Jul 21, 2022 Exhibitions In We the People: The Radical Notion of Democracy, it has been noticed by some observant people that an “s” sometimes looks like “⨜” (occasionally with half of a crossbar so that it looks very similar to “f”) and some of our guests have asked why. Here is an example from the United States’ Bill of Rights: A long "s" in the US Bill of Rights. First United States Congress. The long “s” was the original form of the letter for written English (coming from Latin and then through the Germanic alphabet). The long “s” is still used in some German typefaces. When both letters were being used, the long “s” was used for the letter anywhere other than the end of the word. It was also used with a double “s,” in which case the long “s” would be first followed by the round “s.” So is this unusual? Not at all. It looks strange to us because printing has standardized spelling and typefaces. Classic Greek had very similar rules for using the sigma: The second version would be used anywhere but the end of the word, much like long and round “s.” From the Hellenistic period into the Middle Ages, another form came to be used in Greek: the lunate sigma, which looks exactly like the modern “C” and is why we sometimes pronounce “c” like “s” and other times as a hard sound. It is difficult to underestimate the impact that the printing press would come to have upon language. Print led to standardized spelling, which would gradually reduce regional spelling differences. As a result, it led to the elimination of the long “s” for a very simple reason—the printers of the time were like mechanical typewriters in that each letter would have a die that picked up ink and was pressed onto paper. Therefore, each letter had to have a die cast for it, and producing one cast is easier than two. Because these things tend to happen organically, no one is sure why round “s” was chosen to remain over long “s,” but the most logical theory is that it was to differentiate “s” from “f.” Use of the long “s” had nearly disappeared from English print by the early-nineteenth century except for a couple of holdouts—the integral symbol in calculus and the symbol denoting a shilling. John Dunlap and David Claypool, The Official First Edition of the Constitution, 1787, ink on paper, 16 1/8 x 10 1/8 in. Private Collection. Photo by Stephen Ironside Once the long “s” disappeared from print, it slowly faded from handwriting as well, which indeed happened over the next few decades. One has to wonder if there were “language purists” then such as we have today who seem to think that language has reached an ideal state that must never be changed. There are many interesting changes that one can find in the history of language. Living languages constantly change and evolve to reflect new ways to use old words and to introduce new words. Written by Bob Cline, weekend volunteer coordinator, Crystal Bridges.