A - Z 2020 Switzerland - Quadrilingual

Welcome back to my Swiss themed A - Z blogging challenge. 

Q may be a hard letter for most of my fellow alphabet bloggers. As for me, I'm lucky to live in a diverse, quadrilingual country. 

In the larger part of Switzerland  - about 63% - folks speak Swiss German. The Western part is the French speaking part, also called Romandie, about 23% of Swiss people speak French. Remember, Geneva, Lausanne, Montreux?

What about the Italian speaking? They are an even smaller minority (8%). They know it and have accepted it. In addition to their Italian mother-tongue, they have learnt to fluently speak German or French or both and never complain. Hey, they got all the pasta and vino to enjoy the good life! 

There's some 5.5% left, in case you were counting. They are split between Rhaeto-Romanic or "Rumantsch" (0.5%), which is our fourth, very neglected national language, and 5% "other languages" like ex-yugoslav languages, spanish and portuguese. 

Or English ;-)

The good news is tourists will get by just fine. Airport staff, hotel and restaurant employees, they'll all be happy to help you.

I feel, however, that marketing and sales people, even the media in Switzerland are overusing English. And you know I do I love English, but if they are using it wrongly, I'm like WTF? 

Example: people here go to public viewings all the time, especially in summer. It has nothing to do with someone's wake. It's simply a giant screen put up in a public space broadcasting the soccer game.

Back to Swiss German. It is not the high German that is spoken in Germany. It's Swiss German, and any German person who first starts working in Switzerland will not understand a word of it! To make matters worse, our dialects differ greatly, depending on whether we live in Basel, Bern, Zurich or St. Gallen. 

And don't get me started on the mountainous states like Grisons or Valais. 

So Swiss German is what our kids around here learn first. Since they grow up watching Swiss and German TV they understand high German from early on. Come Kindergarten and elementary school, the language taught in is high German. 

It's hard for us. We feel inferior, if not retarded, every time we have to express ourselves in cultivated high German. Ask any Swiss person. We'd rather speak English (or French, and that means something ;-)

Also, us Swiss have a bit of a rivalry going on with the Germans. 

They keep kicking our butts in soccer. We don't like it. And we resent their (overly) confident and demanding attitude. Here's an example. Early in the morning at the bakery:

Swiss person: "Grüezi, ich het gern es Brötli, bitte" (You learned about Grüezi, didn't you, it's Hello. The rest is just your polite Swiss German way to ask for a bread roll, please.)

German person: "Ich krieg 'n Brötchen." (I get a bread roll)

See the difference?

By they way, "Brötli" is a perfect example of Swiss German. We like to minimize the words for our stuff. A Brötli is a little Brot, the bread roll is the smaller version of a bread. Make sense? We use it for a lot of things. Except a mug is really, really large, we won't call it Tasse, but Tassli. A bag like a handbag would be a Tasche in German. Us Swiss prefer our Täschli, a small bag ;-) Not to confuse with the plastic bags that have been banned from supermarkets. They are called Säckli!

I can not do a post about Swiss German without sharing the word we may be most famous for:

A Chuchichäschtli is a kitchen cabinet. The only reason it's somewhat funny is because it contains so many ch sounds.

We also use a lot of French words in Swiss German that our German German colleagues have other expressions for:
  • Wallet, Portemonnaie, Geldbeutel
  • Truck driver, Lastautochauffeur, Lastkraftwagenfahrer
  • Hairdresser, Coiffeur, Frisör
  • Inspector, Conducteur, Schaffner
  • Ticket, Billet, Fahrschein
  • Sidewalk, Trottoir, Gehsteig
  • Ice Cream, Glacé, Eis
  • Chicken, Poulet, Hähnchen

Here are a couple of fun videos. Emily, a Canadian, experienced that the classroom high German is not taking her anywhere in her everyday life in Switzerland:

This young German guy asked around among the Swiss what they thought about the Germans, and interestingly, my fellow Swiss repeated exactly what I told you above (English subtitles for your convenience):

Whoa, but THEN! The other way round. They asked Germans how they feel about the Swiss, an, oh man, they had nothing but nice things to say. Except the guy who actually lives and works in Switzerland. He gets some negative vibes, and I can't blame him:

Alright, wrapping it up! Here's a hilarious comparison of German vs other languages. Don't skip it:

The German language likes to connect a couple of words to one, loooong word. The day before yesterday we talked about drugs, right? Well, people who sell and / or use drugs, violate the law that requires a prescription for anaesthetics. 

German word for this law: Betäubungsmittelverschreibungsverordnung.

As Emily above mentioned: Just because you have learned German at language school does not mean you'll get by in Switzerland or Austria, our neighbor country to the East, for that matter. Even though they officially speak high German, they pronounce it differently, and they have a lot of own words and expressions.
  • Tomato, Tomate, Paradeiser
  • January, Januar, Jänner
  • Bag, Tüte, Sackerl
  • Whipped Cream, Schlagsahne, Obers
  • This year, dieses Jahr, heuer
  • Abricots, Aprikosen, Marillen
  • Chimney, Schornstein, Rauchfang
  • Call in sick, sich krankmelden, in den Krankenstand gehen

Speaking of crossing borders. Have you ever heard the term "Röstigraben"?

Literally it means hash brown ditch, and I can't believe there's a contribution on Wikipedia! 

We commonly use the expression to point out the language gap between the Swiss German and the French speaking part of Switzerland. Of course it's not just a question of language, but also of culture and political votings. 

There's a lot of stereotypes that one group of people says about the other one. 

The Swiss Germans say that the Swiss French are on the lazy side, don't feel like taking orders or keeping deadlines, are chaotic and unreliable. Plus their language is really impossible.

The Swiss French say about the Swiss Germans that they are overly punctual and tend to be anal and intolerant. Plus their language is really impossible. 

There's a bit of truth in both. 

This was your free class in Swiss languages. You may go and enjoy your recess now.

Did you enjoy learning about our quadrilingual country? Do you speak any of these languages? Let me know in the comments below and be back tomorrow for the letter R. I will be talking about REGA, our air rescue service.


  1. You are so brave to be able to speak so many languages, or at least understand them! I don't speak German at all, never learnt it, at school I learnt English and Spanish. As French is my native language, it's ok ;)
    Great post on your wonderful country, yet complex!
    Q is for Quilting Longarm

  2. I didn't know about Rumantsch. I learned German at Uni but that was so many years ago I couldn's speak it now. Maybe with a little brushing up I could do the kindergarten version :)

  3. I am always impressed when someone can speak multiple languages. Sadly, I do not even though my parents and grandparents spoke fluent Canadian French which is much different than Parisian French similar to how you describe differences in your languages to their counterparts. I remember when I went to Iceland, our guides could switch between English and Icelandic with ease even though they are extremely different languages. It was amazing. Weekends In Maine

  4. I watched all of the videos and found your post very interesting about the many languages and the subtleties between them. I didn't like the characterization of the Americans as gun-toting idiots very much, but the word-extending Germans seem to have the Swiss peoples' disdain more than us. It's amazing such a small place has so many variations of language, where a place like the US we all speak the same language. I think a homogenous society like Switzerland, where everyone is supposed to act and be the same way, there has be a way to distinguish your uniqueness, and language is one way to do it. I admire the enclaves in your country who sustain that uniqueness of language.

    I'm learning a lot about your land and appreciate hearing the various impressions your citizens and German citizens have of each other. Also interesting to learn about neutrality.

  5. I really want to learn another language one day.... it is awesome that you know so many and that your so well diversified in speaking them. You are right when you say that people are stereo typed... true even in one language. I want to learn Hindi because then I will be able to understand my local convenience store cashier! ☺

  6. I really enjoyed your post and will now explore other posts. I apologise for being English with our mongrel language that is so easy to get by in and so hard to speak or write perfectly. I covered something similar in one of my posts on Grammar. https://how-would-you-know.blogspot.com/2020/04/q-is-for-quality-of-life.html?showComment=1587295231085

  7. I would be in trouble because I can't speak anything but English and I'm terrible at pronouncing diffficults words. I suppose I should be glad that most people here speak English.

    Have a lovely day.

  8. How cool to speak so many languages right away! Something I always regret - especially since my father spoke 9 fluently. Sigh. Still, would love to visit some day and hear all the different dialects.

  9. Being neutral has served Switzerland well! I have always wondered who speaks what language when the Swiss are surrounded with so many different countries with different tongues and dialects. Your post was very informative on what to expect when traveling around your area. I grew up in the United States learning English, of course, and then in high school we were able to choose another language. I took two years of German and remember how to say, "Ich spreche schlect Deutch" (I speak bad German). I will definitely have to brush up on my language skills before traveling to Europe! Thank you for sharing. Sending love. Jaime


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