What is usually called Schwiizerdüütsch in contrast to High German (the standard written German language) is a generic term for German-Swiss dialects, such as Berndeutsch, Baseldeutsch or Zürichdeutsch, which differ significantly from each other. Thus, depending on the region, the apple core is called Gröibschi, Gigetschi, Gürbschi, Güegi, Bätzi, Bitzgi, Bütschgi, Butze, Bixi, Üürbsi and the hiccup is called Schluckser, Schluchzia, Hickser, Higgis, Hitzgi, Hetscher, Höschger, Schnackler, Gluggsi, Glutzger.
The unique beginning
Switzerland’s effort with High German has its origins in the development of language history 600 years ago. In the 15th century, medieval Middle High German changed. New trade routes of early capitalism and the printing press invented by Gutenberg in 1445 fostered the emergence and spread of a supra-regional New High German. Luther’s translation of the Bible from 1522 is considered one of the first New High German books.
The change becomes audible, for example, in the so-called sound shifts. The simple vowels in the Middle High German words “min hus” become double vowels in New High German: “mein Haus”. In Central and Northern Germany, New High German not only became the new written language until around 1700, but also developed into oral High German, which overlaid the local dialects. This supra-regional High German spoken by most Germans is called “standard language”.
Southern Germany and German-speaking Switzerland do not follow the sound shifts to New High German. There is no supra-regional standard oral language. To this day, the Swiss communicate orally exclusively in their diverse dialects, which have retained the sound of medieval German. High German is therefore half a foreign language in Switzerland and is mainly used in writing.
Classification of the Swiss-German dialects
The many different dialects in Switzerland can be assigned to the various Alemannic dialects based on their characteristics.
Basel German belongs to the Lower Alemannic dialect in Switzerland. Lower Alemannic is defined by a k instead of the High Alemannic ch. For example, the Baselers say “Kind” instead of “Chind”. Lower Alemannic is also found outside Switzerland, namely in South Baden and Alsace.
Middle Alemannic dialects, also known as Bodenseealemannisch, are not spoken in German-speaking Switzerland, as these have only established themselves north of Lake Constance. The Swiss dialects from northeastern Switzerland and the Chur Rhine Valley are most similar to Mittelalemannisch. According to Swiss dialectology, however, these are considered to be High Alemannic.
The dialects of the extreme southwest of Baden-Württemberg and of the Alsatian Sungau belong to the High Alemannic. And the majority of the Swiss dialects. Most of the high-Alemannic dialects are also spoken in Switzerland.
Highest Alemannia (Höchstalemannisch)
The Höchstalemannisch is also strongly represented in Switzerland. The dialects of the Valais, the Bernese Oberland and Schwarzenburgerland, the Fribourg Senseland and Jaun, parts of Central Switzerland (Uri, Unterwalden and mostly Schwyz) and the Canton of Glarus belong to the Höchstalemannisch. These dialects are characterized by words like schnyyä instead of snow, nüü instead of new, buuwe instead of boue/baue.
Strong influence of the French language
Another special feature of Swiss German is that it contains many words from French. These have their origins in the upper social classes of some cities such as Bern and Basel, which “preferred” French and “parried” it in everyday life. Many French loan words remind us of this: Parterre, Trottoir, Velo, Bébé, Merci,Coiffeur, Portemonnait.
Dialect becomes popular in the 80s
Swiss German received a real boost in popularity within Switzerland even in the 1980s, when private radio stations that had established themselves in the 1980s suddenly started speaking Swiss German at the microphone instead of the usual High German. Thanks to these radio stations, the dialect wave then spill over to the screens of the state broadcasters. As a result, a wide variety of regional dialects could be heard on a national level as well.
Parallel to this, the success of musicians singing in dialect may also have been very formative. The German songs of Mani Matter (I han es Zündhölzli azündt) became popular and were performed by Polo Hofer (Bin i gopfridstutz e Kiosk?) Züri West (I schänke dr mis Härz), Patent Ochsner (W.Nuss vo Bümpliz) in Bernese German and with the trio Eugster (O läck du mir am Tschöpli), Toni Vescoli (Scho root!) and the Minstrels (Grüezi wohl, Mrs Stirnimaa) in Zurich German, the dialect really got going in the 1980s.
New technologies also change Swiss German
With the introduction of new technologies such as WhatsApp and SMS, which are actually used for oral communication (“written conversations”), Swiss German, which is mainly spoken only, also penetrated written expression, thereby reinforcing the dialectal wave. In the absence of common standards, each uses its own orthography.
In SMS messages, abbreviations and Anglicisms are often used to save characters. With the development of the audiovisual media and the increased mobility of the population, the dialects, starting from urban areas, are increasingly permeated by expressions of the standard German written language and also of English.
Languages live and change
Like any living language, however, dialects are constantly changing – much to the chagrin of nostalgic language keepers. In the urban centres, dialectal differences are blurred and mixed up – for example to the so-called Oltener Bahnhofbuffet-Deutsch (the small town of Olten is a traffic junction at the southern foot of the Jura, the “hub of Switzerland”). And the old vocabulary gives way to modern High German and also English words. Younger presenters of entertainment programmes like to speak Agglo-Swiss-German, a porridge based on Bern-, Aargauer- and especially Zurich-German, which is slightly coloured with a Jugo accent that is considered cool and is spiced up by interludes from the American ghetto language.
Learn Swiss German now
Did we make you interested in learning the dialect with this historical background on the development of Swiss German? Then register today for our online course.