Updated: Mar 11, 2021
As any Germanophile will testify, der deutschsprachige Raum (‘the German-speaking world’) is home to a mind-boggling array of different dialects. The well-intentioned German learner can arrive in almost any Bundesland, or federal state, naively thinking that their knowledge of the German language should suffice, only to be completely bamboozled by the local dialect.
As a general rule of thumb, the further south you go, the more likely you are to be greeted with a cheery ‘Gruß Gott’ or ‘Servus’ (an equivalent of ‘Hallo’ or ‘Guten Tag’). Indeed, Southern Germany is home to numerous weird and wonderful regional dialects: Bayerisch, Badisch and Alemannisch, to name a few. However, at the mention of Schweizerdeutsch, even for a German native speaker, the blood runs cold. If you thought German dialects were confusing, Swiss German is an altogether different proposition.
The land of cuckoo clocks, mountains and chocolate, Switzerland is truly multilingual, with four Amtssprachen (official languages): German, French, Italian and Romansch. The most widely used of these languages is German, with around 65% of Swiss citizens speaking German as their first language. I say German, but in reality, Swiss German is very different to Hochdeutsch (Standard German).
Much to Swiss Germany’s annoyance (or amusement!), when someone from Switzerland appears on German TV, they are almost always subtitled. To add to the confusion, there is a certain degree of variation in language between cantons and areas within Switzerland; so, there will be differences between the low Alemannic spoken in Basel and the high Alemannic native to Zürich.
Moreover, in Switzerland there is a phenomenon known as ‘diglossia’. Essentially, there are two dialects which are used by those from German-speaking Switzerland: in informal settings the regional dialect will be used, whilst in formal settings (such as the news) Swiss Standard German will be used.
Back to basics: the 4 essential pillars of Schweizerdeutsch for beginners
1. Nail your greetings
On the whole, Swiss people are incredibly friendly and therefore it is important to get your greetings right. One sure-fire way to get caught out as non-Swiss is to use the standard German greeting of Guten Tag. Instead, use the Swiss-German equivalent of Grüezi. For bonus points, you could also use Hoi or Sali, although this is probably best reserved for friends.
2. Turn on your Gallic charm
It is important to remember that French-speaking Swiss people over in Welscher Schweiz (the Swiss term for Romandie-Francophone Switzerland) make up a significant proportion of the population. The historic cities of Geneva, Lausanne and Montreux all lie in French-speaking Switzerland. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that French has weaved its way into Swiss German. On a characteristically punctual Swiss train, the ticket collector will check your Billet rather than your Fahrkarte. Similarly, to travel on Swiss motorways it is a legal requirement to display a small sticker on your windscreen; this is known as a Vignette, rather than the German equivalent of an Aufkleber. Another French-inspired phrase that will come in handy is Merci vilmal meaning ‘thank you very much’.
3. Get the pronunciation right
In Schweizerdeutsch there are several quirks in pronunciation, one of the most noticeable is the tendency to pronounce diphthongs as a single vowel sound. A diphthong is when two vowels combine to make one vowel sound. The classic example of this, is that in Swiss German Haus will be pronounced 'Huus'.
4. Forget all the grammar you’ve learnt
This certainly won’t be a popular tip amongst German teachers, but no matter what anyone else tells you, as soon as you cross the border into Switzerland you are liberated from all the grammar rules which once bogged you down. You’ll be pleased to find out that the first thing to forget is the genitive case. Instead of the genitive, just use von to convey possession. Next, forget all of the confusing relative pronouns (der, die, das, usw.) and simply replace these with wo. Another striking difference between Swiss German and Standard German is that in Switzerland, a whole tense is thrown out of the window: the imperfect.
Hopefully, this article has given you a brief insight into the joys of Schweizerdeutsch. Please do note that following any of the tips in this article may have serious adverse effects on your results in German, particularly in grammar tests!