Latest posts by Cecilia Conte (see all)
- Speaking English: do English people allow themselves to speak? - August 31, 2017
- Spanish-speaking speculations: how to learn Spanish - July 17, 2017
- Chuechichästli: differences between speaking German vs Swiss German - July 10, 2017
I am a German native speaker who spends a lot of time in Switzerland. People often assume that I have no trouble understanding Swiss German. Well, guess what: they’re wrong. I’ve been going to Switzerland regularly for the past ten years and it is still just as hard. While the younger me had a more malleable brain and understood some Swiss German, for the current me it is as understandable as coding to a humanities student. So, German vs Swiss German: what are the differences?
The beauty of German
When you tell people that you speak French or Italian, you generally get the reply “that is such a beautiful language, I wish I could speak it!”. Not for German and even less for Swiss German. As Napoleon once said: if horses could speak, they would speak German. German is generally perceived as not very melodious (if not to say ugly). On the scale of languages that are painful to hear for those who are not familiar to it, I rank German first, then Dutch (German spoken by someone who’s just had his wisdom teeth removed and is still under anaesthesia); followed by Swiss German (German spoken by someone who is constantly trying to clear his throat).
Everybody has probably seen the video about how to say airplane, butterfly and nationality in different languages. Well I can assure you, not everyone who says “Schmetterling” (butterfly) sounds like they want to intimidate you. German can sound beautiful. Anyone who’s read some of the classics, be it Goethe or Lessing, will agree with me.
So what are the differences of German vs Swiss German?
As I said, speaking German (or “Hochdeutsch”, high German) does NOT guarantee you an understanding of Swiss German. But I managed pick up some basic transformations. The German word “Kuchenkasten” (cake box… do people say cake box? Apparently you can…) illustrates this best. In Swiss German, it becomes “Chuechichästli”. Pronounce the “ch” as if you were trying to clear your throat. For the extra Swiss touch, make it Käsekuchenkasten (cheesecake box)… Chäschuechichästli. Fun times. Maybe you noticed, “k” becomes “ch”, normal vowels change to a “Umlaut” (ä, ö, ü) or a diphthong (u becomes ue).
If now you think you’re a German speaker who’s figured out Swiss German, you’re wrong. So called Swiss German is actually Swiss Germans: the dialect literally changes from one city to another. Zürich and Bern for example, two major cities, are only an hour’s train ride away from each other. But from personal experience I can tell, Züridütsch (Zürich Swiss German) is somehow easier than Berndütsch (Bern Swiss German). Züridütsch sounds a little bit cuter, while Berndütsch sounds like clearing your throat while hacking wood.
The Swiss German dialects are so diverse, and so different from “Hochdeustch”, that you can almost call them a “real” language. Unless you move to Switzerland for a longer time, Swiss German will remain a mystery. After repeated longer stays, I’ve only come out of it with a temporary, “wavy” intonation (that’s adapting my German to the mountains, basically) and the knowledge that sometimes speaking English is easier.
Fun facts for the finale: Swiss German uses medieval phrasing sometimes. You don’t say “turn off the light” but “douse the light” (from dousing a candle). Also: the word “huere” is used instead of “very” in Berndütsch. Now remove the first “e” and Google that word in German. And finally: Swiss Germans like to mix it up with a little bit of French. Thanks, in German “danke”, in French and Swiss German “merci”. So, merci vielmals und ade!