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A Dummy’s Guide to Swiss German

Grüezi mitenand! [Hello everyone!]

Anyone flying into Switzerland and expecting to be greeted in German by a customs officer may at first think they’ve ended up in the wrong country upon hearing the local language.

We’re told that Switzerland has four official languages: German (64%), French (21%), Italian (7%) and Romansh (<1%), but this isn’t quite the case. What people actually speak here is Swiss German (a range of Alemannic dialects), rather than German German (or ‘High German’) and they differ quite a lot.

Swiss German differs from city to city – and from valley to valley – too. One of the noticeable differences between High German and Swiss German is in pronunciation.

For example the High German ‘ung’ is pronounced as ‘ig’, ‘ei’ as ‘ie’, ‘n’s are often omitted and if you seem to hear people with throat infections, you’re probably just mistaking it for the coarse ‘ch’ which the Swiss say instead of ‘k’! As can be seen in these common examples:

High German:                     Swiss German:                 English:

Kuchenkasten                     Chüchichäschtli                   Kitchen cupboard

Verzweigung                        Verzwiegig                          Intersection

Lebensgefährlich                 Läbesgföhrlech                    Deadly

Not only does Swiss German have its own pronunciation, but it also has its own vocabulary and grammar – for instance, there is no simple past tense or genitive case in Swiss German, although it does have its own set of articles etc.

Swiss German sounds very pleasing to the ear and somehow more ‘natural’ than High German, perhaps due to the sing-song nature of the dialect’s intonation. But this is very much my personal opinion!

Thankfully – for those of us more familiar with High German – Swiss German tends to be just a spoken language. All print media and written correspondence are in High German (excluding informal text messages or emails etc.). Or more accurately: Swiss Standard German – which is pretty much the same as High German, except for a few peculiarities.

Although Swiss Standard German is supposed to be like High German, there are quite a few interesting differences. The Swiss tend to like to make themselves different to their German neighbours in any way possible, and this is especially true with their written language.

Where perfectly adequate words exist in High German, the Swiss tend towards their French influences, saying quirky hybrids such as ‘Merci vielmal‘, (thanks very much).

You won’t find any Fahrräder (bicycles) in Switzerland for example; the Swiss prefer to cycle on Velos – which originates from French (except with its own unique Swiss German pronunciation).

Even where French words are used in High German, the Swiss opt to be awkward and choose another French synonym to use! A Friseur is what you’d ask for when you’d like a haircut in Germany, but in Switzerland you’d ask for a Coiffure.

I, myself, am very much still beginning my journey to speak Swiss German with confidence. How about you? Which Swiss dialect to you like the best?


For those of you who would like to learn more about Swiss German, I can recommend some online resources that may help:


Learning resources:

http://www.eldrid.ch/swgerman.htm (Highly recommended)


Swiss German media:

www.wilmaa.com (TV and Radio within Switzerland)

www.drs3.ch (Radio)

www.videoportal.sf.tv (Swiss TV)