šîn represented a
voiceless postalveolar fricative /ʃ/ (as in 'ship'). It originated most likely as a pictogram of a tooth (
שנא) and represented the phoneme /ʃ/ via the acrophonic principle.
Greek did not have a /ʃ/ phoneme, so the derived Greek letter
Sigma (Σ) came to represent the
voiceless alveolar sibilant /s/. While the letter shape Σ continues Phoenician šîn, its name sigma is taken from the letter
samekh, while the shape of samekh but name and position of šîn is continued in the
xi. Within Greek, the name of sigma was influenced by its association with the Greek word σίζω (earlier *sigj-) "to hiss". The original name of the letter "sigma" may have been san, but due to the complicated early history of the Greek epichoric alphabets, "san" came to be identified as a separate letter,
Herodotus reports that "San" was the name given by the
Dorians to the same letter called "Sigma" by the
Western Greek alphabet used in
Cumae was adopted by the
Latins in the 7th century BC, over the following centuries developing into a range of
Old Italic alphabets including the
Etruscan alphabet and the early
Latin alphabet. In
Etruscan, the value /s/ of Greek sigma (𐌔) was maintained, while san (𐌑) represented a separate phoneme, most likely /ʃ/ (transliterated as ś). The early Latin alphabet adopted sigma, but not san, as Old Latin did not have a /ʃ/ phoneme.
The shape of Latin S arises from Greek Σ by dropping one out of the four strokes of that letter. The (angular) S-shape composed of three strokes existed as a variant of the four-stroke letter Σ already in the epigraphy in
Western Greek alphabets, and the three and four strokes variants existed alongside one another in the classical Etruscan alphabet. In other
Italic alphabets (Venetic, Lepontic), the letter could be represented as a zig-zagging line of any number between three and six strokes.
The Italic letter was also adopted into
Elder Futhark, as
Sowilō (ᛊ), and appears with four to eight strokes in the earliest runic inscriptions, but is occasionally reduced to three strokes (ᛋ) from the later 5th century, and appears regularly with three strokes in
Late medieval German script (Swabian
, dated 1496) illustrating the use of long and round s
: prieſters tochter
minuscule form ſ, called the
long s, developed in the early medieval period, within the
Carolingian hands, with predecessors in the
cursive scripts of
Late Antiquity. It remained standard in western writing throughout the medieval period and was adopted in early printing with movable types. It existed alongside minuscule "round" or "short" s, which was at the time only used at the end of words.
In most western orthographies, the ſ gradually fell out of use during the second half of the 18th century, although it remained in occasional use into the 19th century. In Spain, the change was mainly accomplished between the years 1760 and 1766. In France, the change occurred between 1782 and 1793. Printers in the United States stopped using the long s between 1795 and 1810. In English orthography, the London printer
John Bell (1745–1831) pioneered the change. His edition of Shakespeare, in 1785, was advertised with the claim that he "ventured to depart from the common mode by rejecting the long 'ſ' in favor of the round one, as being less liable to error....."
The Times of London made the switch from the long to the short s with its issue of 10 September 1803.
Encyclopaedia Britannica's 5th edition, completed in 1817, was the last edition to use the long s.
German orthography, long s was retained in
Schwabacher) type as well as in standard cursive (
Sütterlin) well into the 20th century, and was officially abolished in 1941.
ligature of ſs (or ſz) was retained, however, giving rise to the
ß in contemporary German orthography.