Baseldeutsch. Friehner isch alles besser gsi (Früher war alles besser). Foto : Wikipedia/

Swiss German and the four Swiss languages

One of the fascinating aspects of Switzerland is that a fifteen hundred-year history has established many contemporary (language) borders, identities and cultures.

The German language

The Alemanni introduced the German language to large parts of eastern, northern and central Switzerland after the departure of the Roman legions around 410 AD. The six centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 still define the Franco-German language border.

The French language

The French-speaking Burgundian kingdoms in western Switzerland (443-534 and 888-1032) were decisive for the French language. French remained the common language in this area after the cantons of Bern and Freiburg’s occupation of Vaud in 1536. 

The German-speaking occupiers highly valued the French language, which was never banned. Bilingual Freiburg/Fribourg, founded in the twelfth century by a German-speaking Duke, became increasingly Fribourg. The elite of Berne also spoke and communicated in French. After all, this language and the French kingdom were culturally, diplomatically and economically essential to these cantons.

The bilingual status of Valais goes back to the expansion of the German-speaking communes (Zehnden). The outcome of the struggle between the French-speaking House of Savoy and the (German-speaking) bishops of the diocese of Sitten (Sion) after 1400 determined the current language boundary in this canton.

The Italian language

The Italian language in Ticino and parts of Grisons originated from Latin. Italian remained the language of this region after the conquest by the Swiss cantons in the fifteenth century.

The Romansh language

With the advance of the German-speaking Alemanni and Walser (400-1400) in southern and eastern Switzerland, Romansh was increasingly replaced by German in Graubünden.

Many German-speaking immigrants came to the new canton of Graubünden after 1815 due to railway and other infrastructure works, tourism, industrialisation and trade. Today, Romansh is a language of around 60,000 inhabitants.

In 1938, the constitutional recognition of Romansh followed as a clear political signal from Switzerland and the Swiss people to the Italian ( Irredentisimo) and German ideology (Heim ins Reich). 91% of the voters voted in favour in 1938. The 2007 revision of the Constitution confirmed the status of the country’s four languages.

Swiss German

The formal assimilation of Italian, French and German followed under French pressure at the time of the Helvetic Republic (1798-1803) and the (French) Mediation Act of 1803. This assimilation was confirmed in the Constitution of 1848.

The Federal Act on the National Languages and Understanding between the Linguistic Communities (the Language Act of 2007) stipulates in Article 3: ” It (the Confederation) shall ensure that it treats the four national languages equally”.

What the law did not foresee, however, was the sharp increase in the use of local Swiss German dialects in the public domain, Schwyzertütsch or Schwyzerdütsch. There are considerable differences between the German dialects in the different regions, for example, the Appenzell, Upper Wallis, Basel, Zurich and Bern regions.

These dialects are sometimes difficult to understand for French- or Italian-speaking Swiss, and some dialects even for German-speaking Swiss. All Romansh-speaking Swiss master German, which does not mean they know all Swiss-German dialects.

Swiss German is no official Swiss language except for regional and informal exchanges such as personal messages. Hochdeutsch (High German) is used for written communication, albeit with some variations: in Switzerland, the ß (called eszett) is replaced by the double ss. Children start learning Hochdeutsch as soon as they enter school.

The knowledge of each other’s four languages has declined dramatically in recent decades. English is increasingly becoming the language of communication between (young) Swiss people.

Language is the (social) lubricant of any society. The decline in knowledge of the language or languages is, therefore, a source of concern for the cohesion of this multilingual country. It has the (financial) attention of the federal government.