Just When You Thought You Knew German

The first time I had ever heard of “Swiss German” was when I was preparing to move from Düsseldorf, Germany to Rapperswil, Switzerland. My German neighbors had me over for a farewell barbecue and they said to me: “Whatever you do, don’t come back and visit us speaking that Swiss German.” I was aware that the Germans had a somewhat love/hate relationship with their southern neighbors, but I had no idea the Swiss spoke some different form of their common language. In fact, I was quite confident with the German that I had picked up over my three years in Düsseldorf, and I figured it would be quite an easy transition from one country to the other.  I was wrong.

Driving from the airport in Zurich to my new home in Rappi, I was very confused by the radio. What language is that? I thought. I knew Swiss German was going to sound different but this was completely foreign. I could not pick out a single word. Even more confusing however, was that I could still read all the road signs. I later learned that this was because Swiss German, or Schwyzerdütsch, is not a different language but a unique dialect used only in the spoken form. It is so unique that even native German speakers, from Berlin to Bavaria, have a very difficult time understanding it.  Like in the other German-speaking countries, with their various versions of the language, the Swiss dialect also varies from region to region. People from Zurich will tell you that they speak a very different Schwyzerdütsch than those from Davos or Bern. So just when you have figured out that in order to greet people appropriately you must switch from Guten Tag to Gruezi, a trip up the Alps, or down toward the French border, might have you confused all over again.

Swiss German is special among the numerous German dialects due to the loyalty and passion felt and expressed by the people who use it. Although Swiss German is just one dialect of German, the Swiss people treat it as an exclusive language, their language, and they hold it very dear. There are ongoing discussion in media and politics regarding how to maintain and promote the dialect within the country, due to fears that it may one day be lost. This is always a risk when a unique form of a language is not standardized and there exists no official dictionary. Children are taught standard German (colloquially referred to as High German or Hochdeutsch) in school, and much of Swiss television is made up of programs from Germany and America. So it is up to parents and politicians to secure the future of Swiss German.

The largest debate currently seen in the media is concerned with the move to ban Standard German in Kindergarten.  Many parents and politicians believe it would benefit the security of Schwyzerdütsch to have one year, pre-literacy, of dialect instruction, so students may have at least a base of Swiss German. On the other side of the debate are those who believe that having children learn Standard German from start to finish, will allow them to be better literate and more mutually intelligible within all German-speaking countries. This belief stems from the notion that this would aid students in later finding employment in a larger market.

In addition to Standard German, Swiss students are also required to learn one or all of the other official languages of the country, as well as English.  Unlike North America, there are numerous official languages of Switzerland that are spoken exclusively in some parts of the country. In the south toward Italy you will hear Italian being spoken almost solely. Similarly, in the east toward France, French is the most common language. So, even when you think you have made the transition from English or German to Schwyzerdütsch, you might still find it difficult to communicate throughout this small but very eclectic country. Thankfully, I have found that the people of Switzerland are very patient and helpful in sharing their dialects and languages with expatriates. You will also find that many Swiss people are very happy to have someone with whom they can practice their English. Be sure however, to ask them to return the favor, so you may share in the unique local delicacy that is Schwyzerdütsch.