What is the Röstigraben and why does it matter?

What is the Röstigraben and why does it matter?

For a relatively small country, Switzerland has its fair share of borders. Along with the 26 different cantons in Switzerland, and the national borders with other European nations, the country is home to a unique and literal language barrier.

Röstigraben: The language border between German and French

The Röstigraben (literally, the "Rösti trench") is a non-official border between French and German-speaking Switzerland. The name is derived from the Swiss delicacy Rösti - a hash-brown-like food that is often served with bacon and cheese.

The border itself runs along the boundary of Canton Jura through the Bernese Oberland, Neuchâtel and the bilingual canton of Fribourg, right down to the mountains where it splits the canton of Valais. The border itself is not a physical barrier and is only designated by perhaps a change in the announcement language on trains.

History of the term Röstigraben

The word Röstigraben became popular during the 1900s as a term used to define cultural and political differences between French and German speakers. Archaeologists in 2014 claimed that differences between the two language groups in Switzerland have existed for around 7.000 years, dating back to when people first settled in the area. Today, the term is typically used to explain different political ideologies and decisions in government and referendums.

Röstigraben fading as a border in Switzerland

To overgeneralise, typically, people west of the Röstigraben look towards France for most of its policies around taxation, social security and diplomacy. German speakers, on the other hand, look to Germany for policy and can be more inward-looking and cautious.

This divide has been fading in recent years; a report in Swissinfo revealed cities in Switzerland are increasingly beginning to vote along similar lines, moving the political divide from the Röstigraben to one that is characterised by urban versus rural areas of Italian and French-speaking Switzerland.

As well as the Röstigraben, the border between Italian-speaking Ticino and the rest of the country has been named the Polentagraben by Neue Zürcher Zeitung, although this has only been the case for a few years. While differences may remain politically between language groups, the differences between each side are not as profound as they used to be.

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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