What Does This Blasted Thing Say?

by Walt Vogdes

Stein collectors, be they novice or old-hand, understandably want to know what is written on their steins. Translation to English is difficult in its own right, but in many cases, verses or inscriptions on steins may be written in a Fraktur font (commonly called “old German print”), making mere transcription a confusing task. If you don’t think this is a problem, just look at the questions asked in the Beer Stein Forum, especially those trying to identify a regimental stein. It’s really no wonder that figuring out what those letters actually are is so difficult – use of this alphabet was being discontinued in German schools in the late 1930s, and completely ended in the 1940s. Consequently, your 50-year old German cousin or brother-in-law is very likely not familiar with this alphabet! And let’s keep in mind that in many instances, the writing on our steins was done by hand, so variations are common from person to person, and from region to region. Nonetheless, with the reference material provided in this article, accurate transcriptions are entirely feasible.

A a
Ä ä
B b
C c
D d
E e
F f
G g
H h
I i
J j
K k
L l
M m
N n
O o
Ö ö
P p
Q q
R r
T t
U u
Ü ü
V v
W w
X x
Y y
Z z
The old German print alphabet is shown down the right margin of this article, alongside Roman equivalents. The first thing to note is that there are 30 letters provided, 29 in both upper and lower case, plus one (the last one in the table) only in lower case, not the standard 26 that we are accustomed to dealing with. Where do the extra ones arise?

Ooops, something else you will notice. There are two flavors of small s (bringing the total number of lower case letters to 31). What’s this about?

A very common example of the usage of both double s (“ess-zet”) and the closing s (“schloos s”) is given below in the familiar “Greetings from Munich”.

Gruss aus Muenchen

By now you must recognize that transcription must be done with a sensitivity to the surrounding letters and the position of the letters within the word.

Ooops, upon taking a closer look we discover that the capital letters I and J are the same! I’ll leave it to the philosophers to figure out if this means we have 29 or 30 upper case letters, but how do we distinguish them?

We’re finally done with the inventory of old German letters which is shown to the left. Unfortunately, there is still one important convention in German writing that has the effect of adding even more letters to the old German alphabet.

That’s all there is to explaining the inventory and usage of the old German print alphabet, but let’s take a closer look at some problem areas.

Upper case B, P and V all look similar.
Lower case f, l and middle s tend to get confused with one another.


Lower case t and k are easy to confuse.

Because of their similarity to Roman U and t, upper case A and lower case k are easily mis-transcribed.

A (not U)
k not t)

Upper case I and T are sometimes switched in transcription, because of their resemblance to Roman T and I!
I (not T)
T (not I)
And finally, lower case r and lower case x are very similar in appearance.

Careful examination of these letters and an awareness of the rules of context will allow you to make the proper distinction.

Now that the necessary tools have been provided to allow transcription, you’ve got at least a fighting chance at getting a translation.


Author’s notes:

Credit for the concept of this article goes to Roy DeSelms who published a forerunner in Prosit, the journal of Stein Collectors International, in 1978.

The German print illustrated above is from a font called FetteFraD distributed with CorelDRAW™ 8. Although this is a TrueType font, it will only be displayed by your browser if you have the font installed on your system. Consequently, I chose to print the characters needed for illustration, and then scanned them into .GIF images. While this degrades the appearance of the font, hopefully the clarity is sufficient for the purposes of this article.


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