Swiss Culture: Swiss Languages

Robert Easton

The diversity of Switzerland's languages will be evident to any visitor. Signs are often bi or tri-lingual, and sometimes newspaper stands have to be extra-long to fit in all the different language newspapers.

Switzerland (commonly known to Swiss as die Schweiz, la Suisse, Swizzera, or Svizra) has four 'national' languages, German, French, Italian and Romansh, of which German, French and Italian are also classified as 'official' languages. Romansh is an official language only in the canton of Grabinden.

The official name of Switzerland is none of the languages above: Confoederatio Helvetica (the Swiss Confederation) is in fact Latin. This use of Latin (visible on postage stamps and even in the domain name ending 'ch') is to avoid favouring any one of the language groups.

The unofficial Swiss motto 'uno pro omnibus, omnes pro uno', meaning 'all for one and one for all' is also Latin. It was launched in 1868 just 20 years after the founding of the federal state, with the aim of encouraging solidarity among the people in the wake of disastrous flooding.

German is the mother tongue of around 64% of the Swiss population and 17 of Switzerland's 26 cantons are monolingual German. French is next with approximately 20%, then Italian with about 6-8%. Romansh is the mother tongue of a mere 0.5% of Switzerland's population, and as such is out-numbered by both Serbo-Croat (1-2%) and English (~1%).

The German spoken by Swiss Germans is quite unintelligible to German Germans, whereas Swiss Italian and French are closer to the standard languages.

Schwyzertütsch, as Swiss German is known, has no written form and at least three different dialects. Even the spelling of the word Schwyzertütsch is disputed. One of the differences from High German that you might spot is Swiss German's use of French words, for example Swiss Germans sometimes say 'merci' for thank you (compared to Danke in High German), and 'vélo' for bicycle (Fahrrad in High German). 'Quittung', meaning receipt or bill, is an adaption of the French 'quttance' (Beleg in High German). Another thing you might spot is the use of 'li' at the end of words to indicate the diminutive (ie something small). Most obvious of all though, is the commonly used greeting 'Grüezi', for hello.

It has long been obligatory for Swiss children to learn a second 'national language' at school, but nowadays many people concentrate on English instead.

Recent research has shown that earnings are affected by the worker's mother tongue, with Italian speakers being the most disadvantaged.

Romansh (also known as Rumantsch, Romansch or Romanche) is descended from the Vulgar Latin spoken by Roman era occupiers of the area, and is spoken by a total of about 50-70,000 people. It is a mother tongue for around 35,000, but all Romansh speakers speak German as a second language.

There are five main dialects in the Romansh family, Sursilvan, Sutsilvan, Surmiran, Puter and Vallader. In 1982 the language was standardised to create Rumantsch Grischun, but it is not widely spoken.

When speakers of different dialects meet, they may well speak German. Microsoft announced in 2005 that Rumantsch Grischun was to be added to its list of desktop languages.

Such a tiny language as Romansh was never fated to develop a world-famous literary tradition. There exist a handful of documents that were in existence before 1500. The first poem was written in Romansh in 1527, but took more than 300 years to find a publisher.

The following centuries saw the emergence of a host of poets, playwrights and authors who wrote biblical plays, courtroom dramas and sketches. There has been a Romansh literary festival every year since 1990.

In the admittedly unlikely event of meeting a Romansh speaker, here are some basic phrases to get you by:

allegra - hello/hi

co vai? - how are you?

bun di - good morning

buna saira - good evening

buna notg - good night

a revair - goodbye

a pli tard - see you later

per plaschair - please

grazia fitg - thank you very much

anzi - you're welcome

perstgisai - I beg your pardon

i ma displascha - I'm sorry

perdunai - excuse me

gratulazions - congratulations

bun cletg - good luck

ils quants è oz? - what's the date today?

quants onns has ti? - how old are you?

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