Go to the homepage of our German Course German Alphabet: Umlauts and 'ß' University of Portsmouth
German umlauts

As well as the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, the German language is also characterised by the umlaut, a diacritic in the form of two dots which can be placed over the letters 'a', 'o' and 'u' to form 'ä', 'ö' and 'ü'. The literal meaning of umlaut is 'altered sound' and it is therefore fitting that the sounds represented by the three umlauted German vowels are very different from non-umlauted 'a', 'o' and 'u'. Their pronunciation must be learned separately, not least because umlaut sounds appear in a number of very common German words and as a marker of the plural.

The table below gives links to the pages for these umlauted vowel sounds in my online German pronunciation guide, and also for the diphthong 'ä'. The key combination required by Microsoft Windows users in order to produce these characters is also given. Simply hold down the Alt and type in the appropriate number using the numeric keypad.

 Letter     Alt Code     Pronunciation
    Alt + 132
 Alt + 142
    How to pronounce 'ä'
          How to pronounce 'äu'
    Alt + 148
 Alt + 153
    How to pronounce 'ö'
    Alt + 129
 Alt + 154
    How to pronounce 'ü'

Eszett or scharfes 's'

Click here to listen to the soundsGerman has an additional character 'ß', which is either called eszett (pronounced "ess-tsett") or 'scharfes s'. When used in words, it sounds exactly like "ss". When you are writing in capital letters, 'ß' is always replaced by "SS" - 'ß' is the only German letter that only exists in the lower case.

Whereas 'ß' is of course present on computer keyboards in Germany and Austria, English-speakers will need to press a combination of keys to produce the character. If you are using Microsoft Windows, either hold down Alt and type 225 on your numeric keypad, or hold down Alt and type 0223.

The recent spelling reforms in the German-speaking countries have both simplified and reduced the usage of 'ß'. One result of the orthographic reforms has been that the letters 'ss' are now used after short vowels in words where the /s/ phoneme was previously represented by the 'ß' character. This has resulted in many commonly used words in German having their spellings changed:

 Old Spelling     New Spelling     English
 daß     dass     that
 der Fluß     der Fluss     river
 das Schloß     das Schloss     castle
 der Schluß     der Schluss     conclusion
 ein bißchen     ein bisschen     a little
 ich muß     ich muss     I must
 er wußte     er wusste     he knew
 die Nuß     die Nuss     nut

This does not mean however that 'ß' has disappeared from the German language. After 2005, the character is written to represent the /s/ phoneme:

  • when the sound follows a long vowel, for instance in such words as 'groß', 'Fuß' or 'Straße'
  • when the sound follows a diphthong (a gliding vowel sound normally represented by two adjacent vowels), for instance in such words as 'weiß', 'Strauß' or 'Preußen'

 Old Spelling     New Spelling     English
 groß     groß     big
 die Straße     die Straße     street
 der Fuß     der Fuß     foot
 weiß     weiß     white
 genießen     genießen     to enjoy
 grüßen     grüßen     to greet

Switzerland and Liechtenstein
The 'ß' character was gradually abolished in Switzerland and Liechtenstein from the 1930s onwards, and has now been completely replaced by 'ss'. It has been suggested that the increasing usage of typewriters has been a cause of the disappearance of 'ß'. As Swiss typewriters could be used by the country's German, French, Italian and Rumantsch speakers, keyboard space was limited if keys for all of the accented characters used in these languages were to be included and there was no room for a 'ß' key. After the Neue Zürcher Zeitung became the last Swiss German newspaper to stop using 'ß' in 1974, the character now only appears in a few publications that are aimed at the German-speaking market as a whole rather than at the domestic Swiss market.

Web links  ß / Eszett links  Web links

The Eszett Mark Jamra explains the development of the eszett character and dispels some myths about its origins.
The ß and the spelling reforms Find out more about how the usage of 'ß' has been affected by the recent German spelling reforms.
Warum die Schweizer weiterhin kein Eszett schreiben Peter Gallmann provides a linguistic explanation of why the Swiss do not use the Eszett character. In German only.

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