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Swiss German vs Hochdeutsch: What are the key differences?

People in German-speaking Switzerland use Hochdeutsch (standard German) - but there is also a huge variety of Swiss German dialects. We spoke to experts to explore the differences between the languages.

The Swiss flag flying in Napf, Trub
The Swiss flag flying in Napf, Trub. Photo by Nadine Marfurt on Unsplash

What is Swiss German – and what is Hochdeutsch?

If you live in a Swiss German speaking canton you may, or may not,  be aware that you are part of a complicated language system that’s called diglossia. Diglossia is a fancy linguistic term that means within a society there are distinct formal and informal languages that are utilised in different social contexts.

What this means in Switzerland is that Hochdeutsch, also known as High German, Standard German, Swiss Standard German, Schriftdeutsch and Written German, is most generally utilised in the workplace, education, for official documents and correspondence, most media, books, magazines, conversing with foreigners and is one of the four official languages of Switzerland.

On the other hand, the Swiss German dialects, Schweizerdeutsch or Schwiizerdütsch and its many other Swiss variations (for example: Schwyzerdütsch, Schwiizertüütsch, Schwizertitsch and Mundart), are used in other more informal social contexts. The dialects are the spoken everyday language for the majority of people in all social levels. And unlike many other countries, Swiss German dialects are an accepted and important aspect of Swiss culture. 

READ ALSO: Nine fun Swiss German words without an English translation

Prof. Dr. Regula Schmidlin, Professor of German Linguistics at the University of Freiburg, told The Local: “Unlike in Northern Germany and the United Kingdom, for example, speaking in dialect is not socially stigmatised in German-speaking Switzerland. Moreover, Swiss dialects have adapted strongly to modern life and are fully functional everyday languages. In Switzerland, social stratification is not negotiated in terms of language varieties.”

A person studying

Learning languages can be tricky in Switzerland. Photo by lilartsy on Unsplash

How does Swiss German differ in cantons?

What makes it complicated for foreigners who arrive in one of the 17 Swiss German speaking cantons (Aargau, Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Appenzell Innerrhoden, Basel Stadt, Basel Land, Glarus, Luzern, Nidwalden, Obwalden, Schaffhausen, Schwyz, Solothurn, Sankt Gallen, Thurgau, Uri, Zug, Zürich), the three bilingual (Bern, Freiburg, Wallis) and one trilingual (Graubünden) cantons, is that it isn’t itself a single language variation.

Swiss German is an umbrella term for the geographic grouping of dialects: Low Alemannic – Basel Stadt, High Alemannic – most of the northern and central cantons, and Highest Alemannic dialects – mostly alpine southern cantons, along with an Austro-Bavarian dialect in Samnaun that began spreading through Switzerland around 700 years ago. 

As to how many Swiss German dialects are actually spoken today, it appears to be unknown. According to the Kleiner Sprachatlas der deutschen Schweiz, (the small linguistic atlas of Swiss German) there is no correct answer to how many dialects there are because there are no exact boundaries between dialects. But it is still true that as geographical distance increases, so do the linguistic differences. 

Prof. Elvira Glaser, from the Linguistics Centre at the University of Zürich, said: “Strictly speaking, differences can be found in every village compared to the surrounding villages, so that one could also say with some justification that there are at least as many dialects as there are villages.”

READ ALSO: Five Swiss German phrases to make you sound like a local

In an effort to preserve the dialects, the Swiss Idiotikon, now an online national dictionary, initiated a collection of Swiss German words in dialect in 1862 for national political reasons. The dictionary now has more than 135,000 entries in sixteen published volumes.

Ludwig Tobler from the Philological Society wrote in 1879: “For Switzerland the first objective was to collect materials for a new and comprehensive Idiotikon, and combine the scattered forces.” The seventeenth collection is in progress.

What are the practical differences between Swiss German and Standard German?

For people leaving in one of the afore-mentioned German speaking cantons, the differences between the vocabulary, pronunciation and syntax of Swiss German dialects and Hochdeutsch is noticeable. Even people from Germany can have difficulties understanding some of the Swiss German dialects.  

Here are some key differences between Hochdeutsch and Swiss German that you should know:

  • Orthography: Swiss German has no one standardised spelling of dialects, therefore, there isn’t a standard written form
  • There is no genitive case in Swiss German
  • There is no past tense of verbs in Swiss German, only forms with the past participle in the perfect tense are used
  • The dimunitive suffix li is used for nouns and adjectives and indicates smallness. Hochdeutsch uses –chen or –lein. Examples: ChätzliKätzchen – kitten; Tischlikleiner Tisch – small table
  • Hochdeutsch uses the eszett symbol ß whereas Swiss German and Swiss Standard German use double ss
  • Swiss German infinitve verbs don’t have the n at the end: laufe – laufen – to run
  • Swiss German has many double vowels: gaagehen – to go; HuusHaus – house; LüütLeute – people
  • There are no diphthongs (double vowel sounds) in Swiss German and if there are two vowels each vowel is pronounced
  • Many French words are used, for example: merci  – danke – thank you; Billet Karte – ticke;, Velo Fahrrad – bike; Portmonee Geldbeutel – purse/wallet; Coiffeur Friseur – hairdresser
  • Italian words have also been integrated into the dialects: ciao –  auf Wiedersehen – goodbye
  • Swiss German has adopted more English words than Hochdeutsch: Computer, Handy, Penalty, Shooting, Mobbing and Rowdy are some

The below video by Easy German displays some of the differences of Swiss German and Hochdeutsch

  • Pronunciation: many differences between Hochdeutsch and dialects. One of the most noticeable is the sound of ch in Swiss dialects that sounds like the Scottish ch. Words generally begin with ch rather than k as in Hochdeutsch: Chind Kind – child
  • The many different variations of words. For example, from the Kleiner Sprachatlas der deutschen Schweiz, the word kiss, Kuss in Hochdeutsch, is spoken in varying dialects as: Kuss, Chuss, Chüssli, Schmatz, Trüütli, Schmutz, Schmütz(e)li, Müntschi, Müntsi, Muntschi, Muntsi, Bussi, Knutsch, Muts, Mütsi, Schmuus(i)
  • Swiss German is a phonological language learnt by immersion with no standard written language
  • The Swiss dialects are written in certain social circumstances: texting between friends, subtitles on movies. However, as there is no standardised phonology, spelling can vary from person to person, canton to canton

You may find you begin to have a level of understanding of the dialect spoken in the canton you live, and then when you visit another canton find it difficult to understand a word they say. But don’t despair, even the Swiss themselves can find the dialects difficult to understand, most notably those from Wallis and Graubünden.

Want to know more? Check out this link here for an archival collection of spoken dialects throughout Switzerland.

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Why does Swiss German have so many French loan words?

French is often crowned the world’s most beautiful language and has, for centuries, infiltrated Switzerland’s German-speaking region. But why did so many French words end up in Swiss German and which are most commonly used?

Why does Swiss German have so many French loan words?

In the western hemisphere of the 16th century until well into the 19th century, French was considered the world language and courts all over Europe began to emulate the culture made popular by the French nobility.

The French language eventually replaced Latin as the dominant language in science and many Germans figured that it would be easier to adopt what’s already there, rather than spend time finding German language equivalents for scientific terms – much to the detriment of German purists who fought this during the 17th century.

But while much of Europe was embroiled in a game of catch-up with France, the situation was quite different in the Deutschschweiz. The German-speaking part of Switzerland already had an identity of its own, an identity that had as a matter of fact already been intertwined with both the French language and its culture.

For many years, the Swiss had sent a great many mercenaries to serve in the French army up until 1798, while the sons of Bernese patricians were raised in French before taking up administrative posts in French-speaking Vaud (1536 until 1798), then under the rule of Bern. Meanwhile, Solothurn, the resident city of the French ambassador, was almost considered an exclave of France.

Even today, many young people living in German-speaking Swiss cantons travel to the French-speaking part, or Romandy, to work as au pairs and improve their French language skills.

It is not difficult then to see why the Deutschschweiz had an easy time embracing everything French, particularly the cantons bordering the Romandy.

Same, same but different

Though some French language words, known as Gallizismen, that are commonly used in the Deutschschweiz appear to be the same at first glance, they have over time undergone a pronunciation shift and are no longer pronounced in French, but rather in a Swiss German-French mashup dialect. Hence, they are considered both French and Swiss German.

One such example is the word Merci, which you will hear as often as – and in some German-speaking places even more frequently than – the casual Swiss and standard German counterpart Danke.

Unlike the French Merci, which is pronounced MerCI – placing the emphasis on the latter syllable – the Swiss from the Deutschschweiz pronounce the word as MERci, stressing the first syllable instead.

In fact, this is the case with most polysyllabic French words. But there’s more.

In addition to giving French words the Swiss German pronunciation treatment and oftentimes completely forgoing the French accent, some words have also taken on a slightly different meaning.

If you happen to be in a hurry in Switzerland, you’d use the word pressant to express this. While the word in French translates to urgent or pressing, in Swiss German it means to be in a hurry.

In fact, if you’re in a rush, you would say “Ich hans pressant”, rather than the standard German “Ich bin in Eile”.

And when on the road…

If you spot an adult riding a bicycle on the Gehweg or Bürgersteig and reprimand them using the standard German words for pavement, you may be met with a confused (and slightly offended) look.

In German-speaking Switzerland, Trottoir is the word most commonly used for pavement, while the standard German or Hochdeutsch equivalents are seldom heard, if altogether unused.

Likewise, while you’re busy being annoyed that you’ve encountered a rulebreaker – don’t worry, it’s a Swiss thing – remember that using Velo rather than the German alternative Fahrrad may just make you win the argument.

Most commuters living in German-speaking cantons may know that you will be required to pay for a Billet – not a Fahrtkarte – before you head off to find the right Perron, not Plattform, to wait for your train.

In Switzerland, it also makes sense to purchase an Abonnement with the SBB (Swiss Federal Railways), though you’ll also (eventually) get your point across if you ask for a Reisekarte as they would across the Germany-Switzerland border.

READ MORE: 4 things to consider when buying a travel card in Switzerland

Beware of false friends

While the German speakers of Switzerland have a jolly time reinventing the French language to fit their needs, this love for experimenting has also led to a handful of false friends over the years.

Some German-Swiss will fight tooth and nail to convince you that the Swiss German Friseur (or Frisör) is in fact derived from the French language – simply because it sounds French – but this is not the case. French speakers still very much refer to hairdressers as Coiffeur. Ironically, so do many German speakers in Switzerland.

Similarly, the Swiss German favourite Blamage may well have a French twang to it and is often confused as being on loan from the Deutschschweiz’s French-speaking neighbours. Yet, the word – which can loosely be translated to shame or embarrassment – isn’t known to the French.

Handy vocab for on the go

If you’re visiting the German-speaking part of Switzerland from France or the Romandy and find yourself overwhelmed with the gazillion dialects coming at you from every angle, here are some French words you can use on your trip:

Glacé, not Eis (ice cream)

Portemonnaie, not Brieftasche or Geldbörse (wallet)

Couvert – Umschlag or Briefumschlag (envelope)

Duvet – Bettdecke (duvet)

Adieu – Auf Wiedersehen (goodbye)