Communicating in Switzerland presents unique challenges. Among other things, Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh. The largest language group, accounting for more than 60% of the Swiss population, is German. However, the German spoken in Switzerland differs in several ways from the standard German spoken in Germany or Austria.
There are historical and cultural factors that account for these differences. Although it is in the centre of Europe, Switzerland is a highly independent country. This independence has developed in part because of the country’s mountainous terrain and its political neutrality. These factors have, in turn, impacted the development of the German spoken by the country’s inhabitants.
And it’s not just the way Swiss German is spoken, though it does, indeed, sound quite different from standard German; it also has some important differences in spelling, vocabulary, and grammar that make it distinctive.
Historical and cultural background
Switzerland’s unique cultural and historical background has played a significant role in the development of Swiss German as a language variant (fun fact: “Swiss German” is not a language itself, but rather a collection of dialects). Switzerland has a long history of political independence and neutrality, beginning with the formation of the “Ewiger Bund” (Eternal Alliance) in 1291 when the cantons of Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden banded together. Working together allowed the Swiss cantons to protect their interests and guard against competing powers. It also allowed the country to maintain its independence in the face of foreign threats. And independence has become one of Switzerland’s defining characteristics.
In addition, Switzerland’s geography has contributed to the development of Swiss German. The country’s steep mountains and isolated valleys have made communication and transportation between regions difficult, which also played a role in the emergence of regional dialects. These regional dialects vary in pronunciation, vocabulary, and syntax, making Swiss German both complex and diverse.
As a result of its relative social and cultural isolation from other German-speaking countries, Swiss German has maintained some unique features. This isolation has also allowed Swiss German to evolve in its own way, creating a distinct cultural identity that has continued into the modern era.
Swiss German Spelling
In practice, Swiss German is a spoken language, but it has been standardised over the years to form what is known as a “Schriftdeutsch” (written German). While attempts have been made to spell spoken Swiss German, there is no uniform method for doing so, especially as there are many different dialects. In fact, the dialect spoken in Bern might be unintelligible even to a speaker of Zurideutsch, or the Swiss German spoken in Zurich.
For the most part, the spelling of Swiss German mirrors the spelling in Germany and Austria. However, there is one distinct spelling feature of standard Swiss German that is important for translators to be aware of when working for Swiss clients: Swiss German does not use the eszett (ß). This letter is used to represent two sounds in standard German: a double “s” sound, and a hard or sharp “s” sound. In standard German, for example, the word for “street” is written “Straße,” while in Switzerland, it is written “Strasse.”
What if the two spellings result in two different words? In standard German, the words “Masse” and “Maße” look similar but have distinct pronunciations and different meanings. The former means “bulk” or “mass,” while the latter is a unit of measurement. In Switzerland, however, the two words are spelt the same, and it is necessary to use context to determine the correct meaning.
Swiss German Vocabulary
One of the most distinctive features of Swiss German is its vocabulary. Because of its geographic location and its multilingual population, the Swiss have borrowed quite a few terms from French, in particular. In Switzerland, for example, you will hear the word “Trottoir” for “sidewalk” instead of “Gehweg,” “Billett” for the ticket you buy to board a tram or bus instead of “Fahrkarte,” and “Trottinett” instead of “Scooter.” There are also some German-French mashups, such as “merci vielmals” (often pronounced more like “messi viema”), which includes the French word for “thank you” and the German word “vielmals” for “very much.”
Sometimes the Swiss word retains a more archaic meaning. For example, in Germany “Abdankung” means “abdication” or “resignation.” In Switzerland, however, the word retains the older meaning of “burial” or “funeral.” Translators need to make sure they’re using the right word in order to avoid embarrassing faux-pas.
Swiss words can also have different genders than standard German, which has three genders: masculine, feminine, and neutral. Radio is neutral in standard German (“das”), but masculine in Swiss German (“der”). Meanwhile, it’s “die Bank” in Germany, but “der Bank” in Switzerland. Email also has a different definite article – it’s “die E-Mail” in German, but “das E-Mail” in Swiss.
There are also some unique Helvetisms, or words that are used only in Switzerland. For example, a midmorning snack is a “Znüni” (from the contraction “zum neun” or “at 9 a.m.”), and a midafternoon snack is a “Zvieri” (from the contraction for “zum vier” or “at 4 p.m.”). And when you start eating your snack or any other meal, you’re likely to hear “en Guete” or “bon appétit” instead of “Guten Appetit” or “Mahlzeit” as the Germans say.
Swiss German Grammar
Although there are not many grammatical differences between standard German and Swiss German, there are a couple of points that translators need to be aware of when writing for a Swiss audience. These points relate to the possessive and verb tenses.
The possessive, known as the genitive case, does not exist in Switzerland. In Germany or Austria, speakers would say the equivalent of “the girl’s book,” but a Swiss German speaker would say “the book of the girl” instead. While it is possible to use the latter construction in standard German, it is less common. Swiss German has another possessive construction. Unlike the first construction, this one does not exist in standard German: “the girl her book” (“es Mädel sis Buech”). Using this construction would draw looks in Germany but is perfectly okay in Switzerland.
Expressions to indicate the past tense also differ in Swiss German. To express an action that occurred in the past, a Swiss speaker would use what is known as the perfect construction. For example, a Swiss speaker would say the equivalent of “I have gone” rather than “I went.” While both constructions are perfectly acceptable in standard German, the simple past tense is more common. The Swiss, meanwhile, tend not to use this tense. While it may not be verboten, it is something to be aware of when writing for a Swiss audience.
Written Swiss German is similar to the German used in Germany or Austria, but there are a few main differences that make Swiss German stand out. Knowledge of a few key points will help speakers avoid embarrassing gaffes and better communicate with Swiss audiences.
by Jim Cohen
About the author: Jim Cohen is the Head of Business Development at German Language Services, an ISO-certified provider of high-quality translations, editing and content writing in German and English with offices in Seattle, Cologne and New York. Learn more about GLS.