Almost 2/3 of Swiss people speak mainly German. It’s one of four official languages of Switzerland and it’s used in official documents and legal acts. However if you dig a little deeper, the situation is much more confusing. The thing is that Swiss people don’t speak pure German. What they use is one of the dialects; some people even consider it a different language. The difference between the Swiss German and the literary German is so big that the Germans often don’t understand what the Swiss say. Let’s find out more about the Swiss German, or how the native speakers call it, Schwiizerdütsch!
First of all, Swiss German is different from the pure German due to its vocabulary and grammar. The Swiss German has more borrowings from Greek, Latin and also French. So if you want to thank a Swiss German speaking person, you better say Merci than Danke. But if you want to say «thank you very much», you need to use the Swiss German adjective for «very much». So the whole phrase will sound like «merci vielmal» – and it already shows the uniqueness of the Swiss German doing a mix of French and Swiss German in one expression.
Secondly, there’s no one Swiss German language! Every region, every town in fact speaks its own dialect of Swiss German so all your attempts to unify them in one common form are doomed to failure. Maybe it’s all because the Swiss identify themselves with their home places more than with their country – who knows?
Moreover, Swiss German doesn’t exist in a written form. That’s pretty obvious: in order to have a written language you have to choose one version. But which one should become a standard? The Bernese would never agree to speak the Zurich dialect and vice versa. The similar situation was with the whole German speaking society up to the 15th century – there were lots of dialects across the country. But when the Reformation took place, the need of one common written language appeared: translating the Bible and literature to all those variations would be simply impossible!
The Germans agreed that this written German would be their spoken language while the Swiss persisted and they keep being stubborn up to today.
Since there’s no written Swiss German, the Swiss have to use the literary German or, as it’s called in Switzerland, High German. This language is used for news programs, books, newspapers and political statements. So do the Swiss people find a way to understand each other? – The answer is YES. Despite the sometimes very big differences in dialect, Swiss People understand each other very well, but foreigners often wonder what they keep talking about.
So, see you soon again in Switzerland, or as the Swiss would say “Uf Wiederluege”!
By M. Welti