Bibliothèque publique de Neuchâtel, l’exposition: Pourquoi parle-t-on le français en Suisse romande ? Neuchâtel, 2022

The Romandy, Latin, French and Patois

Today, French is the official written and spoken language in French-speaking Switzerland (the French-speaking cantons of Neuchâtel, Jura, Geneva, and Vaud) and the bilingual cantons of Freiburg/Fribourg, Wallis/Valais and Bern/Berne. However, behind this modern linguistic unity lies a great diversity.


French, which gradually entered Switzerland after the 11th and 12th centuries, competed for centuries with Latin and the local dialects (Patois).

The breakthrough in French-speaking Switzerland only came in the 19th century. However, the Patois has left its mark. It explains why French differs in Neuchâtel, Geneva, Lausanne (canton of Vaud), Porrentruy/Pruntrut (canton of Jura) or Fribourg.


The middle ages


Gallo-Roman culture and language remained dominant in western Switzerland long after the Romans left in the 5th century. They didn’t speak French in this Gallo-Roman area. Francoprovençal was the daily language. 


However, there were many local differences and dialects.

In today’s canton of Jura, the langue d’oïl or franc-comtois was the spoken language. Latin was the written language of the church and the elite. This situation remained unchanged in the Burgundian kingdoms (446-534 and 888-1032) and the later Frankish kingdoms.




The German of the Alemanni became dominant in western Switzerland from the 5th century onwards. It gradually led to the Germanization of the upper Rhone valley (Upper Valais to Brig), the left bank of the Aare (Bernese Oberland), the right bank of the Sense and the region around Lake Biel.


The second German-speaking expansion took place from the 11th to the 13th century, namely in Visp and Raron by the Walser, on the left bank of the Sense, in the area of Murten and Seeland (space between Lake Biel, Lake Murten and Lake Neuchâtel) and on the left bank of Lake Biel by the Alemannic settlers.

L’Armorial by Jacques Huguenin (1642-1728).

16th and 17th centuries


The first literary texts in French appeared in French-speaking Switzerland in the 15th century. At the beginning of the Reformation (first half of the 16th century), there were three languages in Romandy. Patois and its numerous local dialects were the mother tongue of most people.


French became more important, particularly among the urban Protestant elite. It was a language of prestige and the written word (the Bible!).  Latin remained the language of legal documents, universities, scholars and the Catholic Church. The spoken languages Patois and French coexisted long after nearly 80,000 French Huguenots fled to French-speaking Switzerland in the 17th century.


La Petite Chronique by Jeanne de Jussie, in Gustave Revilliod (éd), Levain du calvinisme ou commencement de l’hérésie de Genève, Geneva 1853.

 The 18th and 19th centuries

However, the situation changed in the late 18th century and the French epoch (1798-1813). French became the dominant language in everyday life, the classroom and administration. In the second half of the 19th century, Patois disappeared in the Protestant urban and industrialized areas (Geneva, Vaud, Neuchâtel and Bernese Jura).

 In other cantons, Patois existed longer. In Evolène,Val d’Hérens in Valais, it is still spoken. Patois in Valais is just as particular as German in this canton.

At the end of the 19th century, Louis Gauchat compiled an extensive dictionary of Patois and its numerous local dialects, le Glossaire des Patois de la Suisse romande (Glossary of the Patois of French-speaking Switzerland).

For almost ten years, he collected information using questionnaires. He received more than 500,000 reactions! They are still the most important source for the current knowledge of Patois. His glossary is an invaluable source of knowledge.

Louis Gauchat. Photo: Wikipedia

 The 20th and 21st centuries

In today’s Romandy, French is the language of everyday life, both spoken and written. Patois is only spoken in a few villages in the cantons of Valais, Fribourg and Jura. However, traces of the patois are still visible in the names of families and villages.


L’Atlas linguistique audiovisual des dialectes francoprovençaux du Valais romand (ALAVAL)

The Federal Council adopted Switzerland’s seventh report on the implementation of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages of the Council of Europe at its meeting on December 7th, 2018.

The Federal Council recognizes Franco-Provençal and Franc-Comtois as minority languages and gives an overview of the language policy.

 (Source: A. Paravicni Bagliani, J.-P. Felber, J.-D. Morerod, V. Pasche, Les Romands au Moyen Age, Lausanne 1997); Bibliothèque Publique Neuchâtel, exhibition: Pourqoui parle-t-on le français en Suisse romande? Neuchâtel, 2022).