Lessons from Swiss German

Last week’s discussion led to one correspondent, who already has the coolest Gravatar ever, introducing Swiss German into the equation – something I had only ever previously done when discussing Ulster Scots.

My piece on “language interference” only really applies to lamguages of roughly the same standing – large national languages, in that case. Regional or minority languages, such as Catalan and Irish, are somewhat different, partly because they are in more limited use but probably mainly because speakers of such languages are always fluent and often in fact native speakers of another language. It is easy for two people speaking Irish as a second language to throw in an English word they know both will understand; or indeed for a foreign learner of Catalan just to switch to their fluent Spanish rather than hazard a guess at the Catalan in the knowledge that the Catalan listener (who will invariably also speak Spanish) will understand. This is a very different type of interference.

Of course, Scots (or Ulster Scots as it is known in Northern Ireland and Donegal) suffers this severely, as it is not just regional but also closely related to English, the most prominent global language. There is a fuzzy line and significant confusion between what is Scots and what is in fact Scots-influenced English, leading to wide (and frankly understandable) dismissal of the former’s claim to “language status” by the vast bulk of the population on both sides of the Sheuch (see what I did there?!)

So what about Swiss German?

To cut a long (very complicated) story short (so as to simplify it outrageously), Continental West Germanic constitutes a continuum of mutually intelligible dialects running from just beyond Ostend in northern Belgium to just beyond Graz in southeastern Austria. Speakers at each end of the continuum cannot understand each other, but all the way along there are speakers of different dialects who do.

Nevertheless, there is a significant dialect boundary running along a roughly horizontal line around Frankfurt am Main. This is not a perfect line, but a somewhat fuzzy one. Nevertheless, what is spoken to the north of it is undeniably “Low German”, and to the south is “High German”. The difference is marked in a sound shift – north of the line has “water”, “pepper” and so on as in English; south of it has “Wasser”, “Pfeffer” and so on as in modern Standard German; there are also fairly clearly defined grammatical and vocabulary differences.

As Holland (the area around Amsterdam and Rotterdam) rose to prominence, its “Low” version became the educated standard for the whole of the Germanic-speaking Low Countries (what we now refer to as the Netherlands and northern Belgium) – what we now refer to as “Dutch”.

What is now Germany, however, adopted a central standard which was, in most ways, “High” (i.e. southern); Austria and Switzerland (assumed for linguistic purposes to include Liechtenstein) also came to adopt this “High” standard – what we now refer to as “German”.

This presents the curious linguistic situation that the two largest cities in German-speaking Europe, Berlin and Hamburg, are in fact in traditionally “Low” German areas but had “High” German foisted upon them. Because the “High” Standard was for generations in effect a foreign language to be learned by northerners in those cities and elsewhere, northern German speech when speaking “High” became much more regularised (and is in effect the “standard” pronunciation recommended to foreign learners), where southern German speech retained significant regional variation (and is thus now seen to deviate more markedly from the High “Standard”, even though it is fundamentally more southern than northern).

One southern set of dialects which remained, in spoken form, significantly distinct from the Standard were those found in Switzerland, where over two thirds of the population are deemed “German speakers”. They do write Standard German (with minor variations), and speak an albeit markedly accented version of it when in the presence of non-Swiss or non-German speakers (such as in the national parliament), but in fact to each other they all speak Swiss German. This is not a single form but in fact a series of dialects characterised by the fact they underwent the aforementioned sound shift even more thoroughly and happen to be spoken in Switzerland and Liechtenstein (and also in the small neighbouring Austrian province of Vorarlberg). Notably this is the case just as much in urban areas as in rural.

You cannot learn Swiss German in the way you can learn Catalan, nor is there any serious movement towards formal writing (nor, thus, towards any form of written standard). It is a spoken language (albeit used in informal writing, such as internal tourism adverts, newspaper birthday greetings or unofficial emails), and a growing one. On German-language television and radio in Switzerland only news (of local Swiss content) is in Standard German; everything else, from political chat shows to traffic reports, is in Swiss German.

In practice, people from neighbouring parts of Germany and Austria (e.g. Swabia or the Tyrol) have no real difficulty understanding Swiss German, although even they would switch to Standard German in conversation with a Swiss. For Germans from further north or even Austrians from further east, however, comprehension can be difficult without some time taken to gain familiarity.

The main issue is pronunciation, which is broadly more gutteral and has marked differences in vowels (for example sein is pronounced more or less as “sine” in Standard German but similar to “seen” in Swiss). There are also minor differences in syntax (around word order in the clause and particularly a peculiar system of verbal duplication in some cases), in past tense verb forms (for example Standard German gewesen becomes Swiss gsi “been”), and in the range of meanings applied to a given word (for example “schaffen” means something between “to create” and “to accomplish” in Standard German, but more like “to work” in Swiss). Swiss also generally follows southern dialects for its food terms and pronouns, which can be quite different from the Standard usage; it also sometimes has its own optional dialect terms (which can vary from place to place), although in practice very few southern Standard German words are not also used in Swiss (with appropriate phonological adaptation).

Underlying all of this is a (probably subconscious) desire on the part of the Swiss to mark themselves out as distinct (something which characterises the country in many ways and even defines it, but which appears to be sociolinguistically specific to German speakers). Swiss German (to be specific: the distinctiveness of speech from Standard German even fairly well up the social and formal scale in Switzerland) has gained ground since the War while most minority languages and dialects in Europe were losing it. This matches a widely reported general antipathy between German-speaking Swiss and Germans generally; no such antipathy exists between French-speaking Swiss and the French nor between Italian-speaking Swiss and the Italians, and there is no linguistic parallel there either – and so the French of Switzerland is not notably distinct from that of France, and likewise for Italian.

So distinct are Swiss German speakers that, as reported in the comments section on this blog, they will often selected English (or French) words in preference to importing a German innovation. This tendency appears even to have crept into Swiss Standard German (which, for example, prefers English “tram” to Standard German “Strassenbahn” and French “velo” to Standard German “Fahrrad“, “bicycle”).

For all that, there is no question that foreigners and non-German-speaking compatriots will be addressed in Standard German; Swiss German is seen as specific to German-speaking Swiss and is not to be foisted on anyone else (indeed quite the contrary, it is as if outsiders are to be shielded from it). This makes the approach to and purpose of its development quite different from the approach to Catalan (an obvious linguistic parallel) or even seemingly Scots, as there are no notions of standardising the written form or competing generally with the Standard written variety.

Is it a language or a dialect? I asked a German-speaking Swiss that once, to be told politely in effect that the question was irrelevant. “Standard German” is “Standard German” and “Swiss German” is “Swiss German”. And that’s that.

What is the relevance of Swiss German to the rest of us? That is something to ponder as we eat our Muesli…


3 thoughts on “Lessons from Swiss German

  1. korhomme says:

    The language patterns of German are quite remarkably complex, as you’ve indicated. One point though; I understood that the ‘standard’ German came from the dissemination of Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible, sort of effecting a linguistic conformity.

    And Swiss-German; I gather that the three main varieties derive from Allemanisch. Around Basel they speak a ‘low’ version; in the Mittleland (such as Zürich) they speak a ‘high’ version, but in the Alps and the Valais it is ‘highest’. Certainly, people from Basel and Zürich have no difficulty understanding each other, but they both find understanding what is spoken in Valais very difficult (as do the rest of us).

    There are other oddities to Swiss-German. At the roadside, at pedestrian crossings, you often see ‘luuege lose laufe’ (look, listen, walk) with distinctly Swiss meanings of the verbs. And many Swiss words loose the final ‘n’, so ‘laufen’ becomes ‘laufe’. And luuege, as in ‘Mami luueg!’ is pronounced very like ‘look’ in much of N Ireland.

    And, of course, each valley prides itself on a distinct vocabulary and pronunciation, though many words are reasonably widespread. If you like ‘Sahne’ in your coffee in Vienna, you ask for ‘Rahm’ in Switzerland; and if you’ve understood this, you’ll then know that ‘Schlagrahm’ is ‘whipped cream’. Except in Zürich where it’s ‘Niddle’.

    There is no simple past tense in Swiss German. You cannot say ‘I was’ (Ich war in German); you can only say ‘Ic bii in dr Stadt gsi’ (literally, ‘I have been in town’). Likewise, ‘I had a car’ becomes ‘Ic ha ein Auto gha’, where ‘gha’ is ‘gehabt’.

    Swiss-German kids learn that language as their mother tongue; but at school, as they learn the alphabet, they must learn to read in ‘Standard German’ (Schriftdeutsch or ‘written German). And if such a kid had, say a French speaking mother but a German speaking father, what then is the child’s ‘mother tongue’? Can you have two such tongues?

    You might think that two distinct languages and their cultures in Switzerland could lead to political instability, and a desire for one side to be ‘free’ of the other. This doesn’t happen; and many observers point to a distinct minority (about 10%) of Italian speakers; the Canton of Tessin/Ticino is very predominantly Italian speaking. Somehow this minority acts as a glue or a binder. There is a fourth language group, Romansch (derived from Latin); there are three main groups, but – unsurprisingly – multiple subdivisions. Could Tessin have a message for N Ireland?

    • Thought you might like that!

      Yes, Luther’s Bible translation was central to the development of written Standard German (hence it reflects the speech of southern-central Germany – roughly the area from Frankfurt to Dresden).

      I may well revisit the child language acquisition point – it’s complex but I did do some modules in it in the distant past! Basically yes, the child can maintain two languages without difficulty and will also add written German with little problem (the concept known even in English as “Dachsprache”).

      I have never lived in Switzerland (though used to visit often). My sense is it is united by a fierce sense of general “otherness”, central to which are the concepts of neutrality and direct democracy. But not for me to say, really!

  2. […] and Switzerland have their own standard languages (and “Swiss German” is a separate story even from those). Although orthographical standards are agreed […]

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