Switzerland is peppered with multiple flavors of German: Each canton (essentially a "region") of the country has its own dialect and unique manner of speaking. These dialects are collectively referred to as Swiss German (Schweizerdeutsch), and they vary so significantly that a person from Zürich might not understand a person from Bern. For this reason, Standard German (Schriftdeutsch) is used as a common tongue in formal settings and official documents.
The distinction between a language and dialect is relatively tenebrous, so just for fun, here are nine ways that Swiss and Standard German differ.
1. Common vs Official
Even though Standard German is one of Switzerland’s four official languages, Swiss German itself can not be declared an official language. This is because Swiss German is not a language, but rather a term used to collectively refer to the various languages spoken in German-speaking parts of Switzerland.
Swiss German is distinguished from Standard German by what are referred to as Helvetisms: specific vocabulary, pronunciation, and syntax that are unique to Switzerland. The differences are significant enough that people from Germany need subtitles to understand Swiss German television.
2. Dialects of Dialects
Each canton has its own distinct dialect, as we mentioned above, and some are so distinct that people from Germany can not understand them. Furthermore, these dialects can also vary from district to district, such that someone on one side of a major city might not understand someone from another.
Switzerland also has Swiss Standard German—referred to as High German or Hochdeutsch by the Swiss—which is a variant of Standard German. Swiss Standard German is a written language, used in official documents and by German-speaking Swiss authors, and is almost identical to written Standard German.
Typically, Swiss students learn Swiss Standard German while in school.
The main difference between Swiss and Standard German is pronunciation.
One particularly characteristic example is the “ch” sound, which is pronounced in a markedly more guttural way in Swiss German, and tends to be used where a "k" sound would be produced in Standard German. As such, the word kalt (cold) becomes chalt, and the word koch (cook) becomes choch.
Another characteristic of Swiss-German is that it doesn’t have diphthongs (double vowel sounds). If two vowels are right next to each other, they will be treated as if they were individual and distinct sounds, with emphasis placed on the first one. If two of the same vowel occur simultaneously, the result is a longer and more drawn out sound.
This leads to several situations where a given word will seem like it has two distinct vowel sounds in Swiss German, but only one in Standard German. For example, äi, ou, ie, ue, üe are each a single blended sound in Standard German, but are pronounced as written in Swiss German: eu sounds like ä + u, and öi is somewhere between o + i and ö + i.
4. Fewer Tenses
There are only two verb tenses in Swiss-German: the past perfect and the present. Where the simple past tense would be used in Standard German, Swiss German uses the past participle.
This can be seen in the saying “ich ging" from Standard German (I went), which becomes "Ich bi gange" in Swiss-German (bi being the past participle, giving us I have gone). Another example is "er war" (he was) from Standard German—Swiss-Germans instead say "är isch gsi" (he has been).
This means that people speaking Swiss German say “I have been working,” not “I was working.”
5. No Genitive Case
Swiss German speakers don’t use the genitive case, and the dialect also does away with relative pronouns (which need to be declined in Standard German) by making heavier use of the word "wo" (where), an all-purpose word that can be used irrespective of case or gender. The word "von" (of) may also be used.
Where someone speaking Standard German would say “the guy’s jacket,” someone speaking Swiss German would say “the jacket of the guy.” That's "Die Jacke des Mannes" in Standard German, and "Die Jacke von Mann" in Swiss German. Note how the genitive form of mann, mannes, is used in Standard German, but not in Swiss German.
Some prepositions, such as "wegen" (because), employ the dative case instead of the genitive case. Regional dialects are often flexible in terms of word order, differing not only from Standard German but also from each other.
Some Swiss German words have a different gender than their Standard German counterpart, and the Swiss have also made use of many more English loan words.
6. Sans-ß German
Where Standard German makes use of the eszett (ß), Swiss German simply uses a double "ss.” Both indicate that a word has a long or hard S, so this difference is only applicable to the written language.
For example, the Standard German word for white is weiß, but it is written as wiiss in Swiss German.
Daily words and phrases is perhaps where it is easiest to see the differences between Swiss and Standard German. As Swiss Germans replace diphthongs with shorter sounds, their words tend to be shorter and have fewer syllables.
Since some of the Swiss German dialects come into close contact with French and Italian, quite a lot of vocabulary has been adopted from them. This phenomenon leads to interesting mixes of French and German.
Here are a few comparisons of Swiss German and Standard German words:
- Bell peppers: Peperoni in Swiss-German, Paprika in Standard German
- Small kitchen cupboard: Chüchichäschtli in Swiss German, Kuchenkasten in Standard German
This word chüchichäschtli is famous for how well it portrays the guttural pronunciation that characterizes Swiss German. Try it!
A diminutive form is a modification to a word that makes it seem smaller and cuter or shows a sense of endearment. For example, dog becomes doggy in English.
While diminutives end in -chen or -lein in Standad German, in Swiss German they end in -li. For example, "Haus" becomes "Häuschen" (little house) in Standard German and "Hüüsliin" in Swiss German. Other examples are:
- Kätzli (kitten)
- Hündli (little dog)
- Ängeli (little angel)
This ending -li can also be affixed to names as a term of affection, e.g., Benjaminli.
9. Slang & Colloquialisms
Swiss German has a healthy amount of slang, and more is created every day. When used in the right context, certain Swiss German words can act as instant ice-breakers that put a smile on the Swiss’ faces. Then, there are also some words that might help you to better understand Swiss culture.
Here are a few examples:
- Z’Nüni (Z=at, nüni=nine): In Switzerland, there are two breaks throughout the day—a breakfast, and a break for snacks. The snack break, referred to as Z'Nüni, is eaten at around 9 a.m and often seen as being a second breakfast.
- Abeleere: This is the Swiss version of chug, used when someone tells you to drink.
- Bünzli: This term refers to a person who follows all of the rules and tries to makes sure that everyone else does, too. It's kind of like a goody-two-shoes.
- En Guete: This is the polite way to wish someone a nice meal, and is used somewhat like the phrase have a great one. This is often used to greet people.
In general, it's worth bearing in mind that there's substantial regional variation. While speakers of most Swiss German dialects can generally understand each other, vocabulary variations can lead to an odd bit of confusion.