Biel/Bienne (canton of Bern) is the only city in Switzerland that is bilingual in the true sense of the word. The road to bilingualism was long, however, from the Romanisation and the Gallo-Roman culture of the originally Celtic region and the dominance of the German language to the bilingual status in 1950.

Author: Marco Zanoli, Wikipedia

The Celts, Romans and Alemanni and Seeland

The linguistic landscape of the region of Seeland and Biel (canton of Bern) was shaped by the incorporation of the present-day Mittelland into the Roman Empire around 15-13 B.C.

As part of the new Gallo-Roman culture, the local population soon also spoke (vulgar) Latin. Over time, Gallo-Roman dialects developed, from which several dialects of today’s French-speaking part of Switzerland emerged, the patois.

The spread of the German language by the Alemanni, who settled in the Mittelland from the end of the 6th century, was decisive, however. The Gallo-Roman and Patois dialects were pushed back and Alemannic reached the Aare at the end of the 8th century.

Between the 9th and 13th centuries, first the region south of Lake Biel and later those on the northern shore became predominantly German-speaking. There was no clear language border. The current Franco-German language border in the Three Lakes region was finally consolidated in the 18th century.


For more than 700 years, German was the only official language in Biel, but Biel’s elite maintained close ties with French-speaking areas and as early as the Middle Ages, French could be heard in homes, craft workshops and the city hall. Biel early on became a laboratory of bilingualism.

Johann Rudolf Weiss (1846-1939), Biel, 1919. Collection: Neues Museum Biel

The watch industry

In the 19th century, the boom of the watch industry led to a huge immigration from French-speaking Jura. This fundamentally changed Biel’s language landscape. Labour immigration is always one of the main reasons for language change. What makes Biel unique is the political will to upgrade French, and in 1950 French became the second official language and Biel became bilingual.

Collection: Neues Museum Biel


It was only in 1950 that Biel opted for the official status of bilingualism. However, German and French are not the only languages spoken in Biel. Besides more than 50 other languages, living space also creates identity. Buildings, parks, squares and meeting places create familiarity and a sense of home for the inhabitants of Biel/Bienne.

The exhibition “Biel and the Röstigraben” explores the question of how different cultures live together in the city, where they meet and how they communicate. It shows that centuries-old multilingualism always demands attention to find mutual understanding.

(Source and further information: Neues Museum Biel/Nouveau Musée Bienne).