A Diſcourſe upon the “Long s”



Yesterday I posted the endearingly vague book title shown above (which is actually from a book by Robert Boyle). When it appeared on Facebook I got some predictably rude comments about “fuch kind of thoughts”, etc, so I thought I’d post a little comment about the symbol “ſ'” which appears in the above. This character is sometimes called the “long s”. There’s a full Wikipedia article on this which there’s no point in repeating here, but I will just mention that the long s was used widely in manuscripts after the distinction arose better upper case and lower-case letters (which was around about the end of the 8th Century) where in the lower-case form, the “short s” (i.e. s) was used exclusively at the end of words or before an elision, and the long s everywhere else. It survived into the era of printing, not just in English but also in other languages including German. In fact “ſ” forms the left-hand element of the ligature “Eszett”, written  “ß”, of which the other part is “z”.

The long s fell increasingly out of favour in typography, partly because of the potential confusion with “f”, and partly because using the same “s” throughout a word is clearly tidier and easier to read: “sinfulness” is a lot easier on the eye than “”ſinfulneſs”. By the start of the 19th Century the long s had become a rarity; The Times phased out “ſ” in 1803.

Oh, and the long s is also the original form of the integral sign, introduced to mathematics by Leibniz to stand for “summa” (sum), which he wrote “ſumma”.


5 Responses to “A Diſcourſe upon the “Long s””

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Where the bee sucks, there suck I…

  2. Adrian Burd Says:

    I’m wondering about the typeface. I was thinking a version of a Garamond, but the majuscule R is not right, and neither is the minuscule o, it’s too compressed, and the dot over the i is far too large. The choice of typefaces for various printed scientific works throughout the ages is an interesting topic to idle away the time with.
    I do think that the quality of printing for the page shown is not great — inconsistent letter spacing, baselines shifting etc. — but not too bad for the age.

  3. I had no idea the German B (I can’t find the symbol on my iPod) was a fusion like that. This is the biggest surprise since I learned & was ‘Et’ written compactly.

    • Note that ä ö ü etc evolved from a small “e” written above the corresponding letter. Also “ye” for “the” (as in the anachronistic “ye old pizza parlor) is from the similarity of the characters “y” and “thorn” (which is the unvoiced “th”, though the “th” in “the” is usually voiced) in blackletter.

      A similar, and probably the most stupid, example is that the what in almost other languages is the key of B is called H in German (and to some extent in Scandinavia), because B and H look very similar in some typefaces. (The key of B in German is B flat everywhere else, which has a perverted logic to it since the flat symbol is similar to a lowercase “b”.) It did allow Bach to use his name as a theme, though. (According to a legend, Bach died while dictating (he was blind when he died) such a theme in The Art of Fugue. His son Carl Philipp Emanuel wrote a note to this effect on the manuscript, but the notation itself seems to be that of the elder Bach, who was thus probably not blind when writing it.)

      The German “sz” ligature looks similar to a lowercase Greek “beta” in many typefaces.

      As far as I know, the ß was never pronounced as such, but was often used at the end of a word ending in “s” or “ss” (and there was the long “s” as well). These days, it is used only if the preceding vowel is long, otherwise “ss” is used (thus “das”, “that” as an article or demonstrative, but “dass” as “that” as a conjunction, though in this case some don’t make a distinction in pronunciation). Switzerland (probably to enable German to be written on a French typewriter) has done away with “ß” altogether, writing “Masse” both for “Masse” (mass) and “Maße” (measures or measurements).

  4. Reblogged this on Io non ci volevo venire! and commented:
    Trilussa dixit:
    Ho trovato un libbretto tutto rotto,
    antico assai, che drento cianno messe
    l’effe a li posti indove ce va l’esse,
    ch’io bello che so legge m’inciappotto.

    Però er padrone mio, ch’è un omo dotto,
    me lo spiegò jersera e me lo lesse:
    Se c’è badeffe s’ha da di’: badesse;
    fotto, presempio, cambi e dichi: sotto.

    C’è er racconto d’un povero infelice,
    condannato ar patibolo innocente,
    che s’arivorta ar popolo e je dice:

    – Compagni! Abbaffo il Re! Viva la forca! –
    Be’, devi legge tutto diferente:
    – Compagni! Abbasso il Re! Viva la sorca! –

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