swissworld.org - Switzerland's official information portal

swissworld.org - Switzerland's official information portal

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Swiss German

The language spoken in German-speaking Switzerland is quite different from standard German - called High German. The German Swiss speak Swiss German, often called "Mundart" - which itself is broken up into numerous local dialects. These are different enough to make it possible to determine where a speaker comes from, but generally not so different as to be incomprehensible to other Swiss German speakers. The dialects which give the most difficulty are those spoken in some of the remote valleys in the southern canton of Valais, but with a bit of effort from both sides even these can be understood by speakers of other Swiss German dialects.

A poll carried out in 2002 among German and French speaking Swiss asked them to name the Swiss German dialect they preferred. Bernese came top with 27%; the Valais dialect got 20%, while Zürich got only 10% of the votes.

In Switzerland, High German is first and foremost a written language, which Swiss German children have to learn in school. All lessons are taught in it, and it is the language of newspapers and magazines and most books. It is also widely used in the media.

At the same time, High German, the standard language of the entire German speaking world, also contains regional variations, particularly in vocabulary. (Native English speakers are faced with a similar situation, where words and expressions used in one country or region are unknown in the others.) German-speaking Swiss are sometimes surprised to find that even when they speak High German some of the words they use are not understood by Germans or Austrians.

People who have learnt only High German find Swiss German very hard to understand. This is not merely a matter of accent: the grammar and vocabulary are also different. This poses a problem within Switzerland: French and Italian speakers who learn German at school are taught the standard language, and find they still cannot communicate with their compatriots. Teachers in the German part of Switzerland complain that many pupils find it difficult to master standard German, and that their studies suffer as a result.

"I speak Bernese German and I write in High German (…) I keep having to desert the language I speak, in order to find a language that I can’t speak, because when I speak High German, I do so with a Bernese accent. (…) Some critics object that the Bernese comes through in my German. I hope it does. I write in a kind of German that grew on Bernese soil."

 

Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990), one of the most significant postwar German language playwrights.