If you are planning to travel or live in one of the Swiss German-speaking cantons of Switzerland, after being exposed to the language, you will become increasingly aware of the differences between Swiss German and High German. Through a foreigner’s eye (or even a native German’s!), Swiss German may seem intimidating at first, but this gets better over time, through exposure and constant practice. Here are some of the key differences that will help you understand Swiss German better, or transition from High German to Swiss German.
Where to begin?
First, we need to tackle the “mysterious” status of Swiss German. Often, it is referred to as the ‘Swiss German language’. But, is it really a language on its own?
Swiss German is not a language, but rather an umbrella term for the collection of Alemannic dialects that are spoken in Switzerland. Each canton has its unique dialect and manner of speaking, which is why Standard German (Schriftdeutsch) is used in formal settings, official documents, schools and universities, news, films, literature, etc. But, that does not mean that the Swiss do not embrace their dialects. In fact, they represent a form of national pride and identity and are therefore widely used when speaking.
Swiss German is also used in writing, for example, in personal letters or text messages. However, since there is no official Standard Swiss German, there are no set rules for writing and speaking. Even so, we can make some generalizations and compare it to Standard German in order to have a better grasp of it.
Spelling (Orthography) and Pronunciation
There are several differences between Swiss German and Standard German when it comes to spelling and pronunciation. In general, the Swiss tend to shorten words and sounds. Here are some common patterns that you can notice.
Vowels and diphthongs
The Swiss use shorter sounds for diphthongs (two vowels next to each other in the same syllable), and they are usually transformed into long vowels. The /au/ of Standard German becomes /u/ in Swiss German; for example, “laut” becomes “lut” (loud). In many cases, the /ei/ sound becomes /i:/; “Schweiz,” for Switzerland, becomes “Schwiz.” The /eu/ and /äu/ sounds become /ü/ in cases like the High German “heute,” meaning “today,” which in Swiss German is “hüt.”
|Standard German||Swiss German||English|
Swiss German consonants are a different case from vowels. Orthographically speaking, they are longer, whereas their pronunciation is a bit harsher than their German counterparts. For example, the Standard German /k/ becomes the famous Swiss German /ch/. This phenomenon occurs in many words like: “Koch” (chef), “kommen” (to come), “Kind” (kid), “kaufen” (to buy), which in Swiss German become “Choch,” “cho,” “Kind,” “chaufe.”
|Standard German||English||Swiss German|
A change in consonants also happens often when the Standard German sound /st/ becomes /scht/ in Swiss German. For example, “fast,” meaning “almost,” becomes “fascht,” “ist,” the verb “to be,” becomes “ischt.” The High German word for “deadline,” ‘Frist’ becomes “Frischt,” and so on.
|Standard German||English||Swiss German|
Additionally, the Standard German ‘ß’ is not used by the Swiss. An interesting theory explains how manufacturers of Swiss typewriters omitted this orthographic letter since they had to include French and Italian orthographic letters. Instead of this German feature, the Swiss use ‘ss.’ You can notice this in words like “Strasse” (street) instead of the German “Straße.”
Apart from the different spelling of some words, once you get familiar with hearing sentences spoken in Swiss German, you can also notice that there are a few grammatical differences with Standard German.
One of the things most people loathe about learning German is the complicated verb tenses. Swiss German makes it a bit easier on us by not using the simple past tense. Instead, there are only two verb tenses in Swiss German: the past (perfect) and the present. If you want to talk about something you did the day before, in Swiss German you use the perfect tense. For example, they would say “I have been at home” instead of “I was at home.”
|Standard German – Past simple||English||Swiss German – Perfect|
|Ich war nach Hause||I was at home – I have been at home.||Ich bi hei gsi|
Here is how the Standard German verb “seid”—to be—conjugates in the first person singular vs in Swiss German:
|Tense||Standard German||English||Swiss German|
|Present Simple||Ich bin||I am||Ich bi|
|Present Perfect||Ich bin gewesen||I have been||Ich bi gsi|
Another difference that you will spot when comparing the grammar between Standard German and Swiss German is the lack of a genitive case in Swiss German. This case does not exist as in High German and instead of a phrase construction such as “the girl’s sister,” the Swiss will say “the sister of the girl” or similar constructions without the genitive.
There are instances in Swiss German, in which the gender of nouns changes from the Standard German genders. For example, the neuter noun “das E-mail” (the e-mail) becomes feminine in Swiss German “die E-mail.”
Italian and French influence, as well Swiss dialects on their own, have shaped many words in Swiss German into being different from those you will find in a High German vocabulary. For example, the Swiss use the French “merci” to say “thank you” much often than they use the German “danke.” When you go to work in Switzerland, you say you are going to “schaffe” instead of “arbeite.” Here are some other differences in Swiss vocabulary:
|danke||thank you||merci (from French)|
|Fahrakarte||train ticket||Billett (from French)|
|Strassenbahn||streetcar||Tram (from French)|
|Bahnsteig||train platform||Perron (from French)|
|Bürgersteig||pavement||Trottoir (from French)|
|Schaffner||train conductor||Kondukteur/ Kondukteuse|
|Personalausweis||identity card or ID||Identitätskarte|
|einkaufen||to go shopping||poschte|
|Speiseeis/ Eis||icecream||Glace (from French)|
Colloquialisms – made in Switzerland
The Swiss have many special words and idioms that you will not encounter in Standard German, or if you do, they are a ‘product’ of Switzerland. The tongue twister word “Chuchichäschtli,” for example, is a unique word to Switzerland that denotes a type of kitchen cupboard. There are also particular words for weather patterns, such as “Bise” for colder winds, and “Föhn” for warm breeze (Föhn is also the Swiss-German word for a hairdryer). The Swiss greeting for “hello,” “Grüezi,” from the Swiss “Gott grüez-i”—”may God greet you”—is also a unique word to the country.
Feeling hungry, perhaps? Swiss German agrees; they have a specific word for a mid-morning snack:
“Znüni.” Speaking of breakfast, Müesli, the cereal mixture, originated from Switzerland as well. And let’s not forget the famous “Röstigraben,” a humorous term inspired by the “rösti” potato dish, used in Switzerland to refer to the cultural boundaries between the German-speaking and French-speaking Swiss.
These are the most evident differences that you will find when comparing Swiss German and German. If you are a German speaker, things should get easier with exposure to Swiss German. If you do not speak the language and want to learn, we recommend starting with learning Standard German first, as it is the basis for Swiss German. If all else fails, most people in Switzerland speak English, so you should be good. Best of luck!