Swiss German Dialects

Origin of Swiss German Dialects

Seen from the outside, all Swiss German dialects are Alamannic and belong to the same group as the dialects of southwestern Germany (Baden-Würtemberg), while the Alamannic group is clearly distinct from southeastern (Bavarian - Austrian) and even more from northern German dialects. The Alamannic group of dialects also includes the German dialect of the Alsace region (north of Basel, western shore of River Rhine) that has been part of Germany for some time and is part of France since the end of World War I.

The common orign is an ethnic one: the native population in central and northern Switzerland consists primarily of descendants of a Germanic tribe called Alamannen which used to settle in southwestern Germany and spread to Alsace and Switzerland during the migration of nations in the 5th century. The Alamannen have probably always been more individualistic and critical of leaders than other folks and during the Middle Ages no duke was able to establish a strong Alamannic principality as in other German regions, for example in Bavaria. From the late Middle ages to the great European War (1618-1648) there were intense relations between Swiss, Alsacian and southern German cities, and the bishoprics of Basel (Switzerland) and Constance (Germania) both spread from southern Germany/Alsace to Switzerland.

Nevertheless, there is no such thing as a uniform Swiss German dialect, there are more than a dozen of them and native people can always tell in which part of Switzerland a person speaking a particular dialect was born and raised. Even within a region one may differentiate dialects between cantons as close to each other as Basel-Stadt (the city) and Baselland (its backcountry) or even within a canton.

While people from Alamannic regions in southwestern Germany and Alsace (except for French speaking immigrants to Alsace, of course) usually understand Swiss German dialects quite well, Germans from northern Germany must adapt themselves to this mysterious sound for a longer period.

Characteristics of Swiss German Dialects

The most important formal difference of Swiss German vs. standard German is the absence of the past tense (preterite) in Swiss German; only forms with the past participle are used.

Common to all Swiss German dialects is the frequent use of the suffix -li as an ending of nouns and adjectives indicating smallness (diminutive). From an etymological point of view, -li is related to the English word little - which has not "survived" in German except for this suffix in Alamannic dialects (in Southern Germany they are using it, too, but they pronounce and write -le instead of -li). Switzerland is a small country and people in Switzerland seem to be fond of smallness (at least the German speaking populaton) ...

Another noticeable phenomenon is that the German speaking Swiss almost always use the original English word for new things coming from America or Asia, however with a pronounciation that you often might not recognize its origin any more, while the French (and the French speaking Swiss) and (to a slightly lesser extent) the Germans try to coin a new word in their own language or add a new meaning to an existing word. During the 18th and 19th centuries, hundreds of French words have been added in a similar way to Swiss German, which are not used in standard German.

A few examples of popular Swiss German words adopted from French and their German equivalents:
EnglishFrenchSwiss GermanStandard German
sidewalktrottoirTrottoirGehsteig, Bürgersteig
byciclebiciclette, véloVeloFahrrad
hairdressercoiffeur, friseurCoiffeur(=Gwafför)Frisör

A few examples of popular Swiss German words adopted from English and their German equivalents:
EnglishSwiss GermanStandard German
computerComputer, CompiRechner

Often these adopted English terms are more precise in a way, because they avoid giving a new, second meaning to an existing word (which may be ambigous in some contexts). So while classical tools are Werchzüg in Swiss German (Werkzeuge in Standard German), software tools are named Tools in Swiss German and you find them in a Directory named Toolbox (not in a Werchzügchaschte).

Other aspects differ widely among regional dialects. Bernese dialect, for example, uses a different rule for the sequence of words within a sentence than northern and central Switzerland dialects and Standard German do - French influence at the language border is obvious. Pronounciation of the same words (like Milch, Mälch, Müulch for milk) and melody differ as well from region to region. There are a number of variant truly German words that are completely unknown in Germany (or have been abandoned there in the course of the centuries), but many of them are only used in some dialects (for example cream is Sahne in Germany, Obers in Austria, Rahm in eastern Switzerland and on the written product declaration, but Nidle in Bern; and if you order a coffee with cream in a restaurant, it's called Kafi crème [from French] everywhere in German speaking Switzerland).

Generally, northeastern Swiss dialects are closer to standard German in pronounciation and have fewer special words while dialects from narrow alpine valleys are more original and require a longer adaptation time. The dialect of upper Wallis is probably the most peculiar one and sounds kind of mysterious even to many urban Swiss German natives.

Widespread Use of Swiss German Dialects

While using dialects is considered to be somewhat uncultered in other countries, German speaking Swiss people are very proud of their regional dialects. A Swiss professor or businessman will of course not use some words considered to be vulgar, but they will use dialect even in professional discussions and/or formal negotiations. Standard German is normally only used for writing (therefore it is called Schriftdeutsch [written German] in Switzerland).

If there are people present that do not understand dialect (Germans, Austrians or French/Italian speaking Swiss), standard German is used, often with a strong accent, however. While this rule is more or less respected in the presence of French and Italian speaking people, native German speaking Swiss folks expect German immigrants to learn to understand moderate versions of Swiss German dialect within three months ...

Radio and Television news are being read in standard German while most talkshows on politics, culture or science use dialect. Sometimes you might hear a mixed version, for example an immigrant might perfectly understand dialect but answer in standard German or mix the two. Americans might know this as the Kissinger effect - an immigrant must understand the language, but he might be successful without being able to talk it perfectly.

French Dialects (Patois) in Switzerland

French dialects have existed once in Switzerland, but almost all Romands [French speaking Swiss] do not use them any longer, not even within the family or among friends. Only a few words differ from what you would learn from schoolbooks - like nonante for ninety (instead of the somewhat clumsy quatre-vingt-dix) or vélo for bicycle (instead of bicyclette) - but this is not typical for Swiss French, you can hear that in Belgium or even in most parts of France (except the Paris region), too.

French speaking Swiss are proud to be part of the French speaking community and they cannot understand why German speaking Swiss stick to their dialects (especially since this makes it difficult to understand them).

Swiss Italian Dialects

The use of Swiss Italian dialects is still widespread within the family, among friends and even in business life in the southern Swiss canton of Ticino - as long as everybody is able to understand it. But as there are a lot of German speaking residents in southern Switzerland there are fewer opportunities in business life to "be among themselves" for the Ticinesi than for the larger Swiss German population in northern Switzerland. Swiss Italian dialects do have a slight affinity to French, at least understanding French helps to understand them.

Why are Swiss German and Italian Dialects still used?

One reason why Swiss German and Swiss Italian dialects are still widely used while Swiss French patois has almost completely disappeared may be found in several periods of history.

Switzerland as an independent nation goes back to an uprising of some of the German speaking regions of Switzerland against the German emperors of the Habsburg dynasty who originally came from what is now canton Aargau in northern Switzerland. These emperors tried to extend their power base by denying older autonomy rights and privileges the Swiss had been granted by their predecessors. So there has been a certain conflict between the German speaking Swiss and the Germans (and Austrians). At the time (1291 to 1798), the German speaking Swiss living in about one third of Switzerland's territory (mostly central Switzerland, and cities of Zurich, Bern and Basel) conquered the rest of the country - in particular the French and Italian speaking parts. They governed these regions as colonies.

During the age of the French revolution, there was a revolution in the parts of the country colonized by the others - and though the German speaking folks from nothern and eastern Switzerland had their own part in the Swiss revolution of 1798, the French speaking Swiss perceived the revolution as an uprising of the French speaking population against the domination by German speaking occupators - and they asked for and got some support by French (Napoleonian) troops.

So while Germany and Austria were seen as a threat to Swiss independence by the German speaking population during centuries of Swiss history, the French speaking Swiss saw France as a role model (all 19th century Swiss incentives for equal rights, liberalism and modern democracy followed French incentives: 1798, 1830 and 1848 - and even the 1968 students' movement which had a profound influence on society all over western Europe started in Paris, France). The period between 1800 and 1970 is exactly the time the French dialects disappeared ..

In the 1930's both Germany and Italy were governed by fascist (ultra-nationalist, totalitarian) dictators (Hitler, Mussolini). They both declared they wanted to incorporate all regions sharing their country's language and culture. No similiar thing can be said of France. So it was a question of national survival for Switzerland to mark a difference towards Germany and Italy, while France was rather seen as an ally against foreign nationalist totalitarianism.

In other words, speaking Standard French instead of dialects means strenghtening the alliance with France against the German speaking 70%-majority in Switzerland for the French speaking 25%-minority, while place emphasis on a cultural / language difference opposite to Germany is a major point in defending independence for the German speaking Swiss.

Learn more about Switzerland's four national languages

Listen to Swiss Dialects on Youtube

Have an earful of Swiss German dialect with Switzerland's best known teller of fairy tales in a battle with a young radio play director about how to tell «Snow White» to today's children. You will hear classical eastern Switzerland dialect spoken by the storyteller. The young man speaks Swiss German with the typical accent of immigrants fromsoutheastern Europe (which is also popular among some native young people and corresponds somewhat to the kind of language gangsta rappers and their fans are using in the U.S.A.). Finally there is a young lady in the role of producer/manager speaking Swiss German as business people are speaking in Zurich.

Fairy Tale Battle (Traditional Swiss German language vs. teenage slang)

Switzerland from A to Z
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