These are Switzerland’s words of the year in 2021

These are Switzerland’s words of the year in 2021

In a year more difficult than many, the words of the year chosen by each of Switzerland’s linguistic regions reflect the division across the country in 2021. The winning words were announced by the Department of Applied Linguistics at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) this month. 

Impfdurchbruch word of the year in German-speaking Switzerland

In the German-speaking part of Switzerland, the word Impfdurchbruch was chosen as the 2021 word of the year. Impfdurchbruch, meaning “vaccine breakthrough,” began to gain traction early in 2021, used to describe the breakthrough that the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines brought towards slowly reopening society for the first time since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

Of course, with the arrival of new virus variants, the originally high hopes placed on vaccines have been dashed slightly, as the Swiss government has since gone on to call for the introduction of booster vaccines to further increase immunity. “It breaks through again and again - be it with new variants or so-called vaccination breakthroughs,” stated the Zurich University of Applied Sciences.  

The prevalence of pandemic and vaccine-related vocabulary reflects the tension within German-speaking Switzerland in particular about the COVID-19 virus, and how citizens believe the government should handle the crisis. Further reflecting this is the word that ranked third in 2021 - entfreunden, or "to unfriend somebody." As arguments over vaccine and mask mandates rage on, it seems many people have felt the urge to cut contact or unfriend those who share differing opinions this year.  

Gender-neutral pronoun iel the French-speaking word of 2021

In a less-heated climate, the French-speaking part of Switzerland has adopted the third-person pronoun iel, referring to any person, regardless of gender, as its word of 2021. Iel is created from the French pronouns for he and she (il and elle, respectively), and it first entered the Petit Robert dictionary in November 2021, causing controversy across Switzerland. 

According to ZHAW, the word “reflects a need - expressed in particular by a part of the youth - to rework the relationship between language and identity." The word was created to promote inclusivity, but in the process sparked debates about gender identity in the country - the reason why ZHAW says it chose to give it the top spot.

Other top words in French-speaking Switzerland were, similarly to the German-language cantons, related to the pandemic. In second place was précarité (precariousness) followed by variants (variants), reflecting the amount of concern held by citizens about COVID-19.   

Italian speakers went for certificato, Romansh-speakers chose respect

The story was also the same in southern Switzerland, in the Italian-speaking region. In Canton Ticino, certificato (certificate) was chosen as the word for 2021, after the introduction of COVID-19 certificates earlier in the year

The second word of the year in Italian was urgenza (urgency) in connection with the climate crisis, followed by exploit (exploit), referring to Switzerland’s sporting achievements at the Tokyo Olympic Games. 

The often forgotten fourth national language of Switzerland, Romansh, had the most poetic set of words to reflect 2021. The region, which has around 60.000 Romansh speakers, selected respect (respect), pazienza (patience) and tgira (care).



Emily Proctor

Former Editor at IamExpat Media.

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