Switzerland has a population of around 8.5 million people, who live in an area about the size of the tiny U.S. states of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. And yet, here there are four official languages. In addition to Standard German (sometimes called High German, or Hochdeutsch), French, Italian and Romansh are spoken here. So where does Schweizerdeutsch — or Swiss German — come in, you may ask? That’s a story in and of itself, and involves the difference between a language and a dialect.
Are Schweizerdeutsch, Swiss High German And Schwizerdütsch All The Same?
First we need to distinguish between the two concepts Schweizerdeutsch and Schweizer Hochdeutsch (Swiss High German). They sound a bit similar, and are often used interchangeably among the Swiss, but they’re not identical.
Schweizerdeutsch (Swiss German) is actually not a single language variation, but rather includes all possible alemannic dialects that are spoken in the German-speaking region of Switzerland. The word alemannic refers to German as well as West Germanic dialects. That is, the concept of Schweizerdeutsch simply means: all the German dialects spoken in Switzerland. Thus, it can’t count as an official language in Switzerland.
At the same time, Swiss High German is not a stand-alone language, either. This might be apparent in the term “High German” (Hochdeutsch). Swiss High German — just like Austrian High German — is a variation of Standard German. This means that it’s a variant of the German language with its own specific and codified rules that clearly define what is correct and incorrect. These rules, by the way, are set and maintained by the Swiss Association for the German Language. And don’t worry about getting confused: The High German that is spoken in Germany is also a standard variant and operates on the same level as Swiss High German.
Now, when it comes to Schwizerdütsch, we’re already elbow-deep in dialect, as that is just the Schweizerdeutsch pronunciation of the word Schweizerdeutsch. This can, of course, also vary a bit by region, and in certain circumstances you may also see or hear it as Schwiizertüütsch.
So What’s In The Swiss Duden?
As with most Standard Variants, Swiss German does present some differences in various linguistic areas, such as grammar, pronunciation or vocabulary. Words or expression that are recorded by the Swiss Duden Committee are called Helvetismen, or Helveticisms. Many of these Helveticisms are mutually understandable to native (Germany-based) German speakers, but others are a bit tougher to figure out.
- After getting up, many Swiss eat a Morgenessen instead of its German counterpart Frühstück, and before bed they enjoy Nachtessen rather than Abendbrot.
- Perhaps on the menu is a little Hacktäschli (meatball, in Germany Frikadelle or Bulette) with Nüsslisalat (lamb’s lettuce, in Germany Feldsalat).
- And if you’d rather not lug heavy bottles of mineral water up your steps, you can always go to the tap for some Hahnenwasser, which in Germany is usually Leitungswasser.
Because of Switzerland’s proximity to France, Helveticisms also include some words that are either borrowed from the French or appropriated with Swiss pronunciation. That’s why in Switzerland, a bicycle isn’t ein Fahrrad, it’s ein Velo; a ticket is not eine Fahrkarte, it’s ein Billet; and many people thank each other with a merci, which in the Swiss pronunciation emphasizes the first syllable (unlike in the French, which emphasizes the last). (By the way, such Helveticisms have been used in Germany; a ticket was a Billet until the end of the 19th century.)
But How Does Schweizerdeutsch Sound?
Given that there are numerous dialects in the German-speaking region of Switzerland alone, the pronunciation varies depending on where you are. We can, however, locate a few general examples, especially if you look at Schwizerdütsch. Probably the best-known mannerism of this variant is the “k” that is pronounced in many dialects with a [ch] sound similar to the Standard German [ch] in the word Buch (book). That means a child (Kind) is pronounced like [chind], and in winter it can be [chalt] (cold); even a Sack sometimes sounds like a [sakch].
In addition, many common word endings are pronounced differently, for example the “-ung” that ends words such as die Richtung (direction) or die Kreuzung (crossing). In this case, these are pronounced [richtig] and [kreuzig]. The -e at the end of some words also often falls away, which may be familiar to some speakers of dialects in Germany: Trees (Bäume) are [bäum], and people (Leute) are [leut].
Another big difference from Hochdeutsch is the pronunciation of vowels, especially if a word contains a diphthong, or two vowels together. What you can still see in the written language, but isn’t pronounced aloud anymore in Hochdeutsch, has in some cases remained pronounced in Switzerland. For example, the word for love, Liebe, is pronounced [li-be] in Germany but [li-ebi] in Switzerland. However, in contrast to this, the word for house (Haus) is pronounced without the dipthong, [huus], in many Swiss dialects, as is the word for far, weit, which is pronounced [wiit]. These particularities go back to Middle High German, which was spoken from around 1050 to 1350.
The Future Of Swiss dialects
According to a survey, many Swiss view Hochdeutsch more like a foreign language, and in many contexts of everyday life — with the exception of school lessons and some professions — primarily Schweizerdeutsch is used. At the same time, this can also lead to communication problems, as Swiss from other regions of the country learn only Hochdeutsch in school, and no Swiss German dialects. As a result, in the professional environment it is English that is actually gaining wider use. With this come not only efforts to support the use of Hochdeutsch in Switzerland, but simultaneous fears that the dialects will be repressed.
This article was originally published on the German edition of Babbel Magazine.