Thursday, March 25, 2010

Long S

After reading my post on Israel Bissell in which I included the image of the Broadside that he carried on his ride, my sister asked me about the letter f used in place of s in the Broadside.

I have been reading newspapers and books published in the 18th century for quite some time and don't notice the funny letter s anymore. My brain has adjusted to this odd character and automatically reads it as just another s.

So when s
he wanted to know "When did we finally get to using 'S'.", I had to pause and think about what she was asking. I knew from reading so many old books and newspapers that American English had two lowercase symbols for the letter s. So what was obvious to me was clearly not obvious to my sister and probably a lot more people.

One of the two symbols is called the short s and is the letter s that we know and love today. The other is called the long s (ʃ), the one that looks like an f to her and to many others. When you see these two symbols side-by-side, it is obvious why one is the short s and the other the long s. The example below is from the United States Bill of Rights.

Apparently, like my sister, people when these two symbols were in use confused the letter f and the long s. So about 1820, newspaper and book publishers discontinued the use of the long s. As I thought about the 19th century books and newspaper articles I have read, I realize that the long s was not being used throughout most of the 19th century in the United States.

But my sister peaked my curiosity about this odd symbol. I had not really paid attention to how it was being used. Were there grammar rules associated with how the long s was used? The answer is yes.

The long s was never used at the end of the word and the short s was never used at the beginning of a word. Rules seem to be less concrete when it comes to using a long or short s in the middle of the word.

The long s is also called the medial s or the descending s. The name, descending s makes sense since a portion of the letter is written below the baseline. (Baseline…this should invoke memories of learning how to write.) The name medial s implies the symbol is to be found in the middle of a word. If you look at old books and newspapers, you will find many examples of this usage.

The short s is sometimes called the terminal s. To me, this implies that the short s is used only at the end of a word.
However, I am certain that anyone can find examples in which the short s was used in the middle of the word. Apparently, in the 1st half of the 18th century a short s was to be used before the letter b. But by the 2nd half of the 18th century a long s was to be used before the letter b.

Rules of usage seemed to be ad hoc. Thus, between the confusion of the long s with the letter f and inconsistent application of when to use the short s, I think that printers took that easy way out and abandoned the long s all together. The side benefit of not having two symbols for the letter s was to save the cost of the cast metal sorts (metal type) needed for printing the long s.

Doesn’t this sound like process improvement to keep costs down?

No comments:

Post a Comment