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Lesson Transcript

"German Teachers Answer Your Questions - Lesson #9 - Is Sharp S the Same as Double S in German?


Michael: Is “sharp s” the same as “double s” in german?
Igor: And how do I know which one to use?
Michael: At GermanPod101.com, we hear these questions often. In the following situation, Barbara Bauer, a kindergarten student, is walking with her dad, Benjamin Bauer. She sees a familiar word and asks,
"Can I write "Strasse" with two s’s?"
Barbara Bauer: Kann ich "Strasse" mit doppel s schreiben?
Barbara Bauer: Kann ich "Strasse" mit doppel s schreiben?
Benjamin Bauer: Nein.
Michael: Once more with the English translation.
Barbara Bauer: Kann ich "Strasse" mit doppel s schreiben?
Michael: "Can I write "Strasse" with two s’s?"
Benjamin Bauer: Nein.
Michael: “No.”

Lesson focus

Michael: The German language contains probably one of the most interesting letters in all alphabets, the sharp-S or in German
Igor: Scharfes S
Michael: Many people mistakenly take the sharp-S as a form of substituting a double-S. Meanwhile, the German sharp-S has a different origin. It’s not completely clear where it comes from, but we can surely say that it’s a combination of two S-sounds that were used throughout the history of the German language.
The sharp-S is read as
Igor: ß [Esszett]
Michael: If read as a single letter, or
Igor: ß [SS]
Michael: If read as a part of a word. That might be the cause of the overall confusion, and also the fact that, due to lack of a capital sharp-S before, all words such as
Igor: S-T-R-A-S-S-E
Michael: Are written with a double-S when spelled in capital letters. But only in this context of writing words all in capital letters is the sharp-S exceptionally allowed to be replaced by two “S’s.” These days the Council of German Orthography uses a capital version of the sharp-S that was introduced into the ruleset of German orthography allowing people to write words following the proper grammar rules.
You might ask yourself now “When should I use the sharp-S then?”
[Recall 1]
Michael: Let’s take a closer look at the dialogue.
Do you remember how Barbara Bauer says "Can I write "Strasse" with two s’s?"
(pause 4 seconds)
Igor as Barbara Bauer: Kann ich "Strasse" mit doppel s schreiben?
Michael: As we answered before no, she can’t. There are some grammatical rules that require the sharp-S to occur. So we will always use it if a long S-sound follows a long vowel or a diphthong. To visualize it better, listen again to the German word for “street,” and pay extra attention to the first vowel.
Igor: Straße
Michael: Got it? Now listen again to another word that has a similar spelling, yet is spelled with a double-S instead of a sharp-S. It’s the German noun for “rhinestones,”
Igor: Strass
Michael: Did you hear the difference? The second word has a short “a” sound. That’s why it’s written with a double-S.
Now listen to the example where a sharp-S follows a diphthong,
Igor: Schweiß
Michael: Meaning “sweat.” Here the letter “e” and the letter “i” create a unique sound,
Igor: Ei,
Michael: Which will mark that the following S-sound is written as a sharp-S. German has three diphthongs
Igor: ei, eu, au
Michael: So remember, if there is a long S sound following either a long vowel or a diphthong, you can be sure it’s going to be written as an
Igor: Eszett.
Michael: So far you’ve learned that under normal circumstances the sharp-S can’t be substituted by a doubled-S, and also that a sharp-S will always follow a long vowel or a diphthong.
Now listen to our examples and try to guess if the word is spelled with a sharp- or a double-S. Our first example is
Igor: Wasser
Michael: Meaning “water.” The “a” vowel is relatively short, so in this case, we will write a double-S,The next example is
Igor: Fraß
[4 Seconds Pause]
Michael: Meaning “animal food.” Could you hear how long the vowel sound “a” was?
Our next example is
Igor: heiß
[4 Seconds Pause]
Michael: Is an adjective and means “hot.” As you could hear, we had a diphthong again consisting of an “e” and an “i.”
The next example is
Igor: Messer
[4 Seconds Pause]
Michael: The “e” vowel is very short here, so it’s spelled with a double-S.
The next example is
Igor: Ruß
Michael: Meaning “soot.” Here we had a long vowel again.
And our last example is
Igor: Süßigkeiten
Michael: Meaning “sweets.” Here we have an umlaut before the sharp-S which is considered a vowel in German.
Expansion/Contrast (Optional)
Michael: The rules you learned today are actually relatively new, and were established as a part of the German spelling reform or
Igor: Rechtschreibreform
Michael: from 1996. Before that, the sharp-S was used more frequently in the German language, and even words like
Igor: Biss, Kuss, Schluss
Michael: Were spelled with an
Igor: ß [Eszett]
Michael: The reform reduced the usage of this letter to the minimum, which caused a big wave of criticism against the Council of German Orthography, especially intellectuals including well-known figures like
Igor: Günter Grass
Michael: were fighting against the “simplifying” of the German language, and they pushed the Council of German Orthography to revise some of their changes and reforms throughout the years. There were some major changes to it, like the one in 2006, and some minor ones in the following years. That’s why many Germans also don’t know when to use a sharp-S correctly. Particularly if you know someone who finished their education before 1996, you might see a lot of
Igor: Eszetts
Michael: Used incorrectly. But remember, the rules that we introduced to you today are the most recent and correct ones, and you should follow them.


Michael: Do you have any more questions? We’re here to answer them!
Igor: Tschüsschen!
Michael: See you soon!"

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