronunciation of the combination ss (double s), but ß is used after long vowels and diphthongs, while ss is used after short vowels.

Since no German word begins with ß, there was no need to have the capital ß. However, proper names in German passports are uppercased, and a surname like Großmann (verbally „great man“) was to be typed in block capitals, so the Eszett changed to double s, and Großmann was humiliatingly misspelled to GROSSMAN. The last June’s addition to the German orthography reform corrected this inconsistency: now the passport name is spelled GROßMAN.

The reform I mentioned (“Die Reform der deutschen Rechtschreibung von 1996”) has considerably reduced the usage of the Eszett. It was done along the lines of simplifying German orthography in order to make it easier to learn. However, a large part of Germans protested against the innovation, and the Spelling Council agreed that for schools and government administrations the new orthography was obligatory, while outside these bodies any spelling was acceptable. Still, in terms of culture, the Reform has done more harm than good. The Eszett is one of the few elements that remains in the German language of Gothic script, aka Gothic lettering, or Blackletter. Gothic script was popular all over Europe in the Middle Ages. In the Renaissance period it started being replaced by Latin script (Antiqua), but it kept being used in Germany well into the 20th century, which is why it received the name “German script.”Johannes Gutenberg’s books were printed in Gothic script, just the same as Martin Luther’s translated Bible, or Karl Marx’ Manifesto of the Communist Party, or Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. All German newspapers before 1941 were published in Blackletter. Gothic script was neither “left” nor “right”, there was no ideology in it.

January 3, 1941 rang a knell for Gothic lettering. Hitler’s secret edict ordered that this script should be gradually removed from usage. The reason was that it had been allegedly invented by the Jews, which was completely wrong: the roots of Gothic script were in runic characters, and in Gutenberg’s times (when the lettering was being established) the Jews were banned from printers’ guilds all across Europe, so no Jewish “involvement” could be traced. But the Nazis’ anti-Semitic bee-in-the bonnet´ plus their illiteracy had played a decisive role.

It’s a pity that Gothic script has actually ceased to be functioning. In the early 1960s, as a high school student, I was still taught how to read Blackletter. As for the usage of the Eszett, I still adhere to the old norms too (for one, I prefer writing daß and muß instead of the normative dass and muss). And that’s not because I don’t know the Rechtschreibung, but because I just LOVE Gothic script. First of all, it looks beautiful (SCHÖN!), and it’s for a good reason that modern calligraphers use it for practice. And it is also part of culture, in particular – of German culture, in the same way as the Georgian, Armenian, Hebrew or Cyrillic alphabets are parts of culture of the countries which use them. If the Germans want to contribute to the European- and world legacy they are obliged to defend their heritage against this cultural globalization.


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