Being multilingual

The Suisse Romand

Bildschirmfoto 2013-03-04 um 11.30.56

(©wikipedia, Savoyerli)

The Suisse romande or Romandie is the French speaking part of western Switzerland. It inlcudes the cantons of Fribourg, Geneva, Jura, Neuchâtel, western Valais, Vaud and the northern part of Berne (cfr. Jura Bernois or the Bernese Jura).

People in the Romandie speak the Suisse romand, a variety of French, not to be confused with the Franco-Provençal/Arpitan (also spoken in this region) or Rumantsch (spoken in the Grisons).

Swiss French differs from the Parisian French in its intonation and vocabulary. Nowadays, a French speaker encounters some unfamiliar words when listening to a Swiss French speaker.

The Romandie doesn’t have one standardized Swiss French language: every canton uses a different vocabulary, mainly derived from the local regional language or even from German.

Here are a few examples about how the French of the Romandie differs from the standard French:

Some distinctive lexical features, that the Suisse Romand shares with the Belgian French are the use of the word septante for seventy, nonate for ninety in opposition to the soixante-dix (literally „sixty-ten“) and quatre-vingt-dix („four twenties-ten“) of the vigesimal French counting system. Also the definition of the meals are different: the word déjeuner is used for breakfast (that would be „lunch“ in French, which uses petit déjeuner for breakfast) and dîner for „lunch“ and souper for „dinner“ (in French these would be déjeuner and dîner respectively).

Instead of quatre-vingt („four twenties“ for „eighty“), used in French and Belgian French, the Swiss French uses huitante, especially in the cantons of Vaud, Valais and Fribourg. When you look for a post office in France, you would ask for a boite postale (BP), whereas in Switzerland, you would ask for a case postale (CP)…

Swiss French Standard French Translation
déjeuner petit-déjeuner breakfast
dîner déjeuner lunch
souper dîner dinner
septante soixante-dix seventy
huitante quatre-vingts eighty
nonante quatre-vingts-dix ninety
services couverts cutlery
panosse serpillière floorcloth
Procès verbal d’examen (PV) bulletin de note report card
s’encoubler se prendre les pieds dans quelque chose/trébucher to trip over
dent de lion pissenlit dandelion
fœhn sèche-cheveux hairdryer
biffer rayer/ barrer quelque chose d’écrit to scratch/delete
action promotion special offer
natel (téléphone) portable mobile phone
boguet mobylette moped
bonnard sympa, bien nice
cornet sac en plastique plastic bag
fourre dossier folder
linge serviette towel

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In Switzerland, after the French Revolution,  people thought that children had to learn French and not Patois. Today, 90% of the Swiss French is the same in all the regions and only in one little village, Evolène in the canton of Valais, children still learn their Patois… (Important documentation for the Patois is the Glossaire des patois de la Suisse romande).

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18 replies »

  1. Very interesting series of articles on Switzerland. I enjoy reading them.

    I just wanted to make one slight correction to this instalment. In Quebec, we don’t use septante or nonante – we use soixante-dix and quatre-vingt-dix like the French. But we do use “déjeuner”, “dîner” and “souper”. I know a few people from Switzerland and they do seem to share a few expressions and way of expressing themselves with us from Quebec. (Suzanne)

    • Hi Suzanne, I’m very glad you’re enjoying this series. And thank you very much for your correction about nonante and septante! I did correct it in my post already. – Do you have some examples of expressions the Swiss French and the French of Quebec share?

      • You have already identified most of the ones I know so I will have to think to come up with more – I am far from an expert. The intonations of Belgian & Swiss French is often closer to the Quebecois French than you would find in France though the Swiss French have even more singing intonation than we do in Quebec. Languages are fascinating and it is interesting to examine how the same language has evolved differently in the various parts of the world where they are spoken.

  2. Suzanne, I’m very fascinated by languages, their evolution etc. About the intonation I didn’t find a study that compares only the Belgian & Swiss French with the Quebecois. Usually, these varieties are compared with the French (Français parisien…)… Yes, French has developed in so many ways around the world. There are several studies about this. – I observed the same thing about these three varieties that you mention, and, yes, the Swiss French intonation sounds as much like a “singing” as the Swiss Italian to Italians. But I’ll write about this later on.

    • Guten Tag Ute!
      I’m also from Québec even if I’m living in Ontario right now. I’m following your blog since 1 or 2 months now and I really enjoy it. I do LOVE learning languages and all about where it come from and how it had evoluted. Do you know that Québec (then Nouvelle-France) was the first french speaking country in the world? In the 17th century, people were coming from all over the France to emigrate and were still speaking their “patois”, so the administration had no choice to make the official papers in french only.
      And for the terms you listed, in Québec we don’t have “panosse” or “serpillière” we have a “vadrouille”. Also a “portable” for us is a laptop computer not a cellephone which is a “cellulaire” and also “s’encoubler” in “s’enfarger”…
      Arrivederci! 😉

      • Guten Tag Therry! That’s very interesting! We should extend the list by adding the words in québécois! As for the term of “portable”, the Swiss French and Standard French use it both for the laptop computer. Only the French use “téléphone portable” for cellphone. And “cellulaire” sounds like the italian word for it: “cellulare”.
        About Québéc being the first french speaking (?) country in the world, I have my doubts. In 1539 took place the official “francisation de la France” with the proclamation of the “ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêts”, signed by François the 1st. The French became the “langue du droit et de l’administration en France, en remplacement du latin”. Not all the French did talk this language though, only 10%-20% of the population did talk this “langue du roi” in the XVI century. And, as you say, the French in Québec was used to “make official papers in french only”: but did the people who came from France and did only speak their patois, understand this language?
        Arrivederci e a presto 😉

  3. People here were assimilated to french (which was spoke by people from Paris area mainly at that time) more quickly than in France. I don’t remember where I saw the information that my memory doesn’t want me to recall 🙂 …. but I had read something not so long ago, that french wasn’t teach in school everywhere in France till 19th century I think…

    You are really puzzling me with your last question… I have to make further research on that. But immigration came mainly from the north-west part of France so probably it was kind of easy for them to understand each other.

    • That’s very interesting what you say about the assimilation to French: if you find the source, please, let me know, ok? Sorry, I didn’t mean to puzzle you with my question. I’m simply too curious sometimes…
      During the “Ancien Régime”, French was a minority language and this changed quite slowly… About the French in school, I only know that in France it has been taught since 1833 (loi Guizot) in primary school and was generally taught around 1881/82, when Jules Ferry established the free education in France. – You can find more details about this in Gérard Vigner, “Depuis quand enseigne-t-on le Français en france ? “, Ela. Études de linguistique appliquée, 2001/3-4 (n° 123-124) pp.425-444. (you can read it online here:

  4. Bonjour des Pyrénées!

    I am also enjoying this series of articles on Switzerland…and especially language. My grandmother was Swiss (French!) and I have always been fascinated by the rich multilingualism of this tiny country.
    I chuckled to discover that en Suisse a hairdryer is “un fœhn”, which I suppose is named after the Alpine warm wind? Here in the Pyrénées, we also have our own regional wind “la Balaguere”…but it hasn’t entered into everyday vocabulary like that! Fran

    • Bonjour Fran des Pyrénées! I’m really glad you like this series. – Yes, the Suisse Romand word for hairdryer is named from the foehn, the Alpine warm wind. It comes from the latin (VENTUS) FAVONIUS, a wind coming from the west. Btw. in Southern Switzerland this wind is called “favonio” 😉 – Balaguère is a wind coming from the Sahara, so, warm too, right? However, it’s interesting that the “foehn” in the Suisse Romande has its equivalent in the word “Föhn” in German and Swiss German, also meaning “heardryer”, all deriving from the “wind” lat. VENTUS FAVONIUS.

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