The rules for long ſ
January 1, 2011 12:04 PM   Subscribe

Hot s&ſ action: Google Books’ optical character recognition is louſy enough to be unable to differentiate f from the ancient long s or medial s, ſ (previouſly). But what exactly were the rules for uſing this now-obſolete glyph? It turns out you almost need a flowchart. (Via)
posted by joeclark (38 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
i.e., you almoſt need a flowchart.
posted by joeclark at 12:05 PM on January 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Man, that long s was a pain in the aſs.
posted by tigrefacile at 12:19 PM on January 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


Does this mean that we'll now need to start using ligatures on reCaptcha?
posted by schmod at 12:20 PM on January 1, 2011


Thanks, joeclark, I've always wondered about the rules for applying the long s, since they never replace every s with it...

This looks like it must be the blog of http://www.babelstone.co.uk/, makers of BabelPad, a nifty little Windows Unicode text editor that I've found to be really handy for debugging text encoding issues.
posted by XMLicious at 12:22 PM on January 1, 2011


Well, the "you almost need a flowchart" contains a bunch of graphs from google's n-gram viewer, so obviously google's OCR doesn't have too much trouble.

It also contains no flowcharts.
posted by delmoi at 12:26 PM on January 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


It also contains no flowcharts.

Right, you almost need a flowchart.
posted by kenko at 12:31 PM on January 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


I was made to understand there were flowcharts here.

But seriously, that's a lovely find, joeclark.
posted by Kattullus at 12:34 PM on January 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Out of interest, what was the long-s for? why was it needed?
posted by Long Way To Go at 12:47 PM on January 1, 2011


I believe the standard answer is as stated in Babelstone’s piece: It was by analogy with the usage of Greek sigma.
posted by joeclark at 12:48 PM on January 1, 2011


In thirty years they'll be expressing similar bafflement about why anyone ever distinguished between "your" and "you're"; in forty years, "who" and "whom"; in fifty years, "you" and "u".
posted by foursentences at 12:49 PM on January 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


dang, i came in here looking for slowcharts.
posted by dubold at 12:56 PM on January 1, 2011 [11 favorites]


Please tell me of a web page I may use ſo that I may finally typſet my eßes ſuch that they are ſoothing and pleaſing to the eye.
posted by zippy at 12:59 PM on January 1, 2011 [10 favorites]


In a thousand years, when archaeologists uncover the one magnetic platter that survived the great Sino-Canadian EMP wars of 2023, they will puzzle over the typographic rules that lead to the frequently occurring construction "You raff, you ruse."
posted by zippy at 1:04 PM on January 1, 2011


A .ttf version of a vintage font as well as a MS word macro for adding ligatures can be found on my brothers site here.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 1:23 PM on January 1, 2011


The first rule of the long s is: you do not talk about the long s. The second rule of the long s is: you DO NOT talk about the long s!
posted by anothermug at 1:50 PM on January 1, 2011


God bless Bodoni for banishing this typographic curse. I learned to read the Cyrillic alphabet with ease, but I despite many an hour struggling to read 18th century books, I never did get the hang of the long S.

I wonder if the dramatic rise in literacy that came in with the 19th century had anything to do with the disappearance of the long S?
posted by Faze at 2:07 PM on January 1, 2011


Moſt important is of courſe always using it in the word 'ſuccour'.

In that ſentence Firefox's ſpellchecker ſeems quite happy with ſ for s, except in the word 'courſe'. Odd.

Faze - the Cyrillic alphabet has letters in it that are almost as similar as ſ and f, like ш and щ. I'm not sure how you manged to not get the former but have no problems with the latter. And the mass expansion of schooling in the 19th century is a far more persuasive reason for increased literacy than a single letter going out of use.
posted by Coobeastie at 2:49 PM on January 1, 2011


I think you've got Faze's cause and effect the wrong way around.
posted by GeckoDundee at 3:07 PM on January 1, 2011


Hunh. I am always baffled when I learn that others have trouble with archaic English (the long s, the distinction between thou and you, conjugation endings like -est, -eth and so forth) because these things seem pretty straightforward to me.

That being said, Bottom's line in A Midsummer Night's Dream, I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove; I will roar you, an ’twere any nightingale, always delights me when I see it in manuscript with the long s intact.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:14 PM on January 1, 2011


I'll help this guy get long s back into the language if he helps me get Þ back in.
posted by Golfhaus at 4:28 PM on January 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Having to derive the rules statistically actually indicates that the vague rules he started out with were, in fact, vague. My experience with 18th-century English spelling and grammar is decidedly against hard-and-fast rules.
posted by dhartung at 4:42 PM on January 1, 2011


OMG. This thread lead me on a journey that ended in the discovery that Hitler was a font Nazi.
posted by kaiserin at 5:29 PM on January 1, 2011


AH! My old friend "Purfuit of Happineff"!
posted by mikelieman at 5:33 PM on January 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


This problem reminds me of the struggle to distinguish between content and presentation in HTML and other markup. If you're transcribing a manuscript for its meaning you may want to use a short-s consistently (e.g, write course, whether the second-last letter appears as s or ſ) to help with text searches and general comprehension. But if you're discussing the manuscript's appearance or its provenance, it may be very important to distinguish between s and ſ. So what is presentation for one use of a text is content for another! The same problem occurs when marking-up text for presentation - the correct markup for a particular text may depend on its intended use.

Yes, I know that this can be resolved through the use of CSS and similar workarounds - but that just pushes the problem onto the CSS designer.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:00 PM on January 1, 2011


Golfhaus: I'll help this guy get long s back into the language if he helps me get Þ back in.

Come to Iceland, learn Icelandic, we've got you covered.
posted by Kattullus at 7:22 PM on January 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, the "you almost need a flowchart" contains a bunch of graphs from google's n-gram viewer, so obviously google's OCR doesn't have too much trouble.

Those graphs aren't from the n-gram viewer, they're plotted by the author from Google Books search results. If you go there and try it, you'll discover that it treats (e.g.) "huſband" as "husband", so he probably got his numbers by searching for "hufband".
posted by revfitz at 8:05 PM on January 1, 2011


Man, that long s was a pain in the aſs

Don't you mean, pain in the aß?

ſent from my iPad, with much difficulty.
posted by i_have_a_computer at 8:30 PM on January 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


Thanks for this. I've been begging for answers since middle school. My English teachers sorta rolled their eyes and forgot I was there.
posted by spamguy at 12:08 AM on January 2, 2011


Joe in Australia is incorrect. You can’t use fake replacement characters for your text. An exclamation point is just an apostrophe with a period backspaced under it, is it not? And à is quite obviously equivalent to a`, right?
posted by joeclark at 6:05 AM on January 2, 2011


Joeclark, I'm not sure what you're responding to, but you're refuting an argument I didn't make.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:07 AM on January 2, 2011


Ahhh, I love this! It's just the lass I needed, thanks!
posted by iamkimiam at 7:29 AM on January 2, 2011


I think Joe is consufed.
posted by iamkimiam at 7:32 AM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Come to Iceland, learn Icelandic, we've got you covered.

Thorn AND eth! Yowza!
posted by kenko at 9:14 AM on January 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


Out of interest, what was the long-s for? why was it needed?

I'm not sure if it was needed, per se, it was just there. In the first millennium CE, there were a few different hands for writing Latin in, and they used different shapes -- some of them, radically different. Then, over time, some of those systems merged -- this is why we have uppercase and lowercase letters, for instance, or why lowercase "a" sometimes can have that hook on the top, or not. The long s perhaps looked a bit awkward at the ends of words, especially compared to the curvy s, but it made for nicer ligatures in the middle of words ("ſt" is particularly fun to write). So both options lingered. But you find other letters in medieval manuscripts with multiple shapes -- for instance, a straight-backed lowercase "d" and one that looks more like an eth (ð) without the crossbar. Or the lowercase "a".
posted by Casuistry at 1:58 PM on January 2, 2011


"That among these are Life, Liberty, and The purfuit of happineff?"
"That's pursuit of happiness."
"Well, all your s's look like f's here."
"Oh, it's stylish."
"Oh I see."
"It's in, it's VERY in."
"Oh, well, if it's in..."
posted by knile at 2:20 PM on January 2, 2011


Plenty of letters have multiple ſhapes (lowercaſe g and capital Q being the other two I think of immediately) but in modern written engliſh they uſually don't have ſhapes which depend on poſition in the word— which I think is why the long s has its fascination for us.
posted by hattifattener at 12:11 AM on January 3, 2011


Joe in Oz, encode the actual text, not some fake-ass version you somehow intend to rectify with CSS, an option that doesn’t even make sense.
posted by joeclark at 12:39 PM on January 3, 2011


knile: ""That among these are Life, Liberty, and The purfuit of happineff?""

I believe that was also Woody's platform when running for Boston City Council.
posted by Chrysostom at 12:45 PM on January 11, 2011


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