Swiss German (Standard German: Schweizerdeutsch, Alemannic German: Schwyzerdütsch, Schwiizertüütsch, Schwizertitsch Mundart, and others) is any of the Alemannic dialects spoken in the German-speaking part of Switzerland and in some Alpine communities in Northern Italy bordering Switzerland. Occasionally, the Alemannic dialects spoken in other countries are grouped together with Swiss German as well, especially the dialects of Liechtenstein and Austrian Vorarlberg, which are closely associated to Switzerland's.
Linguistically, Alemannic is divided into Low, High and Highest Alemannic, varieties all of which are spoken both inside and outside Switzerland. The only exception within German-speaking Switzerland is the municipality of Samnaun where a Bavarian dialect is spoken. The reason "Swiss German" dialects constitute a special group is their almost unrestricted use as a spoken language in practically all situations of daily life, whereas the use of the Alemannic dialects in other countries is restricted or even endangered.
The dialects of Swiss German must not be confused with Swiss Standard German, the variety of Standard German used in Switzerland. Most people in Germany do not understand Swiss German. Therefore, when an interview with a Swiss German speaker is shown on German television, subtitles are required. Although Swiss German is the native language, from age 6, Swiss school students additionally learn Swiss Standard German at school and are thus capable of understanding, writing and speaking Standard German with varying abilities mainly based on the level of education.
Unlike most regional languages in modern Europe, Swiss German is the spoken everyday language for the majority of all social levels in industrial cities, as well as in the countryside.
In 2014, about 87% of the people living in German-speaking Switzerland were using Swiss German in their everyday lives.
Swiss German is intelligible to speakers of other Alemannic dialects, but largely unintelligible to speakers of Standard German without adequate prior exposure, including for French- or Italian-speaking Swiss who learn Standard German at school. Swiss German speakers on TV or in films are thus usually dubbed or subtitled if shown in Germany.
Dialect rock is a music genre using the language; many Swiss rock bands, however, alternatively rather sing in English.
Variation and distribution
Swiss German is a regional or political umbrella term, not a linguistic unity. For all dialects, there are idioms spoken outside Switzerland that are more closely related to them than some Swiss German dialects. The main linguistic divisions within Swiss German are those of Low, High and Highest Alemannic, and mutual intelligibility across those groups is almost fully seamless, though with some minor exceptions, mainly regarding vocabulary. Low Alemannic is only spoken in the northernmost parts of Switzerland, in Basel and around Lake Constance. High Alemannic is spoken in most of the Swiss Plateau, and is divided in an eastern and a western group. Highest Alemannic is spoken in the Alps.
- Low Alemannic Basel German in Basel-Stadt (BS), closely related to Alsatian
- High Alemannic western Bernese German, in the Swiss Plateau parts of Bern (BE) dialects of Basel-Landschaft (BL) dialects of Solothurn (SO) dialects of the western part of Aargau (AG) in a middle position between eastern and western are dialects in the eastern part of Aargau (AG) dialects of Lucerne (LU) dialects of Zug (ZG) Zürich German, in Zürich (ZH) eastern dialects of St. Gallen (SG) dialects of Appenzell (AR & AI) dialects of Thurgau (TG) dialects of Schaffhausen (SH) dialects in parts of Graubünden (GR)
- Highest Alemannic dialects in parts of Canton of Fribourg (FR) dialects of the Bernese Oberland (BE) dialects of Unterwalden (OW & NW) and Uri (UR) dialects of Schwyz (SZ) dialects of Glarus (GL) Walliser German in parts of the Valais (VS) Walser German: Via the medieval migration of the Walser, Highest Alemannic spread to pockets of what are now parts of northern Italy (P), the north west of Ticino (TI), parts of Graubünden (GR), Liechtenstein and Vorarlberg.
Each dialect is separable into numerous local subdialects, sometimes down to a resolution of individual villages.
Most Swiss German dialects, being High German dialects, have completed the High German consonant shift (synonyms: Second Germanic consonant shift, High German sound shift), that is, they have not only changed t to [t͡s] or [s] and p to [p͡f] or [f], but also k to [k͡x] or [x]. There are, however, exceptions, namely the idioms of Chur and Basel. Basel German is a Low Alemannic dialect (mostly spoken in Germany near the Swiss border), and Chur German is basically High Alemannic without initial [x] or [k͡x].
The High German consonant shift happened between the fourth and 9th centuries south of the Benrath line, separating High German from Low German, where high refers to the geographically higher regions of the German-speaking area of those days (combining Upper German and Central German varieties - also referring to their geographical locations). North of the Benrath line up to the North Sea, this consonant shift did not happen.
The Walser migration, going on between the 12th and 13th centuries, spread upper Wallis varieties towards the east and south, into Grisons and even further to western Austria and northern Italy. Informally, a distinction is made between the German-speaking people living in the canton of Valais, the Walliser, and the migrated ones, the Walsers (to be found mainly in Graubünden, Vorarlberg in Western Austria, Ticino in South Switzerland, south of the Monte Rosa mountain chain in Italy (e.g. in Issime in the Aosta valley), Tirol in North Italy, and Allgäu in Bavaria).
Generally, the Walser communities were situated on higher alpine regions, so were able to stay independent of the reigning forces of those days, who did not or were not able to follow and monitor them all the time necessary at these hostile and hard to survive areas.
Like all other Southern German dialects, Swiss German dialects have no voiced obstruents. However, they have an opposition of consonant pairs such as [t] and [d] or [p] and [b]. Traditionally, that distinction is said to be a distinction of fortis and lenis, but it has been claimed to be a distinction of quantity.
Swiss German keeps the fortis–lenis opposition at the end of words.
Swiss German /p, t, k/ are not aspirated.
Unlike Standard German, Swiss German /x/ does not have the allophone [ç] but is typically [x], with the allophone [χ].
Most Swiss German dialects have gone through the Alemannic n-apocope, which has led to the loss of final -n in words such as Garte 'garden' (standard German Garten) or mache 'to make' (standard German machen). In some Highest Alemannic dialects, the n-apocope has also been effective in consonant clusters, for instance in Hore 'horn' (High Alemannic Horn) or däiche 'to think' (High Alemannic dänke). Only the Highest Alemannic dialects of the Lötschental and of the Haslital have preserved the -n.
The phoneme /r/ is pronounced as an alveolar trill [r] in many dialects, but some dialects, especially in the Northeast or in the Basel region, have a uvular trill [ʀ], like in many German varieties of Germany.
A labiodental approximant [ʋ] is used in Swiss German, as the [v] sound is present in Standard German.
Most Swiss German dialects have rounded front vowels, unlike other High German dialects. Only in Low Alemannic dialects of northwestern Switzerland (mainly Basel) and in Walliser dialects have rounded front vowels been unrounded.
Like Bavarian dialects, Swiss German dialects have preserved the opening diphthongs of Middle High German: /iə̯, uə̯, yə̯/: in /liə̯b̥/ 'lovely' (standard German lieb but pronounced /liːp/); /huə̯t/ 'hat' (standard German Hut /huːt/); /xyə̯l/ 'cool' (Standard German kühl /kyːl/). Some diphthongs have become unrounded in several dialects. Sounds like the monophthong [ɒ] can frequently become unrounded to [ɑ] among many speakers.
Like in Low German, most Swiss German dialects have preserved the old West-Germanic monophthongs /iː, uː, yː/: /pfiːl/ 'arrow' (Standard German Pfeil /pfaɪ̯l/); /b̥uːx/ 'belly' (Standard German Bauch /baʊ̯x/); /z̥yːlə/ 'pillar' (Standard German Säule /zɔʏ̯lə/). A few Alpine dialects show diphthongization, like in Standard German, especially some dialects of Unterwalden and Schanfigg (Graubünden) and the dialect of Issime (Piedmont).
Some Western Swiss German dialects like Bernese German have preserved the old diphthongs /ei̯, ou̯/, but the other dialects have /ai̯, au̯/ like Standard German or /æi̯, æu̯/.
Lexical stress is more often on the first syllable than in Standard German, even in French loans like [ˈmɛrsːi] or [ˈmersːi] "thanks". However, there are many different stress patterns, even within dialects. Bernese German has many words that are stressed on the first syllable: [ˈkaz̥inɔ] 'casino' while Standard German has [kʰaˈziːno]. However, no Swiss German dialect is as consistent as Icelandic in that respect.
The grammar of Swiss dialects has some specialties compared to Standard German:
- There is no preterite indicative (yet there is a preterite subjunctive).
- The preterite is replaced by perfect constructs (this also happens in spoken Standard German, particularly in Southern Germany and Austria).
- It is still possible to form pluperfect phrases, by applying the perfect construct twice to the same sentence.
- There is no genitive case, though certain dialects have preserved a possessive genitive (for instance in rural Bernese German). The genitive case is replaced by two constructions: The first of these is often acceptable in Standard German as well: possession + Prp. vo (std. German von) + possessor: es Buech vomene Profässer vs. Standard German ein Buch von einem Professor ("a book of a professor"), s Buech vom Profässer vs. Standard German das Buch des Professors ("the professor's book"). The second is still frowned on where it appears in Standard German (from dialects and spoken language): dative of the possessor + the possessive pronoun referring to the possessor + possession: em Profässer sis Buech ("the professor his book").
- The order within verb groups may vary, e.g. wo du bisch cho/wo du cho bisch vs. standard German als du gekommen bist "when you have come/came". In fact, dependencies can be arbitrarily cross-serial, making Swiss German one of the few known non-context-free natural languages.
- All relative clauses are introduced by the relative particle wo (‘where’), never by the relative pronouns der, die, das, welcher, welches as in Standard German, e.g. ds Bispil, wo si schrybt vs. Standard German das Beispiel, das sie schreibt (‘the example that she writes’); ds Bispil, wo si dra dänkt vs. Standard German das Beispiel, woran sie denkt (‘the example that she thinks of’). Whereas the relative particle wo replaces the Standard German relative pronouns in the Nom. (subject) and Acc. (direct object) without further complications, in phrases where wo plays the role of an indirect object, a prepositional object, a possessor or an adverbial adjunct it has to be taken up later in the relative clause by reference of (prp. +) the personal pronoun (if wo refers to a person) or the pronominal adverb (if wo refers to a thing). E.g. de Profässer won i der s Buech von em zeiget ha ("the professor whose book I showed you"), de Bärg wo mer druf obe gsii sind ("the mountain that we were upon").
- In combinations with other verbs, the verbs gah or goh "go", cho "come", la or lo "let" and aafa or aafo "begin" reduplicate, prefixed to the main verb.
The vocabulary is varied, especially in rural areas: many specialized terms have been retained, e.g., regarding cattle or weather.
Most word adoptions come from Standard German.
Swiss dialects have quite a few words from French and Italian, which are perfectly assimilated.
In recent years, Swiss dialects have also taken some English words which already sound very Swiss, e.g., [ˈfuːd̥ə] ('to eat', from "food"), [ɡ̊ei̯mə] ('to play computer games', from "game") or [ˈz̥nœːb̥ə] or [ˈb̥oːrd̥ə] – ('to snowboard', from "snowboard").
There are also a few English words which are modern adoptions from Swiss German.
Written forms that were mostly based on the local Alemannic varieties, thus similar to Middle High German, were only gradually replaced by the forms of New High German. This replacement took from the 15th to 18th centuries to complete. In the 16th century, the Alemannic forms of writing were considered the original, truly Swiss forms, whereas the New High German forms were perceived as foreign innovations. The innovations were brought about by the printing press and were also associated with Lutheranism. An example of the language shift is the Froschauer Bible: Its first impressions after 1524 were largely written in an Alemannic language, but since 1527, the New High German forms were gradually adopted. The Alemannic forms were longest preserved in the chancelleries, with the chancellery of Bern being the last to adopt New High German in the second half of the 18th century.
Today all formal writing, newspapers, books and much informal writing is done in Swiss Standard German, which is usually called Schriftdeutsch (written German). Certain dialectal words are accepted regionalisms in Swiss Standard German and are also sanctioned by the Duden, e.g., Zvieri (afternoon snack). Swiss Standard German is virtually identical to Standard German as used in Germany, with most differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, and orthography. For example, Swiss Standard German always uses a double s (ss) instead of the eszett (ß).
There are no official rules of Swiss German orthography.
A few letters are used differently from the Standard German rules:
- ⟨k⟩ (and ⟨ck⟩) are used for the affricate /kx/.
- ⟨gg⟩ is used for the unaspirated fortis /k/.
- ⟨y⟩ (and sometimes ⟨yy⟩) traditionally stands for the /iː/ (in many dialects shortened to /i/, but still with closed quality) that corresponds to Standard German /aɪ̯/, e.g. in Rys ‘rice’ (standard German Reis /raɪ̯s/) vs. Ris ‘giant’ (standard German /riːzə/). This usage goes back to an old ij-ligature. Many writers, however, don't use ⟨y⟩, but ⟨i⟩/⟨ii⟩, especially in the dialects that have lost distinction between these sounds, compare Zürich German Riis /riːz̥/ ‘rice’ or 'giant' to Bernese German Rys /riːz̥/ 'rice' vs. Ris /rɪːz̥/ (‘giant’). Some use even ⟨ie⟩, influenced by Standard German spelling, which leads to confusion with ⟨ie⟩ for /iə̯/.
- ⟨w⟩ represents [ʋ], slightly different from Standard German as [v].
- ⟨ä⟩ usually represents [æ], and can also represent [ə] or [ɛ].
- ⟨ph⟩ represents [pʰ], ⟨th⟩ represents [tʰ], and ⟨gh⟩ represents [kʰ].
- Since [ei] is written as ⟨ei⟩, [ai] is written as ⟨äi⟩, though in eastern Switzerland ⟨ei⟩ is often used for both of these phonemes.
Since the 19th century, a considerable body of Swiss German literature has accumulated.
- Anna Maria Bacher (born 1947), Z Kschpel fam Tzit; Litteri un Schattä; Z Tzit fam Schnee (South Walser German of Formazza/Pomatt)
- Albert Bächtold (1891–1981), De goldig Schmid; Wält uhni Liecht; De Studänt Räbme; Pjotr Ivanowitsch (Schaffhausen dialect of Klettgau)
- Ernst Burren (born 1944), Dr Schtammgascht; Näschtwermi (Solothurn dialect)
- August Corrodi (1826–1885), De Herr Professer; De Herr Vikari; De Herr Dokter (Zurich dialect)
- Barbara Egli (1918–2005), Wildi Chriesi (Zurich Oberland dialect)
- Fritz Enderlin (1883–1971), De Sonderbunds-Chrieg, translated from C. F. Ramuz's French poem La Grande Guerre du Sondrebond (Upper Thurgovian dialect)
- Martin Frank (born 1950), Ter Fögi ische Souhung; La Mort de Chevrolet (Bernese dialect with Zurich interferences)
- Simon Gfeller (1868–1943), Ämmegrund; Drätti, Müetti u der Chlyn; Seminarzyt (Bernese dialect of Emmental)
- Paul Haller (1882–1920), Maria und Robert (Western Aargau dialect)
- Frida Hilty-Gröbli (1893–1957), Am aalte Maartplatz z Sant Galle; De hölzig Matroos (St Gall dialect)
- Josef Hug (1903–1985), S Gmaiguet; Dunggli Wolgga ob Salaz (Graubünden Rhine Valley dialect)
- Thomas Hürlimann (born 1950), Dr Franzos im Ybrig, loosely based on Morel's play
- Guy Krneta (born 1964), Furnier (collection of short stories), Zmittst im Gjätt uss (prose), Ursle (Bernese dialect)
- Michael Kuoni (1838–1891), Bilder aus dem Volksleben des Vorder-Prättigau's (Graubünden Walser dialect of Prättigau)
- Maria Lauber (1891–1973), Chüngold; Bletter im Luft; Der jung Schuelmiischter (Bernese Oberland dialect)
- Pedro Lenz (born 1965), Plötzlech hets di am Füdle (Bernese Dialect)
- Meinrad Lienert (1865–1933), Flüehblüemli; 's Mirli; Der Waldvogel (Schwyz dialect of Einsiedeln)
- Carl Albert Loosli (1877–1959), Mys Dörfli; Mys Ämmitaw; Wi's öppe geit! (Bernese dialect of Emmental)
- Kurt Marti (born 1921), Vierzg Gedicht ir Bärner Umgangssprache; Rosa Loui (Bernese dialect)
- Mani Matter (1936–1972), songwriter (Bernese dialect)
- Traugott Meyer (1895–1959), 's Tunnälldorf; Der Gänneral Sutter (Basel-Landschaft dialect)
- Gall Morel (1803–1872), Dr Franzos im Ybrig (Schwyz German of Iberg)
- Viktor Schobinger (born 1934), Der Ääschme trifft simpatisch lüüt and a lot of other Züri Krimi (Zurich dialect)
- Caspar Streiff (1853–1917), Der Heiri Jenni im Sunnebärg (Glarus dialect)
- Jakob Stutz (1801–1877), Gemälde aus dem Volksleben; Ernste und heitere Bilder aus dem Leben unseres Volkes (Zurich Oberland dialect)
- Rudolf von Tavel (1866–1934), Ring i der Chetti; Gueti Gschpane; Meischter und Ritter; Der Stärn vo Buebebärg; D’Frou Kätheli und ihri Buebe; Der Frondeur; Ds velorene Lied; D’Haselmuus; Unspunne; Jä gäl, so geit’s!; Der Houpme Lombach; Götti und Gotteli; Der Donnergueg; Veteranezyt; Heinz Tillman; Die heilige Flamme; Am Kaminfüür; Bernbiet; Schweizer daheim und draußen; Simeon und Eisi; Geschichten aus dem Bernerland (Bernese dialect)
- Alfred Tobler (1845–1923), Näbes oß mine Buebejohre (Appenzell dialect)
- Johann Martin Usteri (1763–1827), Dichtungen in Versen und Prosa (Zurich German)
- Hans Valär (1871–1947), Dr Türligiiger (Graubünden Walser dialect of Davos)
- Bernhard Wyss (1833–1889), Schwizerdütsch. Bilder aus dem Stilleben unseres Volkes (Solothurn dialect)
Parts of the Bible were translated in different Swiss German dialects, e.g.:
- Ds Nöie Teschtamänt bärndütsch (Bernese New Testament, translated by Hans and Ruth Bietenhard, 1989)
- Ds Alte Teschtamänt bärndütsch (parts of the Old Testament in Bernese dialect, translated by Hans and Ruth Bietenhard, 1990)
- D Psalme bärndütsch (Psalms in Bernese dialect, translated by Hans, Ruth and Benedikt Bietenhard, 1994)
- S Nöi Teschtamänt Züritüütsch (Zurich German New Testament, translated by Emil Weber, 1997)
- D Psalme Züritüütsch (Psalms in Zurich German, translated by Josua Boesch, 1990)
- Der guet Bricht us der Bible uf Baselbieterdütsch (parts of the Old and the New Testament in Basel dialect, 1981)
- S Markus Evangelium Luzärntüütsch (Gospel of Mark in Lucerne dialect, translated by Walter Haas, 1988)
- Markusevangeeli Obwaldnerdytsch (Gospel of Mark in the dialect of the Obwalden County, translated by Karl Imfeld, 1979)