Have you ever considered which language people speak in Switzerland?

Although Switzerland - officially known as the Swiss Confederation - is a small landlocked country in Central Europe, it is home to more than one official language.

German, French, Italian and Romansh are all spoken in Switzerland.

Today’s article aims to shine a light on the German dialects and the German language particular to Switzerland.

German is the most widely spoken language in the country, where, out of a total of 26 cantons, 17 have Swiss-German as their official language, alongside their own German dialect and unique way of speaking.

It is, however, not Standard Swiss German which is widely spoken in the country, as is the case in neighbouring Austria and Germany. Rather, the many dialects which are spoken in Switzerland are called Swiss German – Scweizerdeutsch.

Standard Swiss German is the common language use for formal settings and for official documents to bring some regularity to the political landscape.

Similar to Austria and Germany, Switzerland has, besides its official languages, several dialects in each linguistic region, making it a rich, but very challenging country to travel around in and keep track of the meaning of conversations in the different parts of the country.

It remains true that Switzerland is a stunning country that offers many opportunities in several fields, from research and education to work opportunities. Knowledge of one of the four spoken languages will definitely be of benefit if you were to be working or travelling there.

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The German Spoken in Switzerland

If it is German that you wish to study, it would make sense to first understand why and how the German spoken in Switzerland, contrasts to other German languages encountered in Central Europe. Official Standard Swiss German is very close to the type used in Austria and Germany, with only a few differences existing in phonetics and vocabulary, because of the multicentric nature of the German language.

Notwithstanding, Swiss German and German and two distinctly different languages, to such an extent that sub-titles are required for other German speakers to understand TV shows and interviews conducted in Switzerland.

This may seem quite unusual, since one imagines that the German language would have had a standardised development. This is, however, not the case, as German and its dialects have evolved and been shaped differently from region to region and from country to country over several historical periods of development.

On closer study, one would find that the Standard German, studied today, has evolved through several periods and dissimilar waves of standardisation.

The German Language: A Historical Context

swiss train
17 of the 26 cantons in Switzerland have Swiss-German as their official language. Source Unsplash

Just as an overview, allow us to state that German, along with Dutch and English, is a West Germanic language. It did, however, experience several periods that moulded and created the Standard German which we know today. Different aspects of the German language were set during each period.

The Old High German period, also known as the High German consonant shift, marks the first period in what can be regarded as the birth of the German language. During this time, a sound change occurred in Central Europe which other West Germanic languages, such as Old English, did not experience. This shift took place in the centre of what we know as Germany today.

During this period, German was spoken with an extensive range of dialects and had a broad oral tradition, with very few written texts to bear witness to the growth of the language during this period.

The period which followed the Old High German period, between 1050 and 1350, is known as the Middle High German period. During this time, the German tribes expanded their sphere of influence beyond the eastern boundaries of the Holy Roman Empire and spread to countries like present-day Poland, Austria, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania and Hungary, leading to a very large growth in the number of German speakers beyond the borders of Germany as we now know it. The language underwent numerous linguistic changes in the written and spoken form in the various geographical regions.

The Early New High German period (1350 – 1650) followed, where the German that we know today started being developed. Important events, of major significance, took place during this period:

  • Gutenburg invented the printing press in 1440, kicking off the Printing Revolution; and
  • Martin Luther translated the Bible from Latin into German (1534).

Luther’s vernacular translation triggered the standardisation of German in the written form and, in so doing, displaced Latin as the principal language in the German states which formed part of the Holy Roman Empire.

A widely accepted standard of written German only appeared in the mid-eighteenth century, through its use in government and commerce by the Habsburg Empire, which included a large area of Eastern and Central Europe.

The brothers Grimm took the standardisation process further with the creation of a German dictionary. The first Duden Handbook followed in 1872, setting out the orthographic and grammatical rules with which you will become acquainted when you start studying German!

Let’s have a closer look at Swiss German history.

Swiss German

So, how did the German language progress in Switzerland and what does the Swiss German dialect encompass?

Swiss German actually represents a broad range of regional and local dialects, as opposed to just a single one. These all originally derived from another West Germanic language, Old Allemmanic.

While it is estimated that there are a few hundred German dialects, because they all derive from the Allemmanic German form they tend to be mutually intelligible. Differences occurred around 1200, during the Middle High German period, where the East Franconian and Swabian varieties were dominant.

Also, during this period in history, the core of today’s Switzerland came about as a defence alliance against the Habsburg Empire, which means that Switzerland did not undergo the same process of standardisation that Germany and Austria did. It also accounts for why High German dialects, such Allemmanic, became so dominant in this region of Central Europe.

bern street
Know when to use Swiss-German and Standard German on your travels. Source Unsplash

The distinction between language and dialect is not always easy to grasp. Here are a number of key differences between Swiss German and German:

  1. As mentioned previously, Standard Swiss German is an officially recognised language, whereas Swiss German is not a language, but various dialects which are exemplified by words that are typical and do not appear in Standard German dialects. Swiss German has its own specific pronunciation, vocabulary and unique syntax.
  2. Pronunciation plays a key role for many German dialects and, for the Swiss German dialect, these differences are exemplified by the absence of diphthongs (double vowel sounds) and particularly gravelly sounds, like “k” being replaced by “ch”. As an example, the word kalt (cold) becomes chalt in Swiss German.
  3. A very important difference: In Swiss German, the genitive case is never used, which minimises the number of pronouns and declensions that have to be memorised.
  4. The diminutive form of a word is sometimes used to make it appear smaller or cuter, however in Standard German -lein or -chen is used, whilst in Swiss German the diminutive ending -li is employed. For instance, the word “hund" (dog) becomes hündchen (small, young or cute dog) in Standard German and hündli in Swiss German.

Also, French and Italian words have formed many Swiss German words and you will even encounter a number of French words in the Swiss German vocabulary. The word merci, instead of danke (thank you) being one such example.

That is why it is very important, when you think about learning German, that you consider why and where you would like to make use of it. Interestingly, while Swiss Standard German is the officially recognised language, 59.4% of the population of Switzerland speak the Swiss German dialect (2016 study).

Further, while Swiss German is widely spoken in Switzerland, it not widely employed in any context outside of Switzerland. It is important to be aware of this, so that you can decide on a course to follow and a level to study at, especially when you wish to obtain greater skills in the German language.

Alternatively, you may just want to focus on Swiss German, for use within the boundaries of Switzerland. So, if you’re considering studying or working in Switzerland, then lessons in Swiss German and, maybe, Swiss German history are the right option for you. This will put you in an advantageous position to understand the culture better and make greater connections with locals.

If you would like to connect with a language tutor who can guide you through the intricacies of Swiss German, look no further than Superprof. Here, you can hook up with a good, qualified, professional tutor close to you, who specialises in these particular German dialects and can help you in your journey through the German languages.

In the meantime, it would be great if you dug a bit deeper into some of the popular Swiss German terms, such as Znüni, which means ‘at nine’ in one instance, but may also refer to a ‘mid-morning snack’, a favourite custom and ritual across Switzerland.

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Trevor

Career teacher turned writer. Passionate about family, running, and the great outdoors.