German is the most widely spoken first language in Europe which is probably no surprise. Germany has the highest population and German is also spoken beyond its borders. As with other large languages, there are also a variety of different dialects and accents among German speakers from various regions. For speakers of Standard German, or Hochdeutsch, one of the most complicated ones is Swiss German. Of course, it’s often difficult to determine who would belong in the group of “speakers of Standard German” since Hochdeutsch is used almost as a lingua franca between the speakers of different dialects.
The fact remains, however, that Swiss German is generally considered almost unintelligible for speakers outside of Switzerland. So, what is this peculiar language and why is it so unique?
There’s Swiss German and then there’s Swiss German
When talking about Swiss German, it’s also important to keep in mind that there are two related but different things meant by it.
There’s Swiss German as the language spoken in the territory of Switzerland (and a bit beyond) and then there’s Swiss Standard German. In the first case, the term “Swiss German” just becomes an umbrella term to cover the different dialects spoken in Switzerland. Swiss Standard German, however, refers to their version of Hochdeutsch – the standardised version to help ease the communication between the speakers of various dialects.
Now, when we say that German-speakers find Swiss German difficult to understand, we refer to the first meaning – the various dialects that are used across Switzerland.
German is the biggest language in Switzerland
It’s also important to keep in mind that Switzerland has several national languages. In addition to German, there’s also French, Italian, and Romansh. This makes Switzerland an interesting melting pot. The three main languages – German, French, and Italian – also maintain an equal status as official languages.
Among these languages, Swiss German has the largest number of speakers – over 60% – and it also covers the largest geographical area of Switzerland. (Compare that to Romansh that’s spoken by somewhere around 0,6% of the population.)
Some consider Swiss German a separate language
Linguistically, the regional dialects that make up Swiss German all belong to the Alemannic dialects. In addition to Swiss German, these dialects are also spoken in various parts in Europe, including Liechtenstein, parts of France, Italy and Austria. Alemannic dialects are even found in settlements in Venezuela and in the US state of Indiana where they’re spoken by the Amish community.
Since there are different opinions as to what separate dialects from languages, some linguists actually consider the Alemannic dialects to be separate languages. This is because they believe that mutual intelligibility is an important factor in determining what a language is. Since most German speakers find Swiss German and the other Alemannic dialects incredibly difficult to understand, they maintain that these should be considered separately from their Hochdeutsch cousin.
Its status as a regional language
Another thing that makes Swiss German stand out from the crowd is how it’s viewed by the people who speak it. Regional languages are often looked down upon and are (baselessly) perceived to have a lower social status than their standardised versions.
But that is not at all the case with Swiss German. Although children learn the standardised version in school and that’s the one used on TV and in official matters, the local variants are proudly used in all matters of social life, independent of status.
Conclusion – Swiss German is a fascinating variant of German
Swiss German is the most common language in Switzerland and dialects closely related to it are found in places as far apart as Italy and Venezuela. It’s a fascinating version that has developed from German but has come along so far that speakers of Standard German find it almost impossible to understand.
If you want to know more about the differences between Standard and Swiss German, feel free to take a look at the second part of this blog post.