Number of Swiss German words to die out in the next 80 years, study claims

Number of Swiss German words to die out in the next 80 years, study claims

While the Swiss German accent and dialect remains alive and well, a new survey by the University of Bern has revealed that some Dialekt words are starting to die out. By the end of the century, previously well-used words are expected to be nearly totally phased out in favour of words from Germany and other parts of Switzerland.

Swiss German words being phased out

According to the study, published by the Tages-Anzeiger, some of the most common Swiss German words of the 20th century are not long for this world. Adrian Leemann, professor at the Swiss university, told the newspaper that Swiss German itself is becoming more homogenous in how it is spoken, especially in urban areas like Zurich, Bern and Basel.

For example, in 1940, the study estimated that 73,9 percent of the population used the Zurich German word for butter (Anke), while 16,7 percent used the eastern Swiss word Schmalz and only 7,1 percent used the High German word Butter. As of 2020, only 42 and 4 percent of the country used Anke and Schmalz respectively. Experts predict that by 2100, 72,8 percent of the population will say Butter and Schmalz will disappear completely.

Switzerland to say goodbye to Söiblueme and Higgi by 2100

The same goes for butterflies (Summervogel in Swiss German, Pfifolter in south Swiss German Schmetterlinge in High German). While only 12,4 percent used the German word in 1940, a whopping 89,2 percent use the term today. By 2060, the study predicts that the words Summervogel and Pfifolter will die out completely.

Other Swiss German words expected to fall out of the lexicon by 2100 include Söiblueme and Schwiiblueme (dandelion), Higgi (hiccoughs), Schmutz (kiss), Kanapee and Ggusch (sofa) and Gille (puddle). The study noted that the words will begin to die out in eastern and northern regions first - the places closest to Germany - while their last holdouts will be in areas of the mountains and Canton Bern.

Zurich and Bernese German to become dominant

When it isn’t High German, the university found that Swiss German words from more populous regions like Zurich and Bern will come to dominate the language. "Theoretical models of language change show that the size of a city and the associated social and economic importance is one of the strongest explanatory factors for the influence of language on the environment," Leemann noted.

However, he made the point that this phenomenon is not localised to Switzerland. In Germany, for example, he argued that the formerly vibrant local languages were given a “more negative status” than in the alpine nation, leading to them being homogenised into “regiolects” that are starting to become more similar as time passes. He also noted that while the words may change, the hundreds of thick Swiss regional accents will likely remain.

Swiss German as a language expected to survive

In terms of whether Swiss German will be phased out in favour of High German in the long term, Leemann concluded that if anything, Dialekt has started to grow in importance despite becoming more homogenous. “The use of dialect in writing has even become more widespread in recent decades, underscoring the vitality of the regional dialects," he noted.

Finally, when asked whether in the far future people in Swiss cities and cantons will all have to learn English or Chinese, Leemann said he “often hears in question and answer sessions after lectures whether English will replace Swiss German. However, the influence of English on Swiss German is comparatively small… especially in relation to vocabulary and in younger people. Overall, I see no threat to Swiss German.”

Jan de Boer


Jan de Boer

Jan studied in York and Sheffield in the UK, obtaining a master's in broadcast journalism and a bachelor's in history. He has worked as a radio DJ, TV presenter, and...

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