Sympathy for the dialect

Every nation has its faux pas – things that you shouldn´t talk about or joke about…EVER.

For example, don´t call a New Zealander “an envious Aussie”, or a Canadian “a wannabe American”, unless you like your tires flattened.

Don´t call la Manche the English Channel when you are in Paris or call the French “brie-eating surrender monkeys”.

(For some reason, this upsets them.)

(Freedom fries?

Not so much.)

Don´t mention the War with the Germans.

And never EVER confuse a German-speaking Swiss person with a native of Germany or you can expect to find your fondue seriously curdled.

I have lived in Switzerland these past five years and am the only permanent resident Canadian in the wee hamlet of Landschlacht, so my ears are bombarded (sorry, I meant to say serenaded) by Schwiizertüütsch (Swiss German) on a regular basis.

My students speak it, despite my using Standard / High German when I need to explain things in German.

My SB boss at SB Hauptbahnhof, the SB boss at Marktplatz, my assistant manager, a shift manager, two fellow Partners, and my best Swiss friend speaks Schwiizertüütsch and somehow they believe I have a clue about what they are saying to me.

What makes Schwiizertüütsch especially problematic is that, unlike most dialects, it is almost unrestrictedly used as a spoken language in practically all situations of daily life.

The Swiss argue that as a result of this use their dialect is not a dialect at all but a living language all its own.

Clearly the Schwiizertüütsch cannot be confused with Standard German, because German people tend not to understand Swiss German.

Anytime an interview with a Swiss German speaker is shown on German TV, subtitles are required!

Although Swiss German is the native language, from age six, people additionally learn Standard German at school and are thus (officially) fully able to understand, write and speak Standard German with varying ability based on their level of education.

Swiss German is spoken by all social levels in cities and in the countryside. 

Using Schwiizertüütsch conveys neither social nor educational inferiority and is done with pride.

Once a year, one of the two free weekday newspapers (20 Minuten / Blick am Abend) prints an edition written entirely in Schwiizertüütsch, which is a medial diglossia (linguistic contradiction) since the spoken language is the dialect, but the written language is Standard German.

There are a few settings where speaking Standard German is demanded or polite – in education (though during the breaks, teachers speak Schwiizertüüsch with the students), in Parliament, in news broadcasts or in the presence of dumb foreigners like myself.

60% of the Swiss speak Schwiizertüüsch, 20% speak French, 10% speak Italian, 5% speak Romansch (a dialect that is neither Germanic or Latin but an odd mix of both) and the rest are lost souls adrift in Switzerland speaking whatever gobbledygook comes out of their mouths like English, Turkish, whatever…

To further confuse us lost souls, the Swiss German spoken differs from canton to canton.

Basel uses different words and sounds than Bern does.

Bern is different again from St. Gallen.

St. Gallen cannot comprehend the Valais dialect, etc, etc, etc.

Each canton has its own dialect separable into local subdialects, even to the point that villages separated only a few kilometres apart speak quite differently.

Somehow they understand one another…

…except for the Valais folks who remain confused and confusing and best not mentioned!

Add to this chaos the further confusion of word adoptions from other languages incorporated into Swiss German.

For example, the French “merci”(thank you) is often used.

Now, don´t then start think of saying “merci beaucoup”(thank you very much) but instead “merci vilmal” is used, which is the love child of French “merci” and the German “viel mal”(many times)…

…And thus had a very difficult childhood indeed.

Sometimes it all feels like a linguistic game of Russian roulette, where five of six gun chambers are loaded instead of only one!

Of course, Swiss German speakers are über sensitive about their language as a source of national pride and honour and feel highly insulted when Standard German speakers “pretend” not to understand them.

I, for my part, am torn between frustration – that my level of Standard German is often no help whatsoever in comprehending them – and amusement – as, to my ears, Swiss German is disturbingly similar to the sounds made by the Swedish chef on the Muppet Show!

So when Corinne, my assistant manager, is explaining to me how I messed up yet again, my brain is humming “dum dee diddle dum, dum dee diddle dum, dum dee diddle dum, bork bork bork”!

I grew up English Canadian in Francophone Quebec.

I miss the simplicity of those days.


One thought on “Sympathy for the dialect

  1. Great sarcasm I have to agree, that Swiss German or Schwizertüütsch is indeed a dumb language although the real “swissies” or (swizzle’s if you will) would never underline this statement because of their pride…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s