Top 8 Swiss-German words every expat needs to know
Switzerland is known for many things; from its mountains and lakes to the bustling cities of the Mittelland. A typical theme of conversations about Switzerland, particularly among German speakers, is the Swiss dialect.
The Swiss-German dialect is arguably a language in its own right. Stereotypical descriptions of Swiss-German by High German speakers include "like listening to static noise on the radio, and the sensation of trying to have a conversation with a Swabian from the 1500s."
What is most exciting - or worrying depending on your perspective - is that Swiss-German is starting to be written down. The practice has become especially common among young people, who text to each other using Swiss-German.
Top 8 Swiss-German words every expat needs to know
For expats and tourists, here are some of the best Swiss words you might hear while living, working or visiting Switzerland.
1. Bise and Föhn
Like lots of people around the world, the Swiss really enjoy talking about the weather. However, being Swiss, instead of making general remarks about how dark things are outside and debating whether this particular rainstorm is a “clearing up shower”, the Swiss like to point to specific natural phenomenon.
The Föhn, for example, is a natural phenomenon where warm winds flow through mountain passes. As the wind passes through Switzerland, temperatures in mountain valleys rise significantly. This warm wind is also the source of a Swiss conspiracy theory, where exposure to this wind could give you a throat infection (Entzündung).
The Bise, by contrast, is a north-easterly wind that can funnel cold air through the Mittelland from Lake Constance in the east to Geneva in the west. This wind can produce sub-zero temperatures, and provide perfect conditions for sailing on Swiss lakes.
Bünzli is a controversial word in Switzerland, mainly because it cuts deep into the Swiss-German psyche. There are several different factors that are used to determine what is “Bünzli” and what isn’t. Generally speaking, Bünzli behaviour is someone who is regimented, perhaps highly strung, and adamantly follows the rules.
An example of Bünzli behaviour is where you do not complain about noise outside your house, caused by parties or groups of people, until exactly one second past the 10pm curfew. Bünzli is the Swiss trying to describe the most extreme version of themselves, making it one of the most profound self-parodies.
The litmus test for any Swiss-German speaker is trying to pronounce this infamous word. Actually meaning kitchen cupboard, Chuchichäschtli is used as a way to explain the differences between the High-German and Swiss-German accent.
If you are able to pronounce this tricky Swiss word, you are already well on your way to citizenship. The word is an excellent example of how Swiss-German can split off from the mother language to form brand new words and pronunciations.
4. En Guete!
En Guete literally means “have a good one” and is said before the start of every meal, with the exception of takeaways. Like dig in, or Bon Appétit, it is the Swiss way to begin a meal politely. Along with zum Wohl (cheers) eating or drinking before saying these words can be seen as highly impolite.
Some Swiss words cannot be accurately translated into any other language. Gäbig is one of them. The original word is meant to show something that is “gladly accepted” or “acceptable.” Today, Gäbig is used by young people to describe something good or valuable, be it a good meal or a new piece of furniture.
Switzerland has four official languages within its borders - German, French, Italian and Romansh - along with the many languages spoken by expats. The borders between the different language regions in Switzerland can form a literal language barrier, especially between German and French-speaking Switzerland.
The Röstigraben is a border that runs from north to south, splitting the country into French and German speakers. Some Swiss cantons, like Fribourg and Valais, are split on this border, making them some of the few bilingual cantons in Switzerland. This border has become more symbolic than literal in recent years, as cities on either side of the Röstigraben have become more homogenous.
Like most cultures, Switzerland has many stereotypes that people abroad use to describe the country's inhabitants. Be it ruthlessly on time, cold, working in finance or not being afraid to correct someone when they are doing something wrong, there are many ways to describe the Swiss.
However, stereotypes cannot paint a full picture of a culture; case in point - the Stammtisch. This is where all single travellers and "regulars" at a restaurant or hotel, are given a large table where they can sit together and socialise. The table is a melting pot of different people with different backgrounds, mingling together at the dinner table, playing cards and socialising. It is an ideal example of the limits of stereotypes, especially regarding the Swiss.
Described by Watson as the best Swiss word ever, Verhebe is meant to describe everything Swiss people are. Once again, a direct translation to English is impossible, but a close approximation could be: the Swiss attitude and the idea of following through with something.
It is meant to describe what the Swiss do and how they do it. It is considered a top Swiss word, simply because it describes everything the country does, from top investments to a Bratwurst up a freezing mountain.
Swiss-German is increasingly different to High-German
As time goes on, Swiss-German has deviated massively from the original German language. Some of the words listed have only become prominent in the last 100 years, so it will be interesting to see what the Swiss language thinks of next.