Ever wonder which language is spoken in Switzerland?

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The Swiss-German language

Switzerland might be a small landlocked country located in Central Europe, but because of its history and location, it has several official languages: French, German, Italian and Romansh!

In this article, we particularly want to explain the specificity of the German language and German dialects particular to Switzerland, because it is the most spoken language in Switzerland with around 62.8% of its population (in 2016).

This can be explained because of the dominant number and broader influence of the German-Swiss over the non-German Swiss within the Swiss Confederation, where 17 out of the 26 cantons have Swiss Standard German as the official language and in addition have their own German dialect and unique manner of speaking.

However, it is not the Standard Swiss German language that is widely spoken in Switzerland like its neighbouring countries Germany and Austria, but its dialects which are collectively referred to as Swiss GermanSweizerdeutsch. Standard Swiss German is merely used as a common tongue for formal settings and official documents to bring some homogeneity to the political territory.

Just as Germany and Austria, Switzerland has, aside from its official languages, a variety of dialects in each linguistic region, making it a rich but challenging country to move around and keep track of what is spoken where.

Thus, Switzerland is a beautiful country that offers a lot of opportunities in different fields, from education, research and work opportunities. Knowing one of the four languages spoken in Switzerland will always come in handy if you ever happen to be travelling or working there.

German in Switzerland

If German is the language you are thinking of learning, it will be practical to first know how and why the German language that is spoken and officially employed in Switzerland differs from other German languages found in Central Europe. The official Standard Swiss German is very similar to the one employed in Germany and Austria, where only some differences exist in vocabulary and phonetics due to the pluricentric nature of the German language.

Nonetheless, the Swiss-German dialect is drastically different from the German language, different to the point that subtitles are required for Germans and Austrians to understand TV shows or interviews held in Switzerland. They will also find it extremely difficult to understand each other if both parties do not speak Standard German.

This situation seems rather unusual because oftentimes we would think that the German language would have had a homogenous evolution, but the German languages and dialects have been shaped and have evolved differently from country to country and region to region due to historical periods that the German language has had. If we look closer at the history of the German language, this one, has encountered numerous periods and different waves of standardization to achieve the Standard German we often study and learn nowadays.

swiss train
A train in the Swiss mountains. Source Unsplash

The historical context of the German language

Just to give you an overview, the German language belongs to the West Germanic language with English and Dutch but underwent a series of periods that shaped and created the Standard German language we know today. During each period, different aspects of the German language were set.

The first period started in the Middle Ages with the ‘High German consonant shift’, also known as the Old High German period, this is among the most important period because we could consider it the birth of the German language. During this period, a sound change happened in Central Europe that other West Germanic languages did not experience, such as Old English. This happened in the centre of what is known as Germany nowadays.

This period was predominantly spoken with a wide range of dialects and an extensive oral tradition and only a few written texts which are a testimony to this period.

Following the Old High German period came the Middle High German period between 1050 and 1350. During which the expansion of the German tribes beyond the eastern periphery of the Holy Roman Empire attained a significant geographical territory equivalent to modern-day countries like Austria, Poland the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary and Romania; provoking a considerable increase in the German speakers beyond the current borders of Germany. This period was still undergoing linguistic changes in the spoken and written form in the different geographical areas.

Later came the Early New High German period (1350-1650), where the Modern German language started being developed. During this important period, where Gutenberg invented the press in 1440 and started the Printing Revolution, Luther’s vernacular translation of the Bible from Latin to German (in 1534) started the standardization in the written form of German and the displacement of Latin by German as the primary language in the German states that were part of the Holy Roman Empire.

But, it is only until the middle of the eighteenth century that a widely accepted standard of written German appeared because of its use for commerce and government by the Habsburg Empire, which started in Austria but included the Central and Eastern parts of Europe. The standardization process continued with the Brothers Grimm and their creation of a dictionary, followed by the first Duden Handbook in 1872 with grammatical and orthographic rules, which you will become familiar with once you start studying German!

The Swiss case

Then, how did the German language evolve in Switzerland, and what does the Swiss-German encompass? Swiss German does not only represent one dialect but rather a wide range of local and regional dialects, all derived from the Old Allemmanic another West Germanic language. Although the number of dialects from Swiss German is estimated around the hundreds, they are generally intelligible because they all derive from the Alemannic German form, which belongs to a group of High German dialects. This difference appeared during the Middle High German period around 1200, where the Swabian and East Franconian varieties were dominant.

Furthermore, during this historical period, the nucleus of nowadays Switzerland was born as a defence league against the Habsburg Empire; meaning that Switzerland did not have the same standardization process that Austria and Germany had during this period and explains why the High German dialects such as Alemannic became predominant in this part of Central Europe.

Because the distinction between language and dialect can be difficult to grasp at first, especially for German, here are some key differences to help illustrate what differs from Standard German and Swiss German:

  1. We already mentioned this first difference, where Standard Swiss German is recognized as the official language because Swiss German is not a language, but various dialects characterized by Helvetisms, such as specific vocabulary, pronunciation, and unique syntax.
  2. Like in many other German dialects, pronunciation plays a major role and for Swiss German, these differences are particularly expressed in the absence of diphthongs (double vowel sounds) and some sounds pronounced in a gravelly way, like the sound “ch” becoming a “k”. For example, the word kalt (cold) would become chalt in Swiss German.
  3. An important difference: Swiss German speakers don’t ever use the genitive case! Which, reduces the number of relative pronouns and declinations that have to be learned.
  4. The use of the diminutive form is a modification of a word to make it seem cuter or smaller, with the diminutive end -li in Swiss German, while Standard German uses the ending -chen or -lein.
    For example the word “Haus” (house) becomes “Häuschen” (little house) in Standard German and “Hüüsliin” in Swiss German.

bern street
A busy street in Bern, Switzerland. Source Unsplash

Furthermore, Italian and French have shaped many words in Swiss German and you will even find French words in the Swiss German vocabulary, one example is the use of the word merci instead of danke to say thank you.

Therefore, when learning German, it is indispensable to consider why and where we would like to employ it and particularly speak it. Switzerland does recognize Swiss Standard German as the official language, but the Swiss-German dialect is the most spoken language in Switzerland with 59.4% according to a study from 2016.

Consider that learning Swiss German will only serve you if you live in Switzerland because it will only be spoken by Swiss native people, Swiss German is not employed in any other context abroad from Switzerland.

This is important to know because it will help you decide the courses and the level of Standard German that you need in order to acquire further skills in the German language, or if you only want to study and learn Swiss German.

Hence, if you are considering moving, working or studying in Switzerland learning Swiss German could be a great advantage to get to know the culture better and find fitter opportunities.

Finding a teacher or tutor that specializes in these Swiss-German phrases and dialects can be challenging but not impossible. Superprof will allow you to find someone located in this area and specialized in these kinds of German dialects, thus helping you in your learning journey of the German languages.
Meanwhile, we recommend you to dig deeper into popular Swiss German phrases to have a better understanding of the culture and expressions that are very specific to the Swiss German dialects such as Znüni, which means ‘at nine’ but also refers to a ‘mid-morning snack’, a common ritual and custom all over Switzerland.

 

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