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

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.

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

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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Verdict: How to save money in Bern

Want to feel the Bern on the cheap? Here’s how to save a franc or two in the Swiss capital.

Verdict: How to save money in Bern

The home of Toblerone and Emmental, Bern can be an expensive place to live.

The Swiss ‘capital’ of Bern is home to a number of domestic and international organisations, as well as companies, making it a sought after location for workers. 

EXPLAINED: Why is Bern the ‘capital’ of Switzerland?

Bern is Switzerland’s fifth-largest city on the basis of population, which makes it a little quieter than Zurich or Geneva. 

While the cost of living in Bern might be a little lower than the larger Swiss metropolises, it is still Switzerland – meaning that it can get expensive. 

In order to get a better idea of the cost of living in Bern and how to save money, we reached out to our readers to ask for their perspective – and their tips.

Here is what they had to say. 

How expensive is it to live in Bern?

Compared to other European countries, pretty much every corner of Switzerland is expensive, from Aargau to Zug. 

Fortunately however, unlike other capitals – and we are aware that Switzerland doesn’t technically have a capital as we’ve discussed here – Bern is not the most expensive place in the country. 

The international hubs of Zurich and Geneva, with their strong job markets and expensive rents, are the most expensive cities in Switzerland to live. 

Outside of these two, the most expensive places tend to smaller areas like Saas Fee and Gstaad, which are popular both among tourists and the wealthy. 

READ MORE: The Swiss capital of Bern has a statue of an ogre eating babies and nobody knows why

More than half of those who responded to the survey told us cost of living was an issue in Bern, reflecting the fact that while it may be expensive, it’s still cheaper than other parts of the country. 

How to save money in Bern?

Many of the tips our readers gave us were not Bern-specific, but had relevance no matter where you live in Switzerland. 

Ashutosh, a relative newcomer to Bern, said “don’t spend unnecessarily” while Neil simply said “spend less”, which is a great way to save money wherever you are. 

Bent Mathiese, who has been in Bern for 20 years, told us to use websites like price comparison site Top Priese to get an idea of how to save. 

“I shop in Denner, Migros and Digitec. Other stores charge a premium. Uses and other sites to compare prices.”

Cost of living: How to save on groceries in Switzerland 

Joe, who has lived in Switzerland for seven years, said “cooking for yourself” was the best way to save. 

Walking in Bern is absolutely free. Photo by Alin Andersen on Unsplash

Walking in Bern is absolutely free. Photo by Alin Andersen on Unsplash

Bern-specific tips to save money

Bern residents will probably also know that some of the greatest things to do here are free. 

Swimming in the beautiful Aare river won’t cost you a centime, while you can also visit the Marzili and Lorraine baths free of charge, including the use of lockers and bathrooms. 

The Rosegarten is home to a spectacular variety of flora and is a perfect place to spend a summer’s day. 

While eating out in Switzerland is never cheap, signing up to the Prozentbuch – annual fee CHF45 – will get you two-for-one meals in restaurants across the city. 

Given that a meal can cost up to CHF45, eating just one meal might get you your annual fee back immediately. 

Cost of living: The most – and least – expensive cantons in Switzerland

If you are visiting Switzerland and you’re going to buy Toblerone or Emmental to take home, keep in mind that they are available in supermarkets for much less than specialty stores and gift shops (and they’ll still come from Bern, so they’re still authentic!)

For tourists, visiting the former home of Albert Einstein will set you back just CHF5 while checking out the Zytglogge is free (guided tour starts at CHF20). 

Tell me more about Bern

Located near the linguistic border between French and German-speaking Switzerland, the capital city has a very picturesque medieval city centre recognised by UNESCO as a Cultural World Heritage Site.

Despite its relatively small size (144,000 residents), Bern also possesses one of the longest shopping promenades in Europe.

Bern. Photo by AFP

Why is this city great for expats? One of the reasons is that its central location and political status means  residents can take advantage of the frequent and reliable public transportation to other major Swiss cities.

Useful information:

Foreign nationals: 16.3 percent

Unemployment rate: 1.8 percent 

Average net monthly salary: 5,490 francs

Average rent (based on size), 3 bedrooms: 2,485 francs

Public transportation: bus, tram

Nearest international airport: Zurich, about 130 km by train or motorway