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From ‘natel’ to ‘ça joue’: The Swiss French words which help you sound like a local

From 'natel' to 'ça joue': The Swiss French words which help you sound like a local
No, the chalet is not crazy. Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP
From “schmolitz” to “panosse”, some words and phrases common in the French-speaking part of Switzerland are different from their equivalents used in France. Here is the vernacular you should master if you live in Suisse Romandie.

Each of Switzerland’s main languages – German, French and Italian – are shared with a larger and more influential neighbour. 

These three languages – when added to the unique Romansh language – makes for a diverse linguistic spectrum. 

It might come as a relief to foreigners living in one of the French-speaking cantons that differences between the Swiss version of the language and the one spoken in France is much smaller than the difference between standard German and Schwyzerdütch.

Except for some specific words and expressions, people in France understand their counterparts in Romandie much easier than is the case between Germans and Swiss-Germans.

READ MORE: ‘Just so fun to say’: Are these the best Swiss-German words to learn?

The Local recently asked its readers what are the most important Swiss-French words to know.

Which parts of Switzerland speak French?

Geneva, Vaud, Jura and Neuchâtel speak only French, while Valais and Fribourg speak predominantly French but also German. 

Bern, the seat of the de facto capital, is also bilingual, but with more German than French speakers. 

From the answers we received, several respondents mentioned the numbers. 

As anyone who has tried to learn French will tell you, the numbering system is particularly difficult – especially when you get in the double figures. 

The Swiss French numbering system is different to that of original French, with Swiss French using the words septante (seventy), huitante (eighty) and nonante (ninety). 

The Romands decided to simplify these words from their original French versions: soixante-dix, quatre-vingt, and quatre-vingt-dix, which literally translate to ‘sixty-ten’, ‘four twenties’ and ‘four twenties-ten’. 

However, regional differences are also at play here: Geneva uses the French version of these numbers, possibly because of its close proximity to France.

Some readers also mentioned the expression “ça joue”. Literally translated it means “it plays”, but in the Suisse Romande it means “yes, it’s alright”.

Other words and expressions mentioned in the reader survey were: “carnotzet” (a small bar), “bonap” (Bon appétit – enjoy your meal), “si jamais”, (if ever), vélo (bicycle), “ouais” (slangy oui – yes), and “tout de bon” (all the best).

READ MORE: Have your say: What are the most important Swiss French words to know?

Suisse-Romande versus France

Aside from the numbers mentioned above, some words and phrases used in this part of Switzerland are uniquely “Romand” and if you use them in France, chances are you will be met with a quizzical look.

Natel: Mobile phone (“téléphone mobile”)

French-speaking Switzerland: Seven life hacks that will make you feel like a local

Panosse: A wet broom (“serpillière in France)

Y a pas le feu au lac: Literally, this means “there’s no fire in the lake”. But what it actually means “there is no rush, no urgency.

Faire schmolitz : Wine drinking ritual in which two people decide to befriend each other by passing from the formal “vous” form to the more casual “tu”.

Schmoltz! Photo by Monstera from Pexel

Etre déçu en bien: Be pleasantly surprised (être agréablement surpris in France)

Ça va, le chalet?: Are you crazy ? (ça va pas la tête ?)

Tchô bonne: Have a good day /evening (bonne journée /soirée)

Lolette: a pacifier for babies (tétine in France)

Quart d’heure vaudois: This means a slight delay, not only in Vaud but in other Romand cantons as well (être en retard” in France). Please note that a similar expression doesn’t exist in the German-speaking cantons, and for a good reason: Swiss-Germans are rarely late.

‘The pleasure of punctuality’: Why are the Swiss so obsessed with being on time?

Tenir les pouces: Just like in Anglo countries, crossing fingers brings good luck in Suisse Romande. But in France, you’d have to “croiser les doigts”.

Tenir les pouces: universal sign of good luck. Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

Lost in translation?

If you are not totally familiar with the intricacies of the French language, keep in mind that these expressions have a different meaning in French than in English. Or, they may not mean what you think they might:

Préservatifs: No, these are not artificial food additives (“conservateurs”), but condoms. The latter is commonly found in food, the former usually isn’t.

Hors-ligne: This is often seen on buses in the Suisse Romandie. This doesn’t mean the bus is transporting horses; it does mean it is not in service.

Voilà, there you have it: some typical expressions you are bound to hear in the French-speaking part of Switzerland.

Tchô bonne! 


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