If you're busy learning German, then other varieties, like Swiss German might not be on your radar quite yet.
But if you plan to spend time in Switzerland or you have Swiss friends, then learning Swiss German is totally worth it. And given that Swiss German sounds more like Chinese than German, you can't just rely on your knowledge of Standard German to get by.
That's why, in this post, you'll learn how the German language differs in Switzerland. You'll also learn some useful phrases and vocabulary to impress your Swiss friends.
By the way, if you're just getting started in German and want to make progress fast without getting bogged down in grammar then I recommend German Uncovered, which will take you from beginner to conversationally fluent through the power of story.
What Are The Languages Of Switzerland?
Unlike Germany, Switzerland has four official languages. The Swiss speak German, French, Italian, and Romansch. You'll also find these languages and their dialects mixed in certain regions. Although Swiss German isn't an official language, it sure sounds like one!
Approximately 62% of Swiss are native German speakers, 58% of whom speak a Swiss dialect. Another 23% speak French, and 8% speak Italian. A minority of the population, 0.5% speak Romansch. The rest use a combination of dialects.
The reason why Swiss sounds like German in secret code is due to the Alemannic dialect. Centuries ago, Germanic tribes settled throughout different areas of Switzerland. Each locality developed its own linguistic variations, so you'll find dozens of dialects across the nation to this day.
Other Names For Swiss-German
In Switzerland, Swiss-German goes by many other names.
- Schweizerdeutsch – In Standard German
You'll find the Swiss dialect in German-speaking portions of Switzerland and areas of Northern Italy in the neighboring Alpine community.
Where Is German Spoken In Switzerland?
Swiss German is spoken in 17 of Switzerland's 20 cantons, which are similar to provinces or states.
- Appenzell Ausserrhoden
- Appenzell Innerrhoden
- St. Gallen
You're probably wondering why Switzerland has so many different languages and dialects. The country's size and location are one contributing factor.
Switzerland is only slightly more than 10% of the size of Germany. As a result, the four bordering countries: Germany, Austria, Italy, and France, had a significant influence on the evolution of the languages in this area.
Is Swiss German Hard To Learn?
Unless you live in a canton of Switzerland, learning one of its regional dialects would be challenging. Still, you can learn to understand and speak Swiss German. With practice, you can even delight and surprise native Swiss speakers with your knowledge of their “language.”
Many Germans have difficulty understanding Swiss dialects. Variations in pronunciation, spelling, grammar, and vocabulary are often not mutually intelligible. Even within Switzerland, Swiss residents can find it challenging to understand someone from another canton.
Fortunately, nearly every Swiss German speaker learns Standard German to communicate with individuals in other German-speaking countries easily. Depending on the region, Swiss dialects can be almost impossible to understand, but there are areas where the language is simpler to comprehend.
How Is Swiss German Different From Standard German?
Unlike Standard German, Swiss German uses Helvetisms. Helvetisms are changes in vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, spelling, and figures of speech that distinguish Swiss German from Standard German.
Let's look at some of these differences in more detail.
Swiss German words are often very different from the Standard German equivalents, but others are very similar. You may notice that the French language influenced some expressions.
The Swiss also have different words for days of the week.
Next, check out these unique words and expressions for Swiss food and beverages.
Now that you know some of the most common words in Swiss let's look at the grammar differences.
The 4 Most Important Swiss Grammar Rules
If you want to understand and speak German like the Swiss, you'll need to know several key grammar differences.
1. There's Only One Past Tense
In Standard German, you use the Simple Past and Perfect forms. In Swiss German, you'll only use the perfect tense.
The Swiss past tense, or Perfäkt, uses a form of Ha or Sii, in Standard German haben or sein (to have or to be).
2. Some Nouns Have Different Genders
The gender of nouns can be different in Swiss German compared to Standard German. In Swiss, the French gender is sometimes used instead of the Standard German gender.
3. You Come, And You Go Twice
In Swiss German, the verbs kommen and gehen (to come and to go) always appear twice in a sentence with other verbs. The rule only applies if there are two verbs in a sentence, not only one.
4. Relative Pronouns Are Easier
The good news is, not all Swiss-German grammar rules make the language more challenging. Relative pronouns in Swiss are replaced with wo (where). Instead of having to choose the correct form of der, die, or das, you use wo.
A few simple spelling rules can make Swiss German significantly easier to understand.
- Drop the “n” – In Swiss German, verbs often drop the final “n” of their Standard German counterparts. For example, machen (to do) becomes mache.
- “chen” becomes “li” – In Standard German, you can say something is small by adding a “chen” or “lein” ending. Swiss German uses the ending “li.” For example, Mäuschen (small mouse) becomes Müüsli.
- “S” before a consonant becomes “sch” – For example, Rösti (hashbrown) becomes Röschti.
- At the end of a word, “e” turns into “i” – For example, Küche becomes Chuchi.
- “ß” becomes “ss” – Swiss German only uses the double “s.”
When writing formal letters, emails, or publications, the Swiss use Standard German.
The 4 Characteristics Of Swiss German Pronunciation
Perhaps the most significant difference between Standard German and Swiss German is the pronunciation. Below are the major intonation changes that happen in Swiss German.
- The “ch” sound is different – “Ch” at the beginning of a Swiss word is pronounced like a “k.” For example, Käse (cheese) becomes Chäse.
- Vowels unite – Sometimes, one vowel is used instead of two. For example, Haus (house) becomes Huus (house), and Raum becomes Ruum (room).
- Vowels switch places – The “ei” sound in Standard German becomes “ie” in Swiss German.
- The soft “t” – In Swiss, “t” is spoken as a “d.”
In Swiss German, you usually place the accent on the first syllable of a word, except for words that begin with “be,” “ent,” “er,” “mis,” or “ver.”
Swiss German Slang
The best way to start learning Swiss German is by having fun with the dialect to gain exposure. Do you know that there are tons of slang words and phrases in Swiss German? Below are some of my favorites.
- Abeleere! (Chug!)
- Fränkli (One Swiss Frank)
- Fröit mi (Pleased to meet you)
- Hamburger (A soldier who has completed the first year of training)
- Lööli (Loser)
- Schmiär (The cops)
- Znüni (Second breakfast)
If you want to impress, learn to say chäs-chüchli, which means little cheesecake. The “ch” at the beginning is pronounced like a “k,” and the “ch” in the middle remains soft. When deciphered, the word sounds as if it were spelled “käs-küchli.”
The German language takes on many different forms in Switzerland. Regional dialects, unusual grammar, foreign language influence, and non-standard spelling are just some ways Swiss German manages to confuse German speakers from other countries.
Now that you're familiar with the patterns, you should have an easier time understanding Swiss speakers. Once you have a grasp of Standard German, you'll find it considerably easier to learn the Swiss variety.
If you want to learn more, try Swiss German Learning TV, or watch a Swiss German movie. Switzerland's best films include Höhenfeuer, Mein Name ist Eugen, and Die göttliche Ordnung. You can also learn Swiss German from apps like Grüezi Switzerland for iOS or Schweizerdeutsch Lernen for Android.