Swiss French vs French: What's the difference?

Swiss French vs French: What's the difference?

While the relationship between Swiss and regular German is well documented, the differences between French in France and French in Switzerland are far less discussed. Here’s all you need to know about Swiss French, why people in the Romande speak the language, and whether there are any differences between the dialect and regular French.

The French language in Switzerland

French is the second most commonly spoken language in Switzerland and is one of the country’s four official languages. While French speakers can be found across the alpine nation, French-speaking communities are largely based in the west of the country - the border between French and German-speaking areas is called the Röstigraben.

Four Swiss cantons have French as their sole official language, namely Geneva, Vaud, Neuchâtel and Jura. Bern, Fribourg and Valais are bilingual cantons, with German and French as the official languages. French-speaking Switzerland as a region is often called the Romande, Romandy or Suisse Romande.

What percentage of Swiss people speak French?

According to the Federal Statistical Office, 22,8 percent of Swiss people spoke French as their first language in 2021. This makes Swiss French the second most common language in the alpine nation, after German (62 percent) and before Italian (7,9 percent).

What are the major French-speaking Swiss cities?

The largest French-speaking Swiss city is Geneva, with a population of approximately 203.000 as of 2020. The city is followed by Lausanne (140.000), Biel / Bienne (55.000), Fribourg (38.000), La Chaux-de-Fonds (36.000) and Sion (34.000).

The most populated French-speaking canton is technically the bilingual canton of Bern at 1 million inhabitants, followed by Vaud (814.782), Geneva (506.343), Valais (348.503), Fribourg (325.496), Neuchâtel (175.894) and Jura (73.709).

Why is French spoken in Switzerland?

The reason why French is spoken in Switzerland can be traced back to how the country was originally formed. Before 1291, the land we now know as Switzerland was dominated by either local rulers or foreign powers such as the German-speaking Habsburg Austrians, Franco-Belgian Burgundians and French-Italian Savoyards.

Because of its proximity to France, and the fact that many of its rulers spoke French, populations in western Switzerland began to convert from speaking Arpitan - a Gallo-Romance language native to east-central France, western Switzerland and parts of Italy - to speaking French.

What’s more, all three cantons that formed the Old Swiss Confederacy in 1291 - Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden (now Nidwalden and Obwalden) - were in German-speaking Switzerland, so no French-speaking areas were initially under Swiss control, meaning there was no push for them to switch to speaking German. This was reinforced by the fact that the Romande continued to be ruled by French speakers long after Switzerland's creation.

The first French-speaking area to join as a canton of Switzerland was Fribourg in 1481, meaning the language had already rooted itself before any part of the Romande joined the country. Once all of French-speaking Switzerland had joined, the nation’s tradition of giving cantons near-full autonomy - until the creation of the modern Swiss state in 1848-49 - meant that there wasn’t any pressure for French speakers to adopt or learn German.

For those interested, this is also one of the reasons why Ticino is Italian-speaking and chose to remain part of Switzerland.

What are the differences between Swiss French and regular French?

Unlike Germans when they hear Swiss German, people from France will understand most of the Swiss French they hear, as there are little to no grammatical differences in how speech is constructed. However, there are plenty of ways that Swiss French and regular French are not alike. These range from pronunciation differences to the influence of German.

1. Phonetic differences and the Swiss French accent

There are several phonetic and pronunciation differences between Swiss French and French. A good way to imagine the difference is that, much like Walloon Belgian and Quebecquios in Canada, Swiss-French is akin to how French used to sound in the 19th and 20th centuries. Anecdotally, Swiss French is also known to be spoken at a slower pace.

A good example of the difference is the nasal vowels ɛ̃ and œ̃. While they now sound the same in regular French, the two are still unique in Swiss French. An example given in the 2004 dictionary of the Swiss Romande is that the words brin (stalk) and brun (brown) are still pronounced differently in Switzerland. 

This also applies to other vowel combinations, meaning the words mettre (put) and maître (master), and peau (skin) and pot (jar) are not pronounced the same but slightly differently in Swiss French. Finally, unlike regular French speakers, Swiss French speakers still pronounce feminine and masculine adjectives differently, such as mental and mentale (mental).

2. Swiss French numbers

In what will be music to the ears of anyone learning French, Swiss French numbers follow a far simpler method than those across the border. Instead of counting in increments beyond 60 (for example, 70 in French is soixante-dix or 60-10), those in the Romande would just say septante or 70. This applies to 70, 80 (huitante) and 90 (nonante).

3. Names for meals in the Romandy

While the words for meals in French have evolved into petit-déjeuner (breakfast), déjeuner (lunch) and dîner (dinner), Swiss French has kept the old French words for meal times - similar to how dinner means lunch and supper means dinner in parts of the United Kingdom. This means that breakfast in the Romande is déjeuner, lunch is dîner and dinner is souper.

4. Adieu: You say goodbye, I say hello

Another quirk of Swiss French is the meaning of adieu, used in regular French as a formal way to say a final farewell and goodbye. Across the border in Switzerland, adieu is used as an informal way to say both goodbye and hello.

5. The influence of Swiss German

French in Switzerland also has a fair share of Swiss German words and phrases sprinkled in. These so-called “Germanisms” usually relate to more modern terms. Here are just a selection:

  • Foehn: from the German word Föhn (hairdryer), a reference to a warm wind that passes through the mountains.
  • Maturité: from the German word Matura, the final exam in the Swiss secondary school system.
  • Mutr and Vatr: Germanisms for Mutter (mother) and Vater (father).
  • Action: from the German word Aktion, meaning sale or promotion.
  • Poutzer: from the German putzen, meaning to clean.

Far from a one-way street; many Swiss German words have their origins in the Romande. Some examples include Merci (thank you), Velo (bicycle), Billet (ticket) and Coiffeur (hairdresser).

6. Unique words in Swiss French

Along with having terms inspired by other languages, Swiss French has its own suite of interesting words. One of the most encountered words in daily life has to be cornet. While in French this would mean an ice cream cone, in Swiss French it means a plastic bag.

Other interesting, unique words include natel (portablemobile phone), chenit (désordre, a mess) and tout de bon! (je vous souhaite le meilleur!, all the best!).

Finally, Swiss French has a few pejorative terms for its neighbours. The German-speaking Swiss (when they are being annoying at least) are called Bourbines - a reference to the German word Buchbinder or bookbinder. This was used because German-speaking Switzerland was once famed for the quality of its bookmaking.

Finally, much like in Belgium, the French Swiss call those across the western border Frouze or Frouzes, an originally Arpitan word meaning French.

All you need to know about the French language in Switzerland

We hope that this brief introduction has given you the idea that, while someone from Geneva and someone from Paris can understand each other far better than two people from Zurich and Berlin, the French language in Switzerland is still full of interesting quirks. 

Jan de Boer


Jan de Boer

Editor for Switzerland at IamExpat Media. Jan studied History at the University of York and Broadcast Journalism at the University of Sheffield. Though born in York, Jan has lived most...

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