Swiss German vs German: What’s the difference?
It often comes as quite a surprise to new arrivals in Switzerland that, even if they've learnt German and speak it fluently, the language people actually use in the alpine nation is completely different to what they were taught. To allay some confusion, here is all you need to know about Swiss German and the differences between it and High or standard German.
What language is spoken in Switzerland?
Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh. However, residents of German-speaking areas, who make up the majority of the population, will tell you that the German spoken in Zurich and Basel is a far cry from the language uttered in Munich and Berlin.
What is Swiss German?
Swiss German refers to the language spoken by the residents of German-speaking Switzerland. As of 2013, 4,93 million people officially speak the language, with most being based in the centre, north, east and northwest of the country.
While it is based on standard German, Swiss German goes far beyond an accent with its own words, pronunciations and special quirks.
Cantonal dialects of Switzerland
Swiss German itself is an umbrella term used to describe all the different cantonal dialects of Switzerland. Each of the 19 cantons that speak the language has its own variations in pronunciation, spelling and even words themselves.
These dialects are divided into three classes, which are:
- Low Alemannic: Spoken in Basel, this dialect has strong ties to the German spoken in the Alsace region of France.
- High Alemannic: Spoken in Bern, Basel-Land, Solothurn, Aargau, Lucerne, Zug, Zurich, St. Gallen, Schaffhausen, Graubünden, Appenzell and Thurgau.
- Highest Alemannic: Spoken in Fribourg, Bernese Oberland, Schwyz, Glarus, Valais, Obwalden and Nidwalden.
While there are significant differences between the three in terms of how things are pronounced, each version of Swiss German is still largely understandable to those from other regions and conversations can flow between speakers of different dialects.
Local Swiss dialects
Within each canton, there are often hundreds of different dialects that are local to just a cluster of towns, a valley or a region in the mountains. A notable example that many expats will know is the Züritüütsch spoken within the city of Zurich.
To this day, no one actually knows how many different dialects of Swiss German are still active. Professor Elvira Glaser, from the Linguistics Centre at the University of Zurich, once said that “one could say with some justification that there are at least as many dialects as there are villages."
Why do Swiss German and High German sound so different?
To understand why Swiss German and High German sound so different, we need to take a quick detour into the history of Germany. In the years before unification, each region of Germany had its own spin on the German language. Indeed, up until the 20th century, many residents of southern Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and western Tyrol in Austria spoke a Swiss German-like dialect.
This localised dialect development was mirrored in the alpine nation. Since each Swiss canton was largely independent, each developed its own spin on the language.
However, things changed in the years after Germany unified in 1871, with successive governments preferring to teach standardised German while shunning the use of regional dialects in the name of unifying the country. For instance, in 1898, German theatres began to establish a “German stage language” - which eventually became the standard method of pronunciation spoken throughout the country - and in 1901, written German was standardised for the first time.
This unified language approach was never really adopted in Switzerland, meaning that as standard German homogenised into the language we know today, Swiss German and its hundreds of dialects remained stubbornly different from each other.
The only standardisation effort was in the written language. While many do write Swiss German down, each person still writes and spells words differently and High German is still the written language in the majority of Swiss schools.
Swiss German vs German: Major differences
For High German speakers, listening to Swiss German (or Dialekt) can feel like trying to tune into an alien language with lots of radio static. To help wannabe Swiss German speakers, here is a list of some of the major differences between Swiss and regular German.
Difference #1: Pronunciation
Unlike standard German, you can't master Swiss German through reading. As mentioned before, there is no standard way to write Dialekt. Instead, would-be learners have to pick up on how things are pronounced through trial and error.
Here are some of the rules to follow:
- There are mostly no double vowel sounds in Swiss German. If there are two vowels, each is pronounced.
- Use of the ch sound: Swiss German tends to pronounce Ks as ch. For instance: Kind (child) becomes Chind, Koch (cook) becomes Choch, Kalt (cold) becomes Chalt and so on.
- Swiss German tends to replace diphthongs with shorter sounds, meaning their words are also shorter: Häuschen (small house) becomes Hüüsli, gehen (to go) becomes gaa, Schweiz (Switzerland) becomes Schwiiz, and so on.
- On occasion, Swiss German shortens the articles before nouns. For example, das Haus (the house) becomes sHuus, die Strasse (the street) becomes dStrass and so on.
Difference #2: Grammar and Writing
Another difference is Swiss German’s relative lack of grammatical rules when compared to standard German. Here are some examples:
- Swiss German focuses on past perfect and present tenses. This means that ich ging (I went) in High German becomes ich bi gange in Swiss German (I have gone).
- There is no genitive case, so instead of "the man's suit" (der Anzug des Mannes), it would be "the suit of the man" (der Anzug von Mann).
- Swiss German does not use the eszett (ß), so weiß becomes weiss.
- Swiss German infinitive verbs don’t have an N at the end: laufen (to run) becomes laufe.
Difference #4: Word endings
One of the most notable things about Swiss German is their habit of shortening words. The most common form of this is the use of li at the end of words, which is used to describe a smaller version of something. Examples include a small kitchen cupboard (Kuchenkasten versus Chüchichäschtli), a kitten (Kätzchen versus Chätzli) and a small table (kleiner Tisch versus Tischli).
Difference #5: Use of non-German words
Finally, Swiss German uses a lot of words from the other languages common in Switzerland like French and Italian. Some examples include merci (thank you), Velo (bicycle), Billet (ticket), Coiffeur (hairdresser) and ciao (goodbye).
German vs Swiss German: Quite the difference
As you can see, while they may share a name, the differences between Swiss German and standard German are stark. Don’t fret, however, as most expats have to live here a long time before they can master their local Dialekt. What's more, locals are happy to help by teaching some of the most common local words, or by switching to High German or English.