You may have heard of the Swiss national hero William Tell and the legendary apple shot.  This story can give you an insight into the heart of Switzerland’s cultural history as well as its language.

Swiss German – Politics vs. Science

Vernacular Swiss German spoken amongst the Swiss themselves is very different to the Swiss High German spoken on TV or on official occasions. Although it is classified politically as a dialect of German, from a linguistic point of view it could be seen as its own language. It differs to written High German not only in vocabulary and pronunciation, but has its own grammatical structures as well. Did you know, for instance, that Swiss say “der Ecke” and not “die Ecke” as in High German?

But go ahead and read the William Tell story and decide for yourself.

Honour the Reichsvogt

Gessler aus Wilhelm Tell
Gessler from Wilhelm Tell

In 1307, the Habsburgers ruled the central Swiss regions around the Lake of Lucerne. Their governors were a thorn in the side (ein Dorn im “Oug”) of the inhabitants of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden. Most hated of all was Hermann Gessler, the Reichsvogt (imperial governer)  of Altdorf in the canton of Uri.

Gessler required all Altdorfer to honour him, so he put up a pole in the town centre and hung his “Huet” on it. Anyone passing by the pole was to bow down to the “Huet”  as though the gentlemen himself were there.

William Tell and his son Walter (from Bürglen) visited Altdorf and passed by the “Huet” with heads raised high, refusing to bow down to the symbol of the Reichsvogt. Gessler, angry at the defiance, had them both arrested.



William Tell and the Apple Shot

Wilhelm Tell - Der Apfelschuss
William Tell – The Apple Shot

William Tell was widely known for his marksmanship, so Gessler conceived a terrible and cruel punishment for him. As punishment for his misdeed, he was to shoot an “Öpfu” off of his son’s “Gring”. Should he “breicht” the  “Öpfu”, he would be set free, but if the arrow missed or Tell refused to shoot, both he and his son Walter would die.

Tell was stuck between a rock and a hard place “zwischen “Boum” und Borke” and, with a heavy heart, took on the challenge. He removed two crossbow bolts from his quiver, aimed, shot and “breicht” straight away. Gessler asked “hässig” why he had taken two bolts and Tell answered defiantly “Had I killed my son, I would have killed you.”

The Reichsvogt was furious and ordered Tell be taken to his castle in Küssnacht am Rigi to be imprisoned for the remainder of his life. The “Rejs” to the castle was by boat over the Lake of Lucerne.

A Blessing in Disguise

On the journey, a huge storm broke out and forced Gessler and his soldiers to untie Tell, for only he knew the lake and could “stüüre” the boat safely to the shore. Tell took the opportunity to flee; as the boat got closer to the shore, he “gumpt” out of the boat onto a slab of rock and pushed the boat back out onto the lake.

Tell “pressiert” to Küssnacht and waited for Gessler to show up. When the Reichsvogt arrived, Tell shot him with his crossbow.  Gessler died on the spot and William Tell became known as a national hero. His deed started a “Wäue” of rebellion and the Swiss were able to free themselves from the clutches of the Habsburgers.


Wilhelm Tell - Friedrich Schiller
Wilhelm Tell – by Friedrich Schiller

Tell – Book and Play

Every Swiss knows the legend of Tell and most will know Friedrich von Schiller’s stage play version of the story as well. It was first performed at the beginning of the 19th century and is still one of the favourite plays in the country. This literary masterpiece brought fame internationally to the Swiss national here. If you, too, want to read Schiller’s last dramatic work (in High German), you can order the book here.



History or Story?

Was Tell a real person? Is the story of the apple shot true? Even historians debate whether William Tell actually lived. Older sources mention similar stories with different names; Denmark, for instance, has a story that is very much alike the Swiss Tell story. However, it isn’t really important. What matters is that the story gives you a first insight into Swiss German. Have you understood all the words? Following are the solutions to the little quiz:

Swiss German Words Quiz: Solutions

Schweizerdeutsch English
1 Oug  eye
2 Huet hat
3 Gring  head
4 breicht hit
5 Boum  tree
6 hässig angry
7 Rejs voyage
8 stüüre  steer
9 gumpt jump
10 pressiert hurry
11 Wäue wave


Learn Swiss German Online – a Success Story

If you liked the crumbs of Swiss German we leave in the stories, you’ll love our Swiss German courses. After taking our courses, you will understand everything the Swiss have to say.

We take regional dialects into account as well. The vernacular words in the text above are in the Bernese dialect or “Bärndütsch” as the Bernese call it. Our teachers speak “Züridütsch”, “Baaseldytsch”, “Bärndütsch” and “Sanggallerdütsch”.

Gröibschi or Bütschgi

Various native speakers help you to learn the dialect of your region. This is important as there can be huge differences between the local dialects. Take apples for instance: In Bern, the core is called “Gröibschi”, in Zurich, just one hour away, it’s called “Bütschgi”. You might order a “Wäie” in Zurich but if you want to order a pie in St. Gallen, you will have to ask for a “Flade”.

The Legend of William Tell
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