|Native to||Switzerland (as German), Liechtenstein, Vorarlberg (Austria), Piedmont & Aosta Valley (Italy)|
|4.93 million in Switzerland (2013)|
Unknown number in Germany (excluding Alsatian) and Austria
Swiss German is classified as Potentially Vulnerable by the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger
Swiss German (Standard German: Schweizerdeutsch, Alemannic German: Schwiizerdütsch, Schwyzerdütsch, Schwiizertüütsch, Schwizertitsch Mundart,[note 1] and others) is any of the Alemannic dialects spoken in the German-speaking part of Switzerland and in some Alpine communities in Northern Italy bordering Switzerland. Occasionally, the Alemannic dialects spoken in other countries are grouped together with Swiss German as well, especially the dialects of Liechtenstein and Austrian Vorarlberg, which are closely associated to Switzerland's.
Linguistically, Alemannic is divided into Low, High and Highest Alemannic, varieties all of which are spoken both inside and outside Switzerland. The only exception within German-speaking Switzerland is the municipality of Samnaun, where a Bavarian dialect is spoken. The reason Swiss German dialects constitute a special group is their almost unrestricted use as a spoken language in practically all situations of daily life, whereas the use of the Alemannic dialects in other countries is restricted or even endangered.
The Swiss German dialects must not be confused with Swiss Standard German, the variety of Standard German used in Switzerland. Swiss Standard German is fully understandable to all Standard German speakers, while many people in Germany – especially in the north – do not understand German Swiss (people with any of the many Swiss German dialects as mother language). An interview with a German Swiss shown on German national television therefore requires subtitles, much as an interview in Scots would on US television. Although Swiss German is the native language in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, Swiss school students additionally learn Swiss Standard German at school from age six. They are thus capable of understanding, writing and speaking Standard German, with varying abilities mainly based on the level of education.
Unlike most regional languages in modern Europe, Swiss German is the spoken everyday language for the majority of all social levels, in industrial cities as well as in the countryside. Using a dialect conveys neither social nor educational inferiority and is done with pride. There are a few settings where speaking Standard German is demanded or polite, e.g., in education (but not during breaks in school lessons, where the teachers will speak in the dialect with students), in multilingual parliaments (the federal parliaments and a few cantonal and municipal ones), in the main news broadcast or in the presence of non-Alemannic speakers. This situation has been called a "medial diglossia", since the spoken language is mainly the dialect, whereas the written language is mainly (the Swiss variety of) Standard German.
In 2014, about 87% of the people living in the German-speaking portion of Switzerland were using a dialect in their everyday lives.
Swiss German is intelligible to speakers of other Alemannic dialects, but largely unintelligible to speakers of Standard German without adequate prior exposure, including for French- or Italian-speaking Swiss who learn Standard German at school. Swiss German speakers on TV or in films are thus usually dubbed or subtitled if shown in Germany and Austria.
Dialect rock is a music genre using the language; many Swiss rock bands, however, alternatively rather sing in English.
The Swiss Amish of Adams County, Indiana, and their daughter settlements also use a form of Alemannic.
Swiss German is a regional or political umbrella term, not a linguistic unity. For all Swiss-German dialects, there are idioms spoken outside Switzerland that are more closely related to them than to some other Swiss-German dialects. The main linguistic divisions within Swiss German are those of Low, High and Highest Alemannic, and mutual intelligibility across those groups is almost fully seamless, despite some differences in vocabulary. Low Alemannic is only spoken in the northernmost parts of Switzerland, in Basel and around Lake Constance. High Alemannic is spoken in most of the Swiss Plateau, and is divided in an eastern and a western group. Highest Alemannic is spoken in the Alps.
One can separate each dialect into numerous local subdialects, sometimes down to a resolution of individual villages. Speaking the dialect is an important part of regional, cantonal and national identities. In the more urban areas of the Swiss plateau, regional differences are fading due to increasing mobility and to a growing population of non-Alemannic background. Despite the varied dialects, the Swiss can still understand one another, but may particularly have trouble understanding Walliser dialects.
Most Swiss German dialects, being High German dialects, have completed the High German consonant shift (synonyms: Second Germanic consonant shift, High German sound shift), that is, they have not only changed t to [t͡s] or [s] and p to [p͡f] or [f], but also k to [k͡x] or [x]. There are, however, exceptions, namely the idioms of Chur and Basel. Basel German is a Low Alemannic dialect (mostly spoken in Germany near the Swiss border), and Chur German is basically High Alemannic without initial [x] or [k͡x].
|High Alemannic||Low Alemannic||Standard German||Spelling||Translation|
The High German consonant shift happened between the 4th and 9th centuries south of the Benrath line, separating High German from Low German, where high refers to the geographically higher regions of the German-speaking area of those days (combining Upper German and Central German varieties - also referring to their geographical locations). North of the Benrath line up to the North Sea, this consonant shift did not happen.
The Walser migration, which took place between the 12th and 13th centuries, spread upper Wallis varieties towards the east and south, into Grisons and even further to western Austria and northern Italy. Informally, a distinction is made between the German-speaking people living in the canton of Valais, the Walliser, and the migrated ones, the Walsers (to be found mainly in Graubünden, Vorarlberg in Western Austria, Ticino in South Switzerland, south of the Monte Rosa mountain chain in Italy (e.g. in Issime in the Aosta valley), Tirol in North Italy, and Allgäu in Bavaria).
Generally, the Walser communities were situated on higher alpine regions, so were able to stay independent of the reigning forces of those days, who did not or were not able to follow and monitor them all the time necessary at these hostile and hard to survive areas. So, the Walser were pioneers of the liberalization from serfdom and feudalism. And, Walser villages are easily distinguishable from Grisonian ones, since Walser houses are made of wood instead of stone.[relevant?]
|Nasal||m – mː||n – nː||ŋ|
|Stop||b̥ – p||d̥ – t||ɡ̊ – k|
|Fricative||v̥ – f||z̥ – s||ʒ̊ – ʃ||ɣ̊ – x||h|
|Approximant||ʋ||l – lː||j|
Like all other Southern German dialects, Swiss German dialects have no voiced obstruents. However, they have an opposition of consonant pairs such as [t] and [d] or [p] and [b]. Traditionally, that distinction is said to be a distinction of fortis and lenis, but it has been claimed to be a distinction of quantity.
Swiss German keeps the fortis–lenis opposition at the end of words. There can be minimal pairs such as graad [ɡ̊raːd̥] 'straight' and Graat [ɡ̊raːt] 'arête' or bis [b̥ɪz̥] 'be (imp.)' and Biss [b̥ɪs] 'bite'. That distinguishes Swiss German and Swiss Standard German from German Standard German, which neutralizes the fortis–lenis opposition at the ends of words. The phenomenon is usually called final-obstruent devoicing even though, in the case of German, phonetic voice may not be involved.
Swiss German /p, t, k/ are not aspirated. Aspirated [pʰ, tʰ, kʰ] have (in most dialects) secondarily developed by combinations of prefixes with word-initial /h/ or by borrowings from other languages (mainly Standard German): /ˈphaltə/ 'keep' (standard German behalten [bəˈhaltn̩]); /ˈtheː/ 'tea' (standard German Tee [ˈtʰeː]); /ˈkhalt/ 'salary' (standard German Gehalt [ɡəˈhalt]). In the dialects of Basel and Chur, aspirated /k/ is also present in native words. All typically voiced consonant sounds are voiceless. Stop sounds being /b̥ d̥ ɡ̊/, and fricatives as /v̥ z̥ ɣ̊ ʒ̊/.
Unlike Standard German, Swiss German /x/ does not have the allophone [ç] but is typically [x], with allophones [ʁ̥ – χ]. The typical Swiss shibboleth features this sound: Chuchichäschtli ('kitchen cupboard'), pronounced [ˈχuχːiˌχæʃtli].
Most Swiss German dialects have gone through the Alemannic n-apocope, which has led to the loss of final -n in words such as Garte 'garden' (standard German Garten) or mache 'to make' (standard German machen). In some Highest Alemannic dialects, the n-apocope has also been effective in consonant clusters, for instance in Hore 'horn' (High Alemannic Horn) or däiche 'to think' (High Alemannic dänke). Only the Highest Alemannic dialects of the Lötschental and of the Haslital have preserved the -n.
The phoneme /r/ is pronounced as an alveolar trill [r] in many dialects, but some dialects, especially in the Northeast or in the Basel region, have a uvular trill [ʀ], and other allophones resulting in fricatives and an approximant as [ʁ ʁ̥ ʁ̞] like in many German varieties of Germany.
In Bernese German, an [l – lː] can be pronounced as a [w – wː]. It may also be pronounced this way when occurring towards the end of a syllable.
A labiodental approximant [ʋ] is used in Bernese German, as the [v] sound is present in Standard German. In Walser German, it is realized as a labiodental fricative [v].
|Open||æ||(a)||ɒ ~ ɑ|
Most Swiss German dialects have rounded front vowels, unlike other High German dialects. Only in Low Alemannic dialects of northwestern Switzerland (mainly Basel) and in Walliser dialects have rounded front vowels been unrounded. In Basel, rounding is being reintroduced because of the influence of other Swiss German dialects.
Like Bavarian dialects, Swiss German dialects have preserved the opening diphthongs of Middle High German: /iə̯, uə̯, yə̯/: in /liə̯b̥/ 'lovely' (standard German lieb but pronounced /liːp/); /huə̯t/ 'hat' (standard German Hut /huːt/); /xyə̯l/ 'cool' (Standard German kühl /kyːl/). Some diphthongs have become unrounded in several dialects. In the Zürich dialect, short pronunciations of /i y u/ are realized as [ɪ ʏ ʊ]. Sounds like the monophthong [ɒ] can frequently become unrounded to [ɑ] among many speakers of the Zürich dialect. Vowels such as a centralized [a] and an open-mid [ɔ] only occur in the Bernese dialect.
Like in Low German, most Swiss German dialects have preserved the old West-Germanic monophthongs /iː, uː, yː/: /pfiːl/ 'arrow' (Standard German Pfeil /pfaɪ̯l/); /b̥uːx/ 'belly' (Standard German Bauch /baʊ̯x/); /z̥yːlə/ 'pillar' (Standard German Säule /zɔʏ̯lə/). A few Alpine dialects show diphthongization, like in Standard German, especially some dialects of Unterwalden and Schanfigg (Graubünden) and the dialect of Issime (Piedmont).
|Middle High German/many Swiss German dialects||Unterwalden dialect||Schanfigg and Issime dialects||Standard German||translation|
Some Western Swiss German dialects like Bernese German have preserved the old diphthongs /ei̯, ou̯/, but the other dialects have /ai̯, au̯/ like Standard German or /æi̯, æu̯/. Zürich German, and some other dialects distinguish primary diphthongs from secondary ones that arose in hiatus: Zürich German /ai̯, au̯/ from Middle High German /ei̯, ou̯/ versus Zürich German /ei̯, ou̯/ from Middle High German /iː, uː/; Zürich German /bai̯, frau̯/ 'leg, woman' from Middle High German bein, vrouwe versus Zürich German /frei̯, bou̯/ 'free, building' from Middle High German frī, būw.
In many Swiss German dialects, consonant length and vowel length are independent from each other, unlike other modern Germanic languages. Here are examples from Bernese German:
|short /a/||long /aː/|
|short /f/||/hafə/ 'bowl'||/d̥i b̥raːfə/ 'the honest ones'|
|long /fː/||/afːə/ 'apes'||/ʃlaːfːə/ 'to sleep'|
Lexical stress is more often on the first syllable than in Standard German, even in French loans like [ˈmɛrsːi] or [ˈmersːi] 'thanks' (despite stress falling on the final syllable in French). However, there are many different stress patterns, even within dialects. Bernese German has many words that are stressed on the first syllable: [ˈkaz̥inɔ] 'casino' while Standard German has [kʰaˈziːno]. However, no Swiss German dialect is as consistent as Icelandic in that respect.
The grammar of Swiss dialects has some idiosyncratic features in comparison to Standard German:
In Swiss German, a small number of verbs reduplicate in a reduced infinitival form, i.e. unstressed shorter form, when used in their finite form governing the infinitive of another verb. The reduced and reduplicated part of the verb in question is normally put in front of the infinitive of the second verb. This is the case for the motion verbs gaa 'to go' and choo 'to come' when used in the meaning of 'go (to) do something', 'come (to) do something', as well as the verbs laa 'to let' and in certain dialects afaa 'to start, to begin' when used in the meaning of 'let do something', or 'start doing something'. Most affected by this phenomenon is the verb gaa, followed by choo. Both laa and afaa are less affected and only when used in present tense declarative main clauses.
Declarative sentence examples:
|English||I'm going to eat now. / I'll go eat now.|
|English||He's coming to eat now.|
|English||You're letting me eat. / You let me eat.|
|English||We're starting to eat now. / We start eating now.|
As the examples show, all verbs are reduplicated with a reduced infinitival form when used in a declarative main clause. This is especially interesting as it stands in contrast to the standard variety of German and other varieties of the same, where such doubling effects are not found as outlined in the examples.
Reduplication effects are weaker in the verbs laa 'to let' and afaa 'to start, to begin' than they are in gaa 'to go' and choo 'to come'. This means that afaa is most likely to be used without its reduplicated and reduced form while retaining grammaticality, whereas utterances with goo are least likely to remain grammatical without the reduplicated part.
Between laa and afaa, these effects are weakest in afaa. This means that while reduplication is mandatory for laa in declarative main clauses almost everywhere in the country, this is the case for fewer varieties of Swiss German with afaa. The reason for this is unknown, but it has been hypothesized that the fact that afaa has a separable prefix (a-) might weaken its doubling capacity. The presence of this separable prefix also makes the boundaries between the reduced infinitival reduplication form and the prefix hard if not impossible to determine. Thus, in the example above for afaa, an argument could be made that the prefix a- is left off, while the full reduplicated form is used:
|English||We're starting to eat now. / We start eating now.|
In this case, the prefix would be omitted, which is normally not permissible for separable prefixes, and in its place, the reduplication form is used.
Meanwhile, afaa is not reduplicated when used in a subordinate clause or in the past tense. In such instances, doubling would result in ungrammaticality:
Past tense example with afaa:
|English||They started to eat.|
The same is true for subordinate clauses and the verb afaa:
Subordinate clause examples with afaa:
|English||I know that she's starting to eat now. / I know that she starts eating now.|
In order to achieve grammaticality in both instances, the reduced doubling part afa would have to be taken out.
While afaa 'to start, to begin' is quite restricted when it comes to reduplication effects, the phenomenon is more permissive, but not mandatory in the verb laa 'to let'. While present tense declarative sentences are generally ungrammatical when laa remains unduplicated, this is not true for past tense and subordinate clauses, where doubling effects are optional at best:
Past tense example with laa:
|English||He has let me eat. / He let me eat.|
Subordinate clause example with laa:
|English||I know that he lets me eat. / I know that he's letting me eat.|
In the use of this form, there are both geographical and age differences. Reduplication is found more often in the western part of Switzerland than in the eastern part, while younger generations are much more inclined to leave out reduplication, which means that the phenomenon is more widespread in older generations.
Ungrammaticality in reduplication of afaa 'to start, to begin' in the past tense and in subordinate clauses as well as the somewhat more lenient use of reduplication with laa 'to let' stand in contrast to doubling effects of the motion verbs gaa 'to go' and choo 'to come'. When the latter two verbs are used in other utterances other than a declarative main clause, where the finite verb traditionally is in second position, their use might not be mandatory; however, it is correct and grammatical to double them both in the past tense and in subordinate clauses:
Past tense example with gaa and choo:
|English||He has gone to eat. / He went to eat.|
|English||She has come to eat. / She came to eat.|
As outlined in both examples, the reduplicated form of both gaa and choo can but does not have to be used in order for the past tense sentences to be grammatical.Notably, it is the reduced form of both verbs that is necessary, not the full participle form.
Subordinate clause examples for gaa and choo:
|English||I know that she'll go eat. / I know that she's going to eat.|
|English||I know that she'll come to eat. / I know that she's coming to eat.|
In subordinate clauses, the reduplicated part is needed as the sentence would otherwise be ungrammatical in both gaa and choo.
The same is true for the past tense. Since there is only one past tense in Swiss German and since this is formed using an auxiliary verb – sii 'to be' or haa 'to have', depending on the main verb – reduplication seems to be affected and therefore, less strictly enforced for gaa and choo, while it is completely ungrammatical for afaa and optional for laa respectively.
Questions behave a lot like their declarative counterparts, and reduplication is therefore mandatory for both motion verbs gaa 'to go' and choo 'to come', while laa 'to let' and afaa 'to start, to begin' show weaker doubling effects and more optionality. Furthermore, this is the case for both open and close (yes/no) questions. Consider the following examples:
Afaa in open and close questions:
|English||Does he start eating? / Is he starting to eat?|
|English||When does he start eating? / When is he starting to eat?|
Just like in declarative forms, afaa could be reduced to a- and thus be considered the detachable prefix. In this case, afaa would no longer be a reduplicated verb, and that is where the language development seems to move towards.
Laa in open and close questions:
|English||Does he let her eat? / Is he letting her eat?|
|English||When does he let her eat? / When is he letting her eat?|
Choo and especially gaa, however, do not allow for their reduced doubling part to be left out in questions, irrespective of the fact whether they are open or close:
Choo in open and close questions:
|English||Does he come to eat? / Is he coming to eat?|
|English||When does he come to eat? / When is he coming to eat?|
Gaa in open and close questions:
|English||Does he go eat? / Is he going to eat?|
|English||When does he go eat? / When is he going to eat?|
In the imperative mood, just like in questions, gaa 'to go' and choo 'come' are very strict in their demand for doubling. The same is true for laa 'to let'; it is ungrammatical to use it in imperative mood undoubled. On the other hand, afaa leaves a lot more room for the speaker to play with. Speakers accept both sentences with only the detachable prefix and no doubling, and sentences with the full doubled form.
Imperative mood: gaa
Imperative mood: choo
Imperative mood: laa
|English||Let me eat!|
Imperative mood: afaa
In the case of the verb choo 'to come', there are situations when instead of it being reduplicated with its reduced form cho, the doubled short form of gaa 'to go', go, is used instead. This is possible in almost all instances of choo, regardless of mood or tense. The examples below outline choo reduplicated with both its reduced form cho and the reduced form of gaa, go, in different sentence forms.
Declarative main clause, present tense
|English||He comes to eat. / He's coming to eat.|
Declarative main clause past tense
|English||He came to eat. / He has come to eat.|
|English||I know that he's coming to eat. / I know that he comes to eat.|
With the motion verbs gaa 'to go' and choo 'to come', where reduplication effects are strongest, there is some variation regarding their reduplicated or reduced forms. Thus, in some Swiss German dialects, gaa will be doubled as goge, while choo will be doubled as choge. In some analyses, this is described as a multiple reduplication phenomenon in that the reduced infinitives go or cho part is repeated as ge, providing the forms goge and choge. However, these forms are used less frequently than their shorter counterparts and seem to be concentrated into a small geographic area of Switzerland.
The vocabulary is varied, especially in rural areas: many specialized terms have been retained, e.g., regarding cattle or weather. In the cities, much of the rural vocabulary has been lost. A Swiss German greeting is Grüezi, from Gott grüez-i (Standard German Gott grüsse Euch), loosely meaning 'God bless you'.
Most word adoptions come from Standard German. Many of these are now so common that they have totally replaced the original Swiss German words, e.g. the words Hügel 'hill' (instead of Egg, Bühl), Lippe 'lip' (instead of Lëfzge). Others have replaced the original words only in parts of Switzerland, e.g., Butter 'butter' (originally called Anken in most of Switzerland). Virtually any Swiss Standard German word can be borrowed into Swiss German, always adapted to Swiss German phonology. However, certain Standard German words are never used in Swiss German, for instance Frühstück 'breakfast', niedlich 'cute' or zu hause 'at home'; instead, the native words Zmorge, härzig and dehei are used.
Swiss dialects have quite a few words from French and Italian, which are perfectly assimilated. Glace (ice cream) for example is pronounced /ɡlas/ in French but [ˈɡ̊lasːeː] or [ˈɡ̊lasːə] in many Swiss German dialects. The French word for 'thank you', merci, is also used as in merci vilmal (lit. 'thanks many times', cf. Standard German's danke vielmals and vielen Dank). Possibly, these words are not direct adoptions from French but survivors of the once more numerous French loanwords in Standard German, many of which have fallen out of use in Germany.
In recent years, Swiss dialects have also taken some English words which already sound very Swiss, e.g., [ˈfuːd̥ə] ('to eat', from 'food'), [ɡ̊ei̯mə] ('to play computer games', from game) or [ˈz̥nœːb̥ə] or [ˈb̥oːrd̥ə] – ('to snowboard', from snowboard). These words are probably not direct loanwords from English but have been adopted through standard German intermediation. While most of those loanwords are of recent origin, some have been in use for decades, e.g. [ˈ(t)ʃutːə] ('to play football', from shoot).
There are also a few English words which are modern adoptions from Swiss German. The dishes müesli, and rösti have become English words, as did loess (fine grain), flysch (sandstone formation), kepi, landammann, kilch, schiffli, and putsch in a political sense. The term bivouac is sometimes explained as originating from Swiss German, while printed etymological dictionaries (e.g. the German Kluge or Knaurs Etymological Dictionary) derive it from Low German instead.
Written forms that were mostly based on the local Alemannic varieties, thus similar to Middle High German, were only gradually replaced by the forms of New High German. This replacement took from the 15th to 18th centuries to complete. In the 16th century, the Alemannic forms of writing were considered the original, truly Swiss forms, whereas the New High German forms were perceived as foreign innovations. The innovations were brought about by the printing press and were also associated with Lutheranism. An example of the language shift is the Froschauer Bible: Its first impressions after 1524 were largely written in an Alemannic language, but since 1527, the New High German forms were gradually adopted. The Alemannic forms were longest preserved in the chancelleries, with the chancellery of Bern being the last to adopt New High German in the second half of the 18th century.
Today all formal writing, newspapers, books and much informal writing is done in Swiss Standard German, which is usually called Schriftdeutsch (written German). Certain dialectal words are accepted regionalisms in Swiss Standard German and are also sanctioned by the Duden, e.g., Zvieri (afternoon snack). Swiss Standard German is virtually identical to Standard German as used in Germany, with most differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, and orthography. For example, Swiss Standard German always uses a double s (ss) instead of the eszett (ß).
There are no official rules of Swiss German orthography. The orthographies used in the Swiss-German literature can be roughly divided into two systems: Those that try to stay as close to standard German spelling as possible and those that try to represent the sounds as well as possible. The so-called Schwyzertütschi Dialäktschrift was developed by Eugen Dieth, but knowledge of these guidelines is limited mostly to language experts. Furthermore, the spellings originally proposed by Dieth included some special signs not found on a normal keyboard, such as ⟨ʃ⟩ instead of ⟨sch⟩ for [ʃ] or ⟨ǜ⟩ instead of ⟨ü⟩ for [ʏ]. In 1986, a revised version of the Dieth-Schreibung was published, designed to be typed with a regular typewriter.
A few letters are used differently from the Standard German rules:
Since the 19th century, a considerable body of Swiss German literature has accumulated. The earliest works were in Lucerne German (Jost Bernhard Häfliger, Josef Felix Ineichen), in Bernese German (Gottlieb Jakob Kuhn), in Glarus German (Cosimus Freuler) and in Zürich German (Johann Martin Usteri, Jakob Stutz); the works of Jeremias Gotthelf which were published at the same time are in Swiss Standard German, but use many expressions of Bernese German. Some of the more important dialect writing authors and their works are:
Parts of the Bible were translated in different Swiss German dialects, e.g.:
Zu Hause oder mit den Angehörigen sprechen 60,1% der betrachteten Bevölkerung hauptsächlich Schweizerdeutsch[At home or with relatives, 60.1% of the population considered mainly speak Swiss German]
Swiss German talks and interviews on the daily night news show 10vor10 by the major German Swiss channel SRF1 is consistently subtitled in German on 3sat
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