The four national languages of Switzerland are German, French, Italian and Romansh. All but Romansh maintain equal status as official languages at the national level within the Federal Administration of the Swiss Confederation. In some situations, Latin is used, particularly as a single language to denote the country.
In 2017, the population of Switzerland was 62.6% native speakers of German (58.5% speak Swiss German and/or 11.1% Standard German at home); 22.9% French (mostly Swiss French, but including some Arpitan dialects); 8.2% Italian (mostly Swiss Italian, but including Lombard dialects); and 0.5% Romansh. The German region (Deutschschweiz) is roughly in the east, north and center; the French part (la Romandie) in the west and the Italian area (Svizzera italiana) in the south. There remains a small Romansh-speaking native population in Graubünden in the east. The cantons of Fribourg, Bern and Valais are officially bilingual; the canton of Graubünden is officially trilingual.
The main languages of Swiss residents from 1950 to 2015, in percentages, were as follows:
In 2012, for the first time, respondents could indicate more than one language, causing the percentages to exceed 100%.
National languages and linguistic regions
The German-speaking part of Switzerland (German: Deutschschweiz, French: Suisse alémanique, Italian: Svizzera tedesca, Romansh: Svizra tudestga) constitutes about 65% of Switzerland (North Western Switzerland, Eastern Switzerland, Central Switzerland, most of the Swiss Plateau and the greater part of the Swiss Alps).
In seventeen of the Swiss cantons, German is the only official language (Aargau, Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Appenzell Innerrhoden, Basel-Stadt, Basel-Landschaft, Glarus, Luzern, Nidwalden, Obwalden, Schaffhausen, Schwyz, Solothurn, St. Gallen, Thurgau, Uri, Zug, and Zürich).
In the cantons of Bern, Fribourg and Valais, French is co-official; in the trilingual canton of Graubünden, more than half of the population speaks German, while the rest speak Romansh or Italian. In each case, all languages are official languages of the respective canton.
While the French-speaking Swiss prefer to call themselves Romands and their part of the country is the Romandy, the German-speaking Swiss used to (and, colloquially, still do) refer to the French-speaking Swiss as "Welsche", and to their area as Welschland, which has the same etymology as the English Welsh (see Walha). In Germany Welsch and Welschland refer to Italy; there, the term is antiquated, rarely used, and somewhat disparaging.
The German-speaking Swiss do not feel like a uniform group: the average German-speaking Swiss sees themselves belonging foremost to their canton, and does not consider themself as a speaker of Swiss German, but, for example, Baseldytsch (dialect of Basel), Bärndütsch (dialect of Bern) or Züridütsch (dialect of Zurich). This is hardly surprising, however, since there is no single unifying or standard form of Swiss German itself: rather "Swiss German" refers to all of the various different Alemannic German dialects within German-speaking Switzerland. The marked subsidiarity of the Swiss federalism, where many political decisions are taken at municipal or cantonal level, supports this attitude.
By the Middle Ages, a marked difference had developed within the German-speaking part of Switzerland between the rural cantons (Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Glarus, Zug, Appenzell, Schaffhausen) and the city cantons (Lucerne, Berne, Zurich, Solothurn, Fribourg, Basel, St. Gallen), divided by views about trade and commerce. After the Reformation, all cantons were either Catholic or Protestant, and the denominational influences on culture added to the differences. Even today, when all cantons are somewhat denominationally mixed, the different historical denominations can be seen in the mountain villages, where Roman Catholic Central Switzerland abounds with chapels and statues of saints, and the farm houses in the very similar landscape of the Protestant Bernese Oberland show Bible verses carved on the housefronts instead.
Romandy (French: Romandie, la Suisse romande, German: Romandie, Welschland, Welschschweiz, or in some contexts: Westschweiz, Italian: Svizzera romanda) is the French-speaking part of Switzerland. It covers the area of the cantons of Geneva, Vaud, Neuchâtel, and Jura as well as the French-speaking parts of the cantons of Bern (German-speaking majority), Valais (French-speaking majority), and Fribourg (French-speaking majority). 1.9 million people (or 24.4% of the Swiss population) live in Romandy.
Standard Swiss French and the French of France are the same language, with some differences. For example, like some other regions of the French-speaking world, Swiss people (as well as most Francophone Belgians) use septante (seventy) instead of soixante-dix (literally, "sixty ten") and nonante (ninety) instead of "quatre-vingt-dix" ("four twenties and ten"). In the cantons of Vaud, Valais and Fribourg, speakers use huitante (eighty) instead of the Standard French "quatre-vingts" (four twenties). "Sou" is used throughout Romandy for a 5-centime coin, as is "tune" (or "thune") when referring to a 5-Swiss-franc piece.
Historically, the vernacular language used by inhabitants of most parts of Romandy was Franco-Provençal. Franco-Provençal (also called Arpitan) is a language sometimes considered to be halfway between the langue d'oïl (the historical language of northern France and ancestor of French) and Occitan (the langue d'oc, spoken in southern France). Standard French and Franco-Provençal/Arpitan, linguistically, are distinct and mutual intelligibility is limited. Increasingly, Franco-Provençal/Arpitan is used only by members of the older generations.
The term Romandy does not formally exist in the political system, but is used to distinguish and unify the French-speaking population of Switzerland. The television channel Télévision Suisse Romande (TSR) serves the Romande community across Switzerland, is syndicated to TV5 and CanalSat Romande.
Italian Switzerland (Italian: Svizzera italiana, Romansh: Svizra taliana, French: Suisse italienne, German: italienische Schweiz) is the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, which includes the canton of Ticino and the southern part of Graubünden. Italian is also spoken in the Gondo Valley (leading to the Simplon Pass, on the southern part of the watershed) in Valais.
The linguistic region covers an area approximately 3,500 km² and has a total population of around 350,000 inhabitants, with the number of Italophones residing in Switzerland being 545,274 (about 7% of the Swiss population).
The proportion of Italian-speaking inhabitants had been decreasing since the 1970s, after reaching a high of 12% of the population during the same decade. This was entirely because of the reduced number of immigrants from Italy to Switzerland, but gained again during the last decade.
On the cantonal level, Romansh is an official language only in the trilingual canton of Graubünden, where the municipalities in turn are free to specify their own official languages.
Romansh has been recognized as one of four "national languages" by the Swiss Federal Constitution since 1938. It was also declared an "official language" of the Confederation in 1996, meaning that Romansh speakers may use their language for correspondence with the federal government and expect to receive a Romansh response. (Although Romansh is split into several dialects, the federal authorities use the standardized version ("Romansh Grischun") exclusively.)
Besides the national languages and the many varieties of Swiss German, several regional Romance languages are spoken natively in Switzerland: Franco-Provençal and Lombard. About 20,000 Romani speak Sinte, an Indic language. Five sign languages are used: Swiss-German, French, Italian, Austrian, and German.
To avoid having to translate the name of Switzerland in the four national languages, Latin is used on the coins of the Swiss franc (Helvetia or Confoederatio Helvetica) and on Swiss stamps (Helvetia). The country code top-level domain for Switzerland on the internet is .ch, the abbreviation of the Latin name, Confoederatio Helvetica (Swiss Confederation); similarly, the International vehicle registration code for Swiss automobiles is "CH". The Federal Palace of Switzerland bears the inscription Curia Confoederationis Helveticae.
To have a unique name across the country (without favoring German or English), several Swiss foundations and associations have Latin names, such as Pro Helvetia, Pro Infirmis, Pro Juventute, Pro Natura, Pro Patria, Pro Senectute, Pro Specie Rara, etc.