Lingua Helvetica: Language(s) in Switzerland

Buy some medicine in Switzerland (if you can afford it).

(And considering how generally the Swiss worry about life far more than they actually seem to enjoy living may be a great reason to run (not walk) to the nearest Apotheke!)

You will see that the instructions (the message in the bottle, so to speak) are written in, at least three languages.

As you reach into your billfold to pay for the medicine, take a gander at the Swiss banknotes.

You’ll see the banknote’s important information written in four languages.

Take a look at the Swiss government website and you will have the choice between five languages (including English).

The population of Switzerland is made up of 65% German-speakers, 18% French-speakers, 10% Italian-speakers and 1% Romansh-speakers.

The German-speaking Swiss media have coined an expression for the imaginary west-east divide between French-speakers and German-speakers: the Röstigraben – fried potato ditch.

The Rösti is a flat pancake-shaped dish invented by the Bernese and symbolic of the slow, dependable and starchy Swiss-German mentality.

French-speakers refer to this divide as Outre-Sarine – those on the other side of the River Sarine/Saane, the river that roughly marks the ditch’s border, as in those who live over on the other side of the River in German-speaking parts are beyond the pale.

In the five years I have been resident in Switzerland I have heard of no term to delineate the German speakers from the Italian speakers, but no term is needed as the Alps serve as a fine fence between the two language groups.

Coexistence of languages in the public sphere is a fact of daily life, yet somehow Switzerland seems to carry on without the tensions and separatist movements that have haunted Belgium and my own home and native land of Canada.

This coexistence has earned Switzerland a reputation for being a successful example of mulitlingualism, but there is a world of difference between reputation and reality.

In theory, German, French, Italian and Romansh are the four official languages existing on an equal basis.

Romansch, as it is spoken only by a few tens of thousands of people, doesn’t have the same status as the other three, so it is often marginalised and forgotten by most of the Swiss.

All laws are published in German, French and Italian, and no linguistic version is supposed to have greater or lesser value than the others.

How does the federal government function with three languages?

After all, you can’t expect all the civil servants or all the members of parliament to be fluent in all of them.

The Swiss solution is that each person expresses him/herself in his/her own language and the others must somehow simply understand the speaker.

If a French-speaking journalist is speaking to a German-speaking politician, the journalist will ask his questions in French and receive his responses in German.

Does this mean then that the Swiss are accomplished polyglots like the Dutch?

No, for the vast majority of Swiss.

If you want to ask for directions in Lausanne and you don’t speak French, try English rather than German or Italian.

In Zürich, a non German-speaking person should try English rather than French or Italian.

Are the big three languages at least treated on an equal basis?

Not at all.

There is a definite hierarchy between them, though everyone denies it is so.

At the bottom of this stack of three are the Italian speakers.

In French-speaking and German-speaking cantons, Italian is only an optional language in school.

Few people actually speak it.

If a Swiss Italian wants to be understood in the federal administration, he won´t speak Italian, but instead he will speak either French or German, depending on which one he has mastered better.

In the middle is French, which is taught in school in German and Italian cantons.

Many Swiss have at least a basic knowledge of French.

At the top of the heap is German.

Nine out of ten federal laws are written in German before being translated into other languages.

German is the language in which most things are done.

This, of course, creates some degree of frustration amongst the linguistic minorities.

With globalisation, English is taking an increasing important role in this linguistic pile-up.

English is the language the Swiss want to learn rather than rack their brains with nightmarish French spelling, chaotic Italian pronunciation or impossible German grammar.

The Swiss resort increasingly to English when they meet, to the surprise of many foreigners.

My wife, a German, will attend a medical conference in Lausanne and the language of discussion will be English, even though most of the participants speak German and the conference is in French-speaking Romandie (the French name for the French side of Switzerland).

And not only because the French speakers and German speakers can´t or won´t speak their counterparts´language, but as well there is a chance that the German speakers might not be able to understand one another!

(A similar problem exists amongst the Romansch.

More on this later.)

Swiss French and Swiss Italian have very few differences with the French of France and the Italians of Italy, but Swiss Germans speak in regional dialects to which they are VERY attached.

These regional dialects are not comprehensible to someone who speaks only the official High German learnt in school.

Swiss German is not a written language, nor it it uniform.

Each town has its own version.

To Swiss ears, the multitude of Swiss-German dialects range from cute to painful (their own dialect being, of course, perfect).

As a result, a Swiss French or a Swiss Italian will be able to understand what Swiss German colleagues are saying during an official meeting as they will usually speak standard German.

But they won’t understand them or be able to participate in discussions during the break when the German speakers chat informally in their regional dialect groups around cups of coffee.

God knows how important coffee break discussions can be.

Suggesting that French and Italian speakers also learn the many German dialects is a tall order, as not only do they already have to learn one or two other official languages (plus English), not everybody is a cunning linguist.

(For more on Swiss German dialects and resulting difficulties, see Sympathy for the Dialect of this blog.)

The linguistic playing field in Switzerland is not level.

Non German speakers find it difficult to influence the national political decisions that affect their lives.

(As for the Romansh…

Though their language is recognized by the Swiss Constitution and some 35,000 people in Graubünden Canton speak it, much like Swiss German the forms of the Romansh language vary from valley to valley.

Speakers from one village have great difficulty understanding villages just a few kilometres away.

So which dialect does Switzerland and Graubünden consider to be “true” Romansh?

Before 1982, all of them.

School books were published in five different variants of Romansh.

In 1982, after many dismal failed attempts at linguistic unification, the Lia Rumantscha (the Romansh League) hired the German-speaking linguist Heinrich Schmid who created the “standard” Rumantsch Grishun (Graubünden Romansh), which has resulted in laws, school books and signs all set in the new unified language.

But despite the neutrality of this standardisation, Rumantsch Grishun has failed to conquer the hearts of the dialect speakers.

Each municipality continues to use its own local dialect as their first language.)

As a language teacher and a great afficiando of history, I have no doubt that one day when archaeologists unearth the ruins of the Tower of Babel those ruins will be found somewhere in Switzerland.


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