Switzerland’s language situation is without doubt special. There is not just one, but four national languages (German, French, Italian and Romansh), with German being the most widely spoken language in Switzerland. In addition, there is a diglossia situation in German-speaking Switzerland. In a diglossia situation, two languages, or rather two linguistic varieties, co-exist and differ in their contexts of use. In the case of German-speaking Switzerland, these two varieties are Swiss Standard German and Swiss German.
In this first introductory blog post on Swiss German, we will look at both Swiss Standard German and Swiss German, clarify differences between them and understand when which variety is used in what kind of situation.
What is Swiss Standard German?
German is a standard language and an umbrella term for the many existing dialects. In the standardisation process, the spelling, vocabulary and grammar were regulated. Also, it was determined when the language is spoken and what status it has.
In fact, German has three standardized variants: German, Austrian and Swiss Standard German. Swiss Standard German is characterised by Helvetisms. A helvetism is a linguistic feature that is only used in Swiss Standard German and not in German or Austrian. Examples are parkieren (to park), grillieren (to barbecue), Trottoir (foothpath), and Glace (ice cream). However, there are differences not only in vocabulary, but also in grammar, spelling and pronunciation.
By the way: Linguistic features that only occur in Austrian are called Austriazisms, and linguistic features that only occur in German are called Teutonisms.
When to speak Swiss Standard German?
In the German-speaking part of Switzerland, Swiss Standard German is mainly used in written communication. For example, e-mails, letters and newspapers are written in Swiss Standard German. All documents used in a professional context are also in Swiss Standard German. Furthermore, Swiss Standard German is spoken in schools, at universities and in other school or academic institutions. Also, Swiss Standard German is used in the institutional context and in news broadcasts. Last but not least, Swiss Standard German is also used in conversations with people who do not speak Swiss German.
What is Swiss German?
Swiss German («Schwizerdütsch») is, again, an umbrella term for the dialects spoken in German-speaking Switzerland. The vast majority of these dialects are Alemannic dialects. Alemannic dialects are also spoken, for example, in Alsace, southern Baden and Liechtenstein.
We distinguish between Low Alemannic, Lake Constance Alemannic, High Alemannic and Highest Alemannic. In Basel, for example, a Low Alemannic dialect is spoken, namely “Baaseldytsch” (Basel German) while in Zurich a High Alemannic dialect is spoken, namely “Züritüütsch” (Zurich German).
Precisely because of its many different regional dialects, which cannot be clearly distinguished from each other, it is impossible to say how many dialects there ultimately are in Switzerland.
When to speak Swiss German?
Swiss German is mainly used in everyday communication. This means when shopping, talking to family, friends and work colleagues, on the telephone and so on. The dialect Swiss German is also often spoken in radio broadcasts. Interestingly, Swiss German is now also increasingly used for everyday written texts, for example SMS, WhatsApp etc. Since there are no clear grammatical rules, everyone speaks and writes the way they want to.
The co-existence of Swiss Standard German and Swiss German is a challenge
The huge difference between Swiss Standard German and Swiss German is often a challenge for immigrants to the German-speaking part of Switzerland. In language courses Swiss Standard German is the variety taught and learned. In everyday life, however, the Swiss in German-speaking Switzerland speak Swiss German. Therefore, it can be frustrating to realise that you have difficulties following and participating in everyday conversations despite having taken a German course.
For this reason, we created this new blog series on Swiss German. We want you to get to know “Schwizerdütsch” a little bit better. More specifically, we will talk about the special features of this variety and explain them to you as simply as possible and with examples. So stay tuned and keep your eyes open for the next posts in this new blog series.
If you have any suggestions or feedback, we would love to read about it in the comments. See you soon!
Nelly Müller – Sprachen Akademie