Languages in Switzerland

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Languages in Switzerland

There is no Swiss language. Depending on where you are in the country the locals might speak Swiss-German ("Schwiizertüütsch", expressed in Zürich dialect), French, Italian, or, in the valleys of Graubünden (engl.: Grisons), Romansh, an ancient Romance language. All four languages are considered official languages ( except that Standard German is the official German language, and not Swiss German, which is various dialects ). Some cities such as Biel/Bienne and Fribourg/Freiburg are officially bilingual, and any part of Switzerland has multilingual residents, with German, English, and French being the most widely spoken second languages depending on the area.

Around two-thirds of the population is German-speaking, mostly in the centre, north, and east. French is spoken in the west, while Italian is spoken in the south of the Alps. Romansh is native to parts of the canton of Graubünden (engl.: Grisons). The Swiss learn one of the other Swiss languages in school in addition to English, so in the larger cities you will have no trouble finding English-speaking people. In the countryside, it is less common, but hardly rare. People under the age of 50 typically speak more fluent English than older people, and English has become the most important second language in German-speaking Switzerland, prompting a debate regarding what the first foreign language taught in Swiss-German schools should be (French or English). Nonetheless, students eventually learn both.

The Swiss German language situation is insofar exceptional that all Swiss-Germans speak a local dialect as their native tongue (and there are more dialects than Swiss cantons), i.e. in all ordinary informal settings (family, friends, job, markets, etc.). However, in school they are also taught to speak Swiss Standard German (only slightly different from the Standard German spoken in Germany) which they use for official situations (newspapers/magazines, theatre, education, museums/exhibitions, news on TV and radio, national/cantonal/communal parliaments, courts, formal presentations, documentaries etc.) and particularly in almost all written situations. Even so, many Swiss Germans write in their dialect variants in, for example, text messages, e-mails and YouTube comments, though there is often little or no consensus as to how to write certain words in a specific dialect (there is an Alemannic wikipedia with articles written in a range of dialects).

Swiss German is no concise dialect group itself, but just a collective term for the Alemannic dialects spoken in Switzerland. Alemannic is divided into Low, High and Highest Alemannic, with Highest Alemannic being spoken in the alpine southern part of German-speaking Switzerland (e.g. Obwalden, Uri and eastern Valais) and High Alemannic in the flatter north (e.g. Zürich, St. Gallen and Berne). The dialect of Basel is traditionally considered Low Alemannic, but has become closer to being High Alemannic.

Swiss German exhibits many major phonetical, lexical and grammatical differences from Standard German, making it largely unintelligible to (even native) Standard German speakers, and Highest Alemannic is usually completely incomprehensible to non-Swiss, with even other Swiss-Germans often having a hard time. What makes Highest Alemannic so different is the fact that it missed the so-called Second Germanic consonant shift taking place between the 4th and 9th century in the geographically higher regions of the German-speaking world. The other place where this consonant shift did not occur was north of Hamburg in northern Germany. The alpine Swiss-Germans missed it because of isolation from the rest of the world by high Alp mountain chaines in the north, the east, and the south, making it extremely hard to have regular contact with the rest of the world, and to the west, where the Franco-Provencal speaking Savoys lived; another natural, but societal border.

So do not be surprised if you can not understand locals at all, even if you are fluent in Standard German. Again, however, all German-speaking Swiss learn (Swiss) Standard German in school, so aside from some elderly farmers up the mountains, almost all people can speak Standard German perfectly well. Since Swiss German is the (mostly orally) spoken language by the Swiss Germans, it is no surprise that you will find a lot of dialect-based broadcastings in Swiss media. However, news, movies, (political) discussions, interviews, documentaries etc. are being broadcasted in (Swiss) Standard German on most TV and radio stations. However, local broadcasting are usually spoken in the native dialect of the current speaker. This is especially true for radio channels with a rather younger and/or lower educated audience. On the other side, it is rather unsual that movies in cinemas are being shown in a synchronized version (quite opposite to Germany, France, or Italy for example), but are shown in their original languages with subtitles in German and French (or Italian).

The French version of La Suisse Romande / La Romandie (the French-speaking Switzerland), Swiss French, is essentially standard French with some differences. It is spoken more slowly, with more of a drawl. The numbers are not the same. Though anyone will understand you when you usesoixante-dix, quatre-vingt, quatre-vingt-dix (70, 80, 90), the use of these vanish as you proceed east along Lac Léman: in Geneva soixante-dix becomes septante and quatre-vingt-dix becomes nonante.quatre-vingts and huitante are both acceptable ways to say the number eighty. However, by the time you reach Lausanne, quatre-vingts has given way to huitante, and in the Valais it is possible to hear the almost Italian octante.

Another difference is that you may encounter people using the word cornet to define a plastic bag (as opposed to the word sachet that would be heard in France). French has also had a significant impact on Swiss German vocabulary, making it different from the German heard spoken in Austria or Germany. Remember even in German Switzerland, a streetcar is a "Tram", not a "Strassenbahn"!

Swiss-German dialects have quite a few words from French, which are perfectly assimilated. Glace (ice cream) for example is pronounced /ɡlas/ in French but [ˈɡ̊lasːeː] or [ˈɡ̊lasːə] in many Swiss German dialects. The French word for 'thank you', merci, is also used as in merci vilmal, literally "thanks many times". Possibly, these words are not direct adoptions from French but survivors of the once more numerous French loanwords in Standard German, many of which have fallen out of use in Germany.

In many rural areas, the related Franco-Provencal language is still spoken by parts of the population, mainly elders. One notable town is Evolène in the Valais where most of the adult population still speaks Franco-Provencal natively. Virtually all speakers, however, also speak French.

Swiss Italian is basically standard Italian with German and French influences and is the native tongue of most people in Italian-speaking Switzerland, although old and rural people often speak the related Lombard language instead, though in this case Italian is most often spoken in addition to this.

Romansh is a Rhaeto-Romance language descended from the Vulgar Latin spoken by the Roman era occupiers of the region. It is closely related to French, Occitan, and Lombard, as well as the other Romance languages to a lesser extent. Native Romansh-speakers are usually trilingual, also speaking perfect Swiss-German and Standard German; in fact, it is not rare to meet a Romansh person whose native tongue is actually Swiss-German. In the 2000 Swiss census, 35,095 people (of which 27,038 in the canton of Grisons) indicated Romansh as the language of "best command", and 61,815 also as a "regularly spoken" language. Spoken by around 0.9% of Switzerland's 7.9 million inhabitants, Romansh is Switzerland's least-used national language in terms of number of speakers and the tenth most spoken language in Switzerland overall.

First Languages Spoken in Switzerland

  • German: 63.7%
  • French: 20.3%
  • Italian: 6.5%
  • Romansh: 0.5% / 0.9%
  • Serbo-Croatian: 1.5%
  • Albanian: 1.3%
  • Portugese: 1.2%
  • Spanish: 1.1%
  • English: 1%
  • Turkish: 0.6%
  • Rest: 1.9%

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