Why is Swiss German not allowed in the parliament of Switzerland?

Why is Swiss German not allowed in the parliament of Switzerland?

At a session on May 2, the National Council in Switzerland rejected a plan that would allow Swiss German to be spoken during parliamentary business. This raises the question: why is one of the languages of Switzerland not allowed in the Federal Palace in Bern?

Parliament rejects plan to allow Swiss German

In the meeting, the National Council voted by 164 votes to 20 to reject a plan to allow Swiss German to be spoken during debates, votes and speeches in government. The law, proposed by Swiss People’s Party National Councillor Lukas Reimann, would have seen Swiss German recognised alongside High German, French, Italian and Romansh as one of the languages allowed to be used in parliament.

“The dialect is the language of the whole population. It is independent of social status. It is spoken and understood by everyone, and it is ultimately for us, German-speaking Swiss, the language with which we have close emotional relationships and in which we can express ourselves in the most differentiated way,” Reimann told 20 Minuten.

Swiss German debate lights up parliament

He added that officials in Swiss cantons are already allowed to speak "Dialekt" and that the change would allow federal politicians to better connect with young people. The debate around the vote itself was raucous, with Reimann telling lawmakers on May 2 that “Swiss German is easier [to learn] than French.”

When asked by Social Democratic Councillor Ada Marra whether Swiss German speakers should learn French at school, Reimann said, “I agree. We should understand French, but I don't want to speak it, because it's not as pretty.” Green Liberal councillor Céline Weber then jokingly asked whether the Romandes should learn "Bärndütsch or Oberwalliserditsch?"

Why is Swiss German not allowed in parliament?

Despite the joking nature of Weber’s statement, her thoughts highlight the main reason why Swiss German is not allowed in the federal government: the language barrier. Each German-speaking canton of Switzerland has a number of different versions of Swiss German, with many often having their own words and phrases. In fact, much like German citizens not understanding Swiss German, some locals can often find it hard to understand people from other regions.

In rejecting the motion, Centre Party National Councillor Philip Bregy said that the change would be extremely difficult to implement as it would make communication between language groups near-impossible.“I like dialects - but in the evening over a beer. If we want to do serious work here, we have to agree on a denominator that allows everyone to follow the debates. It is also a question of respect to adapt one's language so that it is... understandable for all,” he concluded.

Federal Council rejects Dialekt in parliament

The President of Switzerland and the Federal Council were also not in favour of the idea. Speaking to 20 Minuten, a spokesperson for the executive noted that hosting debates in Swiss German would confuse parliamentary interpreters for French, Romansh and indeed German speakers from other cantons, and make dictating parliamentary debates extremely difficult to pull off as conversations would have to be translated in real-time into written German. 

Thumb image credit: / Mor65_Mauro Piccardi

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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