What are some of the historical reasons why the orthographic symbol ß is not used in Swiss Standard German and “ss” is used instead?

  • 1
    spellling is arbitrary - typewriters even more so.... Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 18:16

2 Answers 2


It is because of the typewriter. A Swiss typewriter needs to support three languages: German, French, and Italian. Therefore on the Swiss typewriter, there was no ß key. It also has only lowercase umlauts ä, ö, and ü. A picture of a Swiss typewriter can be seen here.

The lack of that key has led to a subsequent deprecation of the ß overall.

  • 12
    Related: That's also why Swiss town names don't start with Umlauts and use Oe Ae Ue instead (e.g. Oerlikon).
    – Peter
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 8:46
  • 4
    I don't think this answer is correct. German typewriters did not have ß either until the 1930s. See this: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Typewriter_Adler_No._7_(1).jpg
    – fdb
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 12:35
  • 6
    It sounds kind of plausible, but do you have any evidence for this claim? Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 14:23
  • 17
    I hereby claim this: The typewriter has no ß because there's no ß in Swiss. Now, whose claim-without-evidence is more plausible and more true, and why? (don't get me wrong - I am just hopelessly trying to tickle some logic- or evident-based reasoning out of jknappen, which, as my guts tell me, won't happen) Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 14:40
  • 6
    @fdb this version (from 1911) includes ß (visible on the M key, and on the typewritten example text).
    – jcaron
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 15:11

The Swiss government has an explanation on p. 18. One contributing factor is typography, namely the rise of use of the Antiqua font, which was claimed to not include ß. I have no evaluation of the truthiness of that claim, for the relevant historical period, i.e. prior to 1901. It is certainly the case that its shape in Antique was not uniform.

The rules for using the letter have been complicated and much of the 1996 German spelling reform was about rules for s. As to why Switzerland was earlier and more radical in eliminating ß, this may be a cultural matter. Pairs like Flosse (fin), Floße (rafts), Buße (penance), Busse (buses) are rare and contextually not likely to lead to confusion. One predicts that Masse (mass), Maße (dimensions) might still be distinguished with ss/ß.

  • 3
    "more radical in eliminating ß" - this seems to imply the changes of the 1996 spelling reform had the intention of eliminating ß, which is not quite the case. Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 9:17
  • 16
    Though it does give confusion with "Alkohol in Massen", which without the ess-tset to disambiguate can mean either "alcohol in moderation" or "alcohol en masse" ;)
    – Muzer
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 10:45
  • 2
    @Muzer I think many people would prefer to parse it as "alcohol in 1 liter glass vessels like the ones used at Oktoberfest". You know, motivated reasoning and all that.
    – rumtscho
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 14:52
  • 6
    @Muzer you know the story of that health&safety campaign: “Alkohol – weniger ist besser!” Well, this wasn't considered strong enought, so they changed it: “Alkohol – nichts ist besser!” Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 22:17
  • I feel personally, that if a pair of homophones are not distinguished phonetically, then there isn't any need to distinguish them orthographically. The odds of one of the words of the pair occurring written down without context is low, and making the spelling unphonetic, or just plain confusing just to distinguish between them when written down feels awfully unnecessary and annoying (cough cough japanese and chinese). Commented Sep 11, 2021 at 11:26

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.