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Reader question: Is it better to learn Hochdeutsch or Swiss German?

If you live in a German-speaking part of Switzerland you will likely consider learning the language. But should you start with standard German (Hochdeutsch) or a form of Swiss German?

The Swiss flag.
The Swiss flag. Why is Switzerland seeking closer ties with NATO? Photo by Ronnie Schmutz on Unsplash

There are a huge variety of Swiss German dialects within the small Alpine nation of Switzerland. 

But people in German-speaking or multi-language areas also know standard or high German – or Hochdeutsch. 

So when people arrive in Switzerland, they often wonder which form of German they should seek to understand and speak first.

If you are trying to learn either Hochdeutsch or Swiss German you will be aware of the complications that all the different ways of communicating can present in everyday life. 

The German you will learn in Switzerland is in fact usually Swiss Standard German, a variation of the High or Standard German used in Germany. The variations are generally words that the Swiss have adopted from dialect, French, Italian and English.

The Local asked Sabine Lenz from Sprachschule Schneider in Zurich what language they suggest to students who are unsure of what to learn.

READ ALSO: Seven things to know if you’re learning Swiss German

Lenz said: “If they don’t know either of the languages we would suggest Swiss German as they need to understand the language spoken on the street.

“For working purposes it is better to learn High German as this is the business language in the workplace.” 

As Sprachschule Schneider is based in Zurich, the Swiss German they teach is Züridütsch. This form of Swiss German is similar to other northern, or High Alemannic, dialects in Switzerland.

Beginner classes are held in English and the text books are trilingual – written in English, Swiss German and High German.

Lenz said: “The most difficult thing about teaching Swiss German is that it isn’t an exact language in itself as there are no perfect rules like in High German.

The focus is on speaking, which can help boost beginners’ confidence. 

“The written Swiss German needs to be read out loud to be understood,” said Lenz. “The beginner courses are focused on speaking.”

However, part of the paradox of learning either Hochdeutsch or Swiss German is that you will still be exposed to the other one almost daily.

So in the end one language or dialect is learnt actively and the other language or dialect will be learnt passively.

READ ALSO: Hochdeutsch vs Swiss German – What are the key differences?

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For members


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)