Being multilingual

The Swiss German

Swiss German (Schwitzerdütsch, Schwyzerdütch, Schwitzertüütsch, Schwizertitsch) refers to the Alemannic dialects spoken in Switzerland. In 17 of the 26 Swiss cantons, German is the only official language: Aargau, Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Appenzell Innerrhoden, Basel-Stadt, Basel-Landschaft, Glarus, Luzern, Nidwalden, Obwalden, Schaffhausen, Schwyz, Solothurn, St. Gallen, Thurgau, Uri, Zug, Zürich.

Swiss German is a regional or political umbrella term, not a linguistic unity. The Swiss German is linguistically devided in Low, High and Highest Allemannic.

Low Alemannic is only spoken in the northernmost parts of Switzerland, in Basel-Stadt (BS) and around Lake Constance.

High Alemannic is spoken in most of the Swiss plateau. In the western group we find the Bernese German (BE), the dialects of Basel-Landschaft (BL), Solothurn (SO), and those of the western part of Aargau (AG). Then we have the dialects of the eastern part of Aargau (AG), the dialects of Lucerne (LU), Zug (ZG) and Zürich (ZH). The eastern dialects are those of Sankt Gallen (SG), Appenzell (AR & AI), Thurgau (TG), Schaffhausen (SH) and parts of Graubünden (GR).

Highest Alemannic dialects are spoken the German speaking parts of Freiburg, the Bernese Oberland (BE), Unterwalden (UW) and Uri (UR), Schwyz (SZ), Glarus (GL).

We find the Walliser German in parts of the Valais (VS). There is also another kind of German, the so-called Walser German, which is the German of the people who migrated to the Grisons, Vorarlberg in West Austria, Ticino, in South Switzerland and south of the Monte Rosa mountain chain in Italy (e.g. in Issime in the Aosta valley), Tirol in North Italy and Allgäu in Bavaria). These Walser communities were „situated on higher alpine regions, therefore they were able to stay independent of the reigning forces of those days, who did not or were not able to follow and monitor them all the time necessary at these hostile and hard to survive areas. So, the Walser were pioneers of the liberalisation from serfdom and feudalism. And, Walser villages are easily distinguishable from Grisonian ones, since Walser houses are made of wood instead of stone.“

Each of these dialects is devided in numerous local subdialects. There are even dialects for individual villages. But despite this variation, the Swiss can still understand one another.

Bildschirmfoto 2013-03-04 um 11.24.44

(© wikipedia, Testtube)

The spoken language: Swiss German dialect(s) vs. Swiss Standard German

The dialects have a very important role in the regional, cantonal and national identity in Switzerland. The spoken language is the dialect and Swiss Germans use it with pride. Among each other, the German-speaking Swiss „use their respective Swiss German dialects, irrespective of social class, education or topic“.

Try to click on the region you would like to have an audio sample here.

The common spoken language is the dialect, whereas the written language is Swiss Standard German. The dialects are very different from this Swiss Standard German, which is a variety of Standard German used in Switzerland.

Only in some specific situations, Swiss Standard German is considered more polite, like in education – but during breaks at school, teachers will speak dialect with students – , in multilingual parliaments, a few news broadcasts or in the presence of German-speaking foreigners.

The written language: Swiss Standard German

Swiss Standard German is the official written language in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. It is used in books, official publications (also in all laws and regulations), newspapers, printed notices etc. The Swiss German authors write literature in Swiss Standard German, although some specific dialect literature exists. Swiss Standard German is very similar to Standard German in Germany and Austria, but there are several distinctive features in all linguistic domains: phonology, vocabulary, syntax, morphology and orthography. All those characteristics of Swiss Standard German are called helvetisms.

Most Swiss-Germans speak fluent Swiss Standard German, but when they compare their German to the German spoken by people from Germany, they often consider their own proficiency inferior. Probably because the Swiss Standard German is studied at school, used only in certain contexts and slower than the German.

French and Italian-speaking Swiss learn Swiss Standard German at school, but have great difficulties to understand Swiss German, like most of Standard German speakers (unless they are familiar with another Alemannic dialect). Even on TV or in movies, Swiss German speakers are usually dubbled or subtitled if shown out of Swiss German territory. (find here a list of Swiss Movies)

If you’re new in a Swiss German part of Switzerland, you might be asked to pronounce Chuchichäschtli [?????i??æ?tli] („kitchen cabinet“), just to check if you’re able to pronounce the fricative uvular sound (find it here).


These are a few dictionaries with expressions of the Swiss German dialects: Dialektwörter, Idiotikon and Schweizer Wörterbuch.

16 replies »

  1. Aw, Swiss German… many years ago, I worked at the head office of a big travel company in the UK, which had offices all over the world, including one in Bern. I spoke to my colleagues there regularly, in High German, of course. A Swiss accent in High German is very pleasant to the ear 😉 But there was one “problem”. Her name was Teresa, and she was Portuguese. She didn’t speak any English, only her native tongue and German in the Bernese Dialect. I could not communicate with her at all. I think she understood me, but I didn’t understand understand a word of what she was telling me… LOL.

  2. That’s quite funny! You had a one-way dialogue or better “monologue” then? How did she not speak at least Standard Swiss German? I can imagine that if you spoke to her on the telephone, this must have been very frustrating… I must say that the Bernese Swiss German is particularly slow, compared to the other dialects, but it has some very “strong” expressions and it’s really not easy to someone who isn’t familiar with these dialects, to understand. Especially if the dialogue isn’t face to face. – Do you know the performances of Massimo Rocchi (an italian comedian) about Swissgerman dialects, Ffrench etc. especially the “Bäärntütsch”? Have a look about it here (it’s only a small fragment…):

  3. I see we have more in common with Swiss German than I thought! We have more exposure from the France than they have from us. When they broadcast a movie from Québec, they put subtitles too. But we don’t have subtitles on French movies… 😉 French “argot” can be hard for us to understand even if we are exposed to French movies from a young age. Unfortunately, my german is not good enough too understand what Massimo Rocchi was talking about but his mimics are priceless… 😀

    • Oh yes, the argot can be tricky… I agree. About Massimo Rocchi, yes, they should put subtitles there too ;-), but it’s great when he talks about languages. There is one very short one about “venir de partir”, which is difficult to understand semantically: how can you “come to go”… have a look: (and there are more about the Petit Robert, the Grande Bibliothèque de France etc.).

  4. So funny. Thank you! I think that only Germans could taxonimise their dialects to this degree of detail, “High Alemanish” and so on. Indians and Chinese, who have hundreds of languages and countless dialects, don’t seem to organize the data to this extent.

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