So they say over at Sawf News:

“It’s true we Swiss Germans are becoming more isolated,” Marianne Junger, a 30-year-old English language instructor from Bern. “I would not marry outside my language group for example and most of us are reluctant to take jobs in other Swiss towns.”

The break with standard German came after World War I when Swiss Germans wanted to separate themselves from what was going on in Germany, according to Roy Oppenheim, a former director at the Swiss national broadcaster SRG/SSR.

“This trend was only strengthened after the Second World War and later during the 1970s it became fashionable for radio and television programs to broadcast in local dialect.” Standard German remains the written language for the federal government, banking, school instruction, newspapers and literature.

But now fewer Swiss Germans speak proper German and are increasingly turning to dialect even in written form. For young Swiss Germans dialect has become the language of text messaging, e-mail and even poetry and rap music…

Of course, they include the standard “on the other hand” balance: “But the Forum Helveticum report may be pushing the pendulum back toward standard German with educators insisting it once again be the language of classroom instruction beginning this year.” Not to mention the standard self-interested quotes (“‘Young people are limiting themselves in their contact with the outside world…,’ said Pablo Barblan, director of the Forum Helveticum, which encourages communication among Switzerland’s diverse language communities”) and idiotic statements about language (“Unlike high German, dialects have simple grammar”); furthermore, they say “to mark this year’s 60th anniversary of The Little Prince, a translation has appeared in Bernerdeutsch under the title Dr Chyl Prinz,” but I couldn’t help but notice that in the picture accompanying the story the title is clearly Der Chly Prinz. Still, an interesting piece; anybody have any thoughts on linguistic developments in Switzerland? (Thanks to Sidcup for the link.)


  1. “It’s true we Swiss Germans are becoming more isolated,”
    *snort* . Well, sure, but when you’re coming from a starting point of “fighting with the Luxembourgers for the ‘most cosmopolitan Europeans of all’ title” and it’s a matter of a tiny bit more isolated, that doesn’t matter.
    I need to go visit the country, but the twentysomething Swiss I’ve encountered outside the country’s borders have been just as capably and comfortably mulitlingual as the historical stereotype suggests.

  2. That reminds me – didn’t the Catholic Church and the Crown once try to force native speakers of some dialect or other to communicate in Latin? I seem to remember reading that they were quite successful for a few hundred years, before this same dialect re-emerged. I think it might have been called English ….

  3. Eliza: short answer; not remotely, what are you smoking, can I have some?

  4. Interesting post. I wonder if there are any Schwyzerdeutsch newspapers?

  5. Die Wikipedia only mentions its use in the classifieds and the occasional dialect word slipping into a mostly Hochdeutsch story (even in NZZ!). Google for Bärndütsch Zitig, usw., doesn’t find much right away, either.

  6. The term “Swiss German” strikes me as odd to describe the people who speak Swiss German. It makes them sound like a Swiss type of Germans, not a German (-ethnic or -language) type of Swiss. “Swiss Germans” finds 16kGhits; “German Swiss” gets 398k; the quality of the results in either case is questionable…

  7. Tim: I think that in English we don’t want to have differing terms for language & people if we can help it. So since “Schwyzerdeutsch” is an ok term for the language, “Swiss German” is an ok term for the language and people in English, even though your point is well taken.
    I always heard that Swiss MP’s spoke Hochdeutsch on the floor and Schwyzerdeutsch in the hallways. But the idea that modern Swiss (outside Appenzell (>-^)) can’t speak Hochdeutsch strikes me as more than a little surprisingly odd.

  8. Liechtensteiners essentially speak a Swiss German dialect, and I have pretty good first-hand information that many of them have trouble speaking perfect standard German.

  9. English-Americans speak American English.

  10. What am I smoking? I don’t, but you might try asking Melvyn Bragg (“The Adventure of English”) what he’s on. Official communication, both church and state, was in Latin.

    I can’t envision that as ever happening even though I remember reading an article back in 1972 about how some Swiss wanted Schwiezerdeutsch to be officially declared a language separate from German. The reason I don’t think it will ever happen can be seen in neighboring countries where Parisian French is replacing Norman French, Breton and Provençal and the London dialect of English is replacing provincial Englishes and even Scots English.
    If anything, standard German could someday become powerful enough to threaten French and most of the languages of eastern Europe; not through a German conquest necessarily but simply through German economic penetration and increased intermarriages with Germans.

  12. That is interesting about the World War I incentive to speak more Swiss German.
    What I would like to know is when Standard German ceased to be the language of classroom instruction, since Forum Helveticum refers to insistence that ‘it once again be the language of classroom instruction beginning this year’ – insisting, but presuming not able to enforce this?
    From what I know, the classroom language and spoken language is Swiss German, but in school they learn to write standard German. The use of dialect in SMS and the occasional ad doesn’t seem a very drastic change, but I can imagine there are a lot of Swiss Germans who don’t speak standard German regularly and they may even work in companies that use ‘English’ as the work language!

  13. Well, Eliza . . . you’ve just got some things mixed up. The Romans invaded the British isles, stayed for about 400 years and eventually left circa 410 A.D. English did not exist yet; the people in Britain spoke Celtic languages.
    You probably know that English is considered a “Germanic” language. That’s because after the Romans left, the British Isles were attacked and settled by Saxons, Angles and Jutes. These people brought their “West” Germanic languages with them, and this was the first step in the creation of an English language – “Old English” had begun.
    The next step was several hundred years later, when the Vikings invaded, their language became an influence on Old English too. Though still Germanic in origin, the language of the Vikings was “North” Germanic. The language changed, but was still Old English as such.
    The BIG step occurred when the Normans conquered England in 1066. Though the Normans were (in essence) Vikings, they had previously conquered parts of what is now France and had adopted a predecessor of modern French for their language.
    At this point, one could say that three languages were in force.
    Latin was the language of the Church and “higher” learning. French was the court language, spoken by the upper classes in part as it was a bit trendy! English (after the Normans, “Middle English”) was the common language, spoken by most people, but without much clout, little literature and no prestige.
    Most people got by knowing only English, though since “history is the history of the ruling classes,” eventually things got muddled and this great big stew became Modern English after a few hundred years.
    So getting back to your comments, the Romans really had nothing to do with English at all . . . they left before the English language began developing. The Normans, on the other hand, were kind of like Romans in a sense, and they had a big impact on the language. It’s tough to say the “suppressed” English – the majority people in England spoke English throughout the Norman conquest. But English literature did suffer for a few hundred years after the Normans came, and its status in official circles was quite low.
    English only “re-emerged” in the sense that it was eventually favored over French and Latin in the higher classes. But these higher classes had not spoken English previously, so “re-emergence” is a poor term for what happened. What really happened is that English, though altered, eventually suppressed Latin and French.

  14. John:
    I think you’ve misunderstood the context.

  15. Umm . . . how so?

  16. I too am confused — I thought John gave a good summary of the history, and I don’t know of any period in which Latin was imposed on English-speakers.

  17. Well, I haven’t read Melvyn Bragg, but I gathered Eliza was referring purely to formal written documents at a later date – not comparable with the situation in Switzerland, of course, and not tantamount to suppressing a language, I admit.
    I apologize if I was unfair to John, but it seemed to me he was telling Eliza in simple terms a lot of stuff she already knew. But she will have to speak for herself. Apologies for jumping in – I should be doing something completely different!

  18. I’m confused why Aidan thinks Swiss are particularly cosmopolitan. I suppose generalizations are just that, but in my experience German Swiss are certainly among the more parochial isolated groups in Europe. For all its charms it’s not a country that is terribly welcoming to outsiders.

  19. For Tim: -The term “Swiss German” strikes me as odd to describe the people who speak Swiss German. It makes them sound like a Swiss type of Germans, not a German (-ethnic or -language) type of Swiss.
    I’ve been around a long time, but on several occasions during my education, it was made quite clear that ‘Swiss German’ was the language spoken by the ‘German Swiss’. Given the state of modern U.S. education, I suppose that that distinction is not still being made, but it still is accurate.
    Having lived and studied language in Switzerland for three years, I find this whole post extremely interesting. As a ‘somewhat’ speaker of Bulgarian, I was told by a Bulgarian expatriate in Switzerland that one does not find ‘real’ Bulgarians outside the country. Those who go away are not the real stuff, which can only be found inside the country. I expect that that generalization can probably be applied to the differing degrees of attitude and language mastery with resoect to the Schwytzerteutsch/’Schwiezerdeutsch’ speakers who live and stay at home vs. those who go away and circulate.

  20. Thanks for the informative summary, John, but as MM says, I was aware of all that. The operative word of my earlier post was that OFFICIAL communication was in Latin, but that eventually English became the official language of state and church, and by implication, also achieved international status. Either I wasn’t clear enough or you misread. Or both.

  21. Kenneth Rexroth said that Switzerland was “Kansas stacked vertically”. That is: despite the spectacular scenery, the Swiss are very stodgy.
    I actually am pro-stodginess, Switzerland has no religious, linguistic, or geographical unity, so its only unifying force is a shared committment to the Swiss system — a committment which is basically conventional and conservative.
    I actually also think that Scandinavia does as well as it does because most Scandinavians, even the libertines among them, are pretty stodgy and respectful of community standards.

  22. I hate to type this, knowing that it contributes nothing, but I must thank John Emerson for that characterisation.
    In future, I’ll refer to myself as a stodgy libertine.

  23. Je suis Americaine qui parle un estrange dialecte de Francais. Il est cet genre qui les Americaines qui l’edudie la francais en ecole secondaire parle. Mais les anes, les anes, les ane… et nous oublie la grammaire, la vocabulaire etc.
    C’est fromage, non?

  24. I was made curious enough by this post to search for the Standard German (Der Kleine Prinz), and Bernerdeutsch (Der Chly Prinz) editions, in case anyone is interested.
    I also looked for the editions of the Tintin books – apparantly, they standard German translation changed the name of the main character to “Tim”; whereas the Bernerdeutsch editions refer to “Täntän”. Presumably they are trying to approximate the original French.

  25. Won’t someone help Darius with his donkeys?

  26. I still take issue with Eliza’s comments. To quote her, “That reminds me – didn’t the Catholic Church and the Crown once try to force native speakers of some dialect or other to communicate in Latin?”
    I reckon now that Eliza must be talking about the use of Latin during the period of the Normans’ rule. But the reality is that, during this time, the “native speakers” (Eliza’s term) of English just kept right on speaking English!
    The few people who did use Latin for state and church purposes were (generally) Normans . . . who never did speak English!
    So there was no conversion by “force,” really, and therefore no re-emergence. Does this make sense?

  27. “The few people who did use Latin for state and church purposes were (generally) Normans . . . who never did speak English!” — John
    Careful here. Long before the Normans arrived in England you had great Latinists like Venerable Bede, Alcuin of York and Alfred The Great just to name a few. The Irish monastic tradition with its heavy emphasis on Latin was very strong in England the 7th & 8th centuries A.D.

  28. bathrobe says

    The situation of Swiss German is uncannily similar to that of Cantonese in HK (although perhaps heading in opposite directions).

  29. But the fact is that Eliza’s simply wrong — no one ever tried to force the English to communicate in Latin, at any time in English history. Nothing remotely like that ever happened. I am well aware that Englishmen spoke and wrote in Latin, if they belonged to the upper echelons of the Church hierarchy, or if they were official record-keepers — I’ve read a fair amount of that Latin, and pretty mangled stuff a lot of it is — but to equate that with trying to force English-speakers to swap over to Latin is ridiculous. That’s like saying the IEEE is trying to force Chinese-speakers to communicate in English. If you want to participate in international engineering, you learn English; but the IEEE doesn’t give a damn what the Chinese speak.

  30. You’re both choosing selective interpretations of my point. The official language of both church and state was Latin, not English.

  31. I hear you, Eliza, but that’s a far cry from:
    “Didn’t the Catholic Church and the Crown once try to force native speakers of some dialect or other to communicate in Latin?”
    What the official language of church and state matters was has little to do with what most people spoke. You’ve never addressed the issue of “force.”

  32. I think The Chyle Prince is a made-for-TV movie about a gastroenterologist.

  33. Vance Maverick says

    I know something about German Switzerland, but it’s all way out of date — I was in middle school in Zuerich more than 25 years ago, lived there half a year in the ’80s, and have been back occasionally since.
    First, chly is simply the German word klein, or “small”, with Swiss pronunciation. From my perspective as a foreigner, about 80% of the lexicon could be accounted for by an application of simple sound-change rules to standard German.
    The language of instruction was in my day pretty flexible. The same teacher would teach math in High German, cuss us out on the playground in dialect, and teach gym in an intermediate speech. (He also taught mechanical drawing, which was still a boys-only class in 1979, in “intermediate”.)
    Many people told me then that the distinctness of the Swiss dialects was dying out, due in part to the leveling influence of the media. An elderly relative complained, for example, about the introduction of Tschues (informal for goodbye), I believe from Austria.
    The article claims that in the ’70s there was an increase in the public use of dialect, e.g., in broadcasting. This is not necessarily a contradiction. One could imagine that earlier, dialects were strong and local, and only High German could bridge the gap between Basel and Lucerne — while today, a general Swiss dialect is coalescing, unifying the German Swiss but separating them from the broader German culture.
    However, the article presents very little real evidence, just some random opinion and anecdote.
    I’m inclined to assume it’s a pseudo-story.

  34. Vance Maverick says

    Further, contrary to the impression given in the article, dialect poetry is nothing new. And dialect boosterism was pretty strong in the ’60s when my parents lived there — I believe they still have a set of LP language-learning discs to teach Zuercher Mundart.
    Just more reasons for skepticism about the article. Next they’ll be discovering that college kids have sex.

  35. “For young Swiss Germans dialect has become the language of text messaging, e-mail and even poetry and rap music” — heh. And I suppose in English we do all our rapping, e-mail and text messaging in BBC/NPR Standard? Imagine that anyone would rap in the vernacular! Shocking!
    I’ve only spent enough time around German Swiss to know that I don’t understand Swiss German. But according to my own dated, anecdotal experience in Germany and Austria, Vance’s points make sense. A simultaneous weakening of microdialects and a strengthening of flattened regional ones is perfectly plausible.
    In Munich in the early 80’s I knew university students who weren’t entirely comfortable speaking in Hochdeutsch. I was told that that was because Bavarian is actually close enough to Hochdeutsch for there to be significant linguistic interference; supposedly the diglossia of regions with Low German dialects is more like classical bilingualism, whereas the diglossia of some other parts of Germany is closer to a continuum of register in which it is possible to function without ever quite mastering the formal register. I don’t know whether that’s true, it’s just what I was told.

  36. Siganus Sutor says

    John : « French was the court language »
    I’m not sure whether this matter of fact has changed (aren’t Brits used to keeping de facto customs in place for ages?). Do you know if it is still the case?
    “Dieu et mon droit” and “Honni soit qui mal y pense” are mottos which remain very “English” in essence !

  37. jaywalker says

    A Swiss providing some info. First on the aspect of closedness:
    Paradoxically, the rise of Swiss German is due to *increased exposure* to the outside (English) world. While there has always been a fight (even civil wars, 1847 Sonderbundskrieg) between an open & urban vs. a self-sufficient & rural Switzerland (blue vs red), the country on the whole is certainly one of the most international existing:
    1. Swiss are among the world’s top travellers (driving 2-3 hours basically gets you out of the country to experience visibly different cultures (French, Italian, Germans, Austrians).
    2. Extreme exposure to foreign media. Your basic cable channel subscription gives you 50 programmes in German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish and English. I know of no other country that offers this range on a general level (ie these programmes compete for scarce channel capacity and programmes without viewers are eliminated).
    3. Foreign languages are hard to evade. Every sign is generally in four languages (German, French, Italian and English). Most museums are multilingual, cinema are OV with German and French subtitles and the range of films shown is phenomenal.
    4. Good command of English which has replaced German as the language of business. While Swiss speakers are generally not as fluent as Scandinavians in English, they compensate with a knowledge of at least another foreign tongue.

  38. jaywalker says

    Secondly, about Swiss German:
    1. Swiss German does not exist per se but is actually a collection of different quite distinct dialects. If you enter your pronunciation of ten words (eg. 23 variants for “moon”) to , it will place you correctly within a 20 mile zone within Switzerland. Even native speakers of one dialect have trouble comprehending other dialects. So, the different dialects still prosper. Each dialect also carries a heavy load of connotations (Ad executives better pick the dialect wisely.).
    2. Swiss German has always been the language of choice for informal conversation (SMS and email are just modern examples for it). The informality leads to more creativity (and new words).
    3. Reading SMS, email written in one dialect is quite bothersome for those not speaking that variant. So, apart from insider group communications, written communication is usually German/French or English.
    4. Radio and TV have had the most impact on Swiss German: Formerly distinct quirky language communities (islands) suddenly became exposed to mainstream dialects. Starting in the mid-Eighties, commericial radio stations (apart from high-brow programmes) changed to broadcasting in Swiss German. The advent of commerical TV stations likewise led to much Swiss German on air, formerly quite disapproved behaviour.
    5. Regional centres such as Zürich have imposed their dialect on an ever widening area as young graduates lose their distinctive (rural) dialects.
    6. The wider use of Swiss German in private communication and English in public communication has led to a decline in the verbal capacity to speak standard German. Most Swiss German speakers are quite verbally challenged to speak fast and correct German — which, given German tolerance, results in a further drive to either Swiss German or English.
    7. As the different dialects are used only orally and the speakers never receive any grammar instruction in Swiss German, the language is evolving rapidly. Mixing Swiss German and English is quite popular and fascinating, eg “foodä” as a new verb means to eat fast-food, “gamä” to play console games, …).
    8. Most parents read aloud to their children the fairy tales or The little Prince in standard German. The Bernese etc translations are mostly an insider joke or nice present. Most classics (including Homer … and Asterix) are now available in some dialect.
    Conclusion: Swiss German is quite healthy, the weak point is the slow erosion of fluency in standard German.

  39. Thanks very much — that’s an extremely informative comment!

  40. Paul Clapham says

    As for Asterix, translations into regional languages have been available for a long time. Here’s the current list:
    A single translation for “Swiss German” but four for Austria and a couple of dozen for various German dialects. But I really wonder what their sales are for (e.g.) Asterix translated into Pontic Greek.

  41. Dylan Thurston says

    Unlike high German, dialects have simple grammar…
    That’s an especially good one, in light of the observation that Swiss German has some features (not shared by standard German) that make it apparently not a context-free language.

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