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Learning Swiss-German

I use High-German here as it is a commonly used colloquialism. However technically what I meant is Standard-German, whereas High-German technically covers the German dialects spoken in the southern German speaking areas.


Introduction

If you move to (or just visit) the German speaking part of Switzerland one of the first things you will notice is that the German on the streets sounds nothing like German. Welcome to the wonderful and frustrating world of Swiss-German. Basically it is like Scots is to English: they both come from the same background but have had centuries of separation to have evolved a number of differences (see this comment for a slightly more informed account of the matter. That High-German you learned in a classroom suddenly isn’t the slightest bit helpful when even numbers are suddenly intelligible.

I really like Swiss-German. I think it sounds and feels much more interesting than Standard High-German. The more Swiss-German you learn, the more High-German just feels dull and utilitarian. (The flip side is that dull and utilitarian is easy and logical, Swiss-German sometimes feels like a random word generator)
The standard introduction and joke word is Chuchichäschtli (kitchen cupboard) which is basically the showcase Swiss-German word (a Shibboleth) combining a big confusing looking word that you would never guess what it is no matter how fluent you are in High-German and that has the impossible Swiss CHHHH pronunciations. Someone even made a song about it.

But it is not easy to get into. This video from Watson provides a pretty good overview.

I am no linguistic expert, but I have spent almost 3 years immersed in the language and trying to understand it.


Challenges

There are 3 somewhat large challenges to learning Swiss German

  1. It isn’t a standardised language.
  2. It varies significantly between each area of Switzerland.
  3. There are almost no resources aimed at learners. (There are not many resources full-stop for that matter)

This basically makes it feel like a language of attrition – you just have to keep fighting with it until eventually you understand it. Really you are only going to learn with either constant exposure, or finding a teacher/partner to explain everything to you.

To look at at each of these in a bit more detail:

1 – It isn’t a standardised language

Meaning it isn’t defined, written, or consistent…. OK well that isn’t entirely true. There is a structure and there are rules. But it isn’t defined or consistent at anywhere near the level that High-German is.

High-German is the official language and is what anyone you will need to deal with can and will talk. Announcements at stations are made in it, it is what lessons are taught in at school, it is what everything official is written in, etc:. But Swiss-German is what people use in most daily interactions.

Swiss-German can actually be written, but it tends to be written on a phonetic per person basis of how it sounds in their dialect. Trying to read Swiss-German is like trying trying to solve a puzzle – take these lyrics from the rapper nemo for example. Sometimes you see it used in memes or adverts, but only in very short bursts. I believe there is a small quantity of proper literature written in Mundart (but good luck with that).

Once you learn a few general sounds you can essentially translate into German and then understand it. But that only works for part of the language. There are a vast number of words that are totally detached from any kind of apparent reality and you just have to know. You are never going to know that a Rüebli is a Karrotte for example (and that is one of the more common easier words).

Just to make it a bit more confusing Swiss-German tends to take the most French sounding option of German words, or just ignores the German word and goes with a French loan-word instead. Need a hairdresser? Then you will want to look for a Coiffeur instead of a Friseur. You ride a Velo instead of a Rad. You buy a Billet for the train instead of a Fahrkarte. A waistcoat is a Gilet not a Weste. You don’t have Eis zum Nachtisch, but Glace zum Dessert. Merci is as acceptable as Danke, and “Merci viel mal” is a blending of both languages…..

Then there is the problem that it might change when you pop over to the next town.

2 – It varies significantly between each area of Switzerland

Switzerland is a small country, but that doesn’t stop Swiss-German having massive regional variations. This image sums it up pretty well, and that is just for the word applecore. This is from a survey done to try and map the variations (free download as a lovely PDF here, or you can buy a physical book if you want something for the coffee table). Just to make the point here abit more here is a poem translated into a number of dialects.

Reassuringly the Swiss-German tends to baffle normal Germans (who have subtitles for Swiss speakers on TV), and fairly often also people from other parts of Switzerland. Coming down the Stockhorn cable car in the Berner Oberland the conductor made an announcement in very thick Bärndütsch and immediately got a call from a passenger (half-jokingly) asking for a translation for an Argauer.

There are stereotypes with the accents: Bern is slow, Wallis is incomprehensible, and Eastern Switzerland dialects sound god awful.

The plus side is you can probably talk in a strange accent and start making words up and people will just think you learnt it in another Kanton.

3 – The lack of resources

There are very few dedicated resources. It is such a niche and varied language that there isn’t much of an audience.

What resources I have collected are here.


FAQ

Do you need Swiss-German if you are a tourist?

Nope. About the only thing to worry about is that “guten tag” is something you are only likely to come across in a very formal business setting, saying it on a hiking path or in a cafe is very odd. Greet others with Grüezi (or Grüezi mitenand if there are multiple people).

Do you need Swiss-German if you move here?

Strictly speaking no.

High-German will get you through everything you need to do (English will get you through almost everything if you really can’t be bothered or struggle with German).

Swiss-German will certainly make interactions and understanding what is going on simpler sometimes and it will certainly help you feel integrated, but it will never be essential.

Should you bother with it?

If you don’t speak German than concentrate on High-German, but also spend some time working on understanding Swiss-German and picking up words.

Learning Swiss-German over High-German makes no sense. It over-specialises you to a language that only really works in one small region. This maybe depends on your needs – if you are just moving to one area and never planning to go elsewhere then Swiss-German makes sense. Many guest-workers or refugees coming to Switzerland only learnt Swiss-German for example. But generally if you have the luxury of movement and a choice then High-German is far more practical. The Swiss are invariably delighted when you take the time to learn High-German, and any Swiss-German words you can throw in are a bonus.

The only real problem with this is many Swiss-German speakers are not comfortable speaking High-German and go straight to English if they get a chance. Which makes learning and using High-German in Switzerland somewhat tricky at times (I have written about this in a previous post about moving to Switzerland).

Germans I know who have lived here for a number of years have slowly picked it up and included elements in how they talk. It is certainly appreciated when they make the effort to learn bits.


A few assorted points:

  • There is no eszett (ß) you just use ss instead. There are a few words where this makes the meaning ambiguous, but that is almost never going to be a problem.
  • Whereas High-German uses -chen at the end of a word to indicate the diminutive, the Swiss use (the much more charming) -li. So a small bear is a Bärli not a Bärchen. They use this -li every chance they get.
  • Grüezi is formal. Move onto Hoi or Salü with friends and long-term coworkers.
  • If in doubt just keep saying “Genau”.