#16 – A Super Silly ‘s’!

letter S

We have been looking at writing systems and why some of them are a little confusing with regards to English and part of it is due to everchanging influences, styles, and views.  To the annals of time we have lost <þ ð ȝ ᵹ ƿ æ œ>, though they are symbols that are still able to be found if one desires to find them.  I know every time I say this week’s letter is cool and should definitely still be a thing and therefore be reinstated, but this time, the letter in question is silly.  Very silly.  Like stupidly pointless and amazingly silly.  With a list of eccentric rules so unhelpfully hindering, it is as though this letter was asking to be removed.  After reading this grapheme’s rules, I should ask why the long face?  It’s because of Long ‘s’.

< ſ  ſ >

The lowercase and uppercase variants look very similar, only the descending limb hook is removed from the majuscule (uppercase) to create the minuscule (the lowercase).  The majuscule looks very reminiscent of the integral grapheme used in mathematics – apparently it is not the same and that letter esh of the International Phonetic Alphabet is also not the same, but the differences are slight enough that it looks only as though they are varying fonts.  The minuscule looks like an <f> without the stroke in the hooked ascender, and often gothic and cursive stylisms caused the greater similarity between graphemes <ſ f> as the left-half of the ascender’s stroke would be included for Long ‘ſ’.

The purpose of these are certainly not mathematical, nor are they truly grammatical; whilst some may claim this, it appears to be a stylism of no real bearing (an allograph).  The letter or grapheme <S s>, which we will call Round ‘s’, is in complementary distribution with < ſ ſ > as they have particular places where they may and may not appear and thus have their own environments.  They could also massively hinder one’s abilities, along with weird spelling and letters, when reading old manuscripts of older Englishes.  Greek has a similar alphabetic layout as we do – a Majuscule style and a Minuscule style, but one of its minuscule graphemes has an extra grapheme for no apparent  reason other than this:  it just does.  The graphemes in question are the Greek equivalent to <S s> and are known as sigma, <Σ σ ς>.  The first also has a mathematical function as the ‘sum of’ symbol, whilst the second is often used in linguistics as the shorthand for a syllable.  The first two are the general uppercase and then lowercase whilst the third in the pair seems a little out of place as the stylistic ‘s‘ variant.

Most Romance languages, and also in Greek, had rules for <s> and they were a little different across languages but in Greek, they still apply today and are much simpler to understand.  The <ς> variant of sigma appears instead of <σ> in a word-final lowercase environment.  So <πoσ> would become <πoς>.  Don’t try and understand why as this is mysterious to a lot of people as to how extra <s> graphemes began to appear in a great many European orthographies.  And of course… English was one of them!  Here’s the rulebook…

  1. Long ‘s’ never appears in word-final environments; so is never seen at the end of a word.

Except of course when it is seen at the end of words in rare and archaic examples that disregard the very first rule.  Generally though, it was the most kept out of the Long ‘s’ rules.  We would see things such as <his  cheſs  powers> and not *<hiſ  chesſ  powerſ>

  • Long ‘ſ’ is maintained at the end only where it is abbreviated by a full stop.

Very quickly ignoring the previous rule, rule two applies to the clipping of ends of words and wherever this leaves Long ‘s’ as the final letter of the abbreviation before the word-final full stop, it would be retained regardless of rule 1.  <ſubſtitute> and <Geneſis> abbreviating to <ſubſ.> and <Geneſ.> instead of *<ſubs.> and *<Genes.>.

  • Round ‘s’ is employed where the word is abbreviated with an apostrophe.

This means that where a word has letters clipped or abbreviated from the word that are within the middle of the word and not the end – hence the use of an apostrophe, the Round variety of ‘s’ is used here.  <used  closed  mustered> all become <us’d  clos’d  mus’d> instead of *<uſ’d  cloſ’d  muſ’d>.

  • Long <ſ> could not be used before or after the grapheme <f>.

This is likely due to the uncanny similarities between the letters.  < ſ > shares similarity to the lowercase <f> and the typeface for <ſ> often included the left-half of the stroke that <f> does in many fonts and so during rapid-reading, discriminating between <f ſ> would become slightly ambiguous.  Words like ‘satisfy’ would be written <ſatisfy> and not *<satisfy  satiſfy>.

  •  Before a hyphen break of a word upon a page, the ‘s’ must be Long ſ.

So if the justified type of the word ‘blessing’, which would usually have been written as <bleſsing>, happened to have been cleaved in two for the page margins, it would become something like this <bleſſ–>.

  • The majuscule of the letter < ſ > is of an italicised/swashed variety.

This means that for every capital Long ſ that there was, it was highly likely that it interfered with the boundaries of others letters whilst its minuscule was an unitalicized/unswashed letter.  Interestingly, this is taken into account in computer typeface as the minuscule, once italicised, gains both cursive stylism and a hooked descender.

  • Double letters, or repetition of any same-flavour ‘s’ is disallowed.

And yet, there are still occasions where ſ and ſ must appear digraphically, which include wherever the hyphenation rule permits it too, and in the case of capitalisation of <ſs> or <ss> where it appears in the middle of the word: <bleſsing> becomes <BLEſſING>.  It cannot occur where the entire word is capitalised for the end of the word – so, <cheſs> does not become *<CHEſſ> but instead <CHEſS>.  Where <ss> is concerned, it tended nearly always to become <ſs>.

  • These rules do not apply to handwriting unless it is Rule 7.

After all that and this doesn’t even apply to handwriting?  I don’t know what else to say really.  Many scribes eventually accidentally followed unnecessary rules regarding handwritten ſ due to how confusing the typeface rules were.  It was around in the 17th and 18th centuries and we can quite easily see why this little letter was perhaps the dumbest out of all of them.  I mean its worse than the contemporary fake letters ‘x’ and ‘q’ – at leaſt we know what thoſe letterſ do.

& next week we shall look at, well, we’re looking at ‘&’…

-DP, Linguistics student

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