The French- and German-speaking areas of Switzerland meet on the hills above the town of Biel-Bienne
The French- and German-speaking areas of Switzerland meet on the hills above the town of Biel-Bienne.  And this is reflected in the place names. While on the German-speaking side, the place names are in Swiss German dialect, such as ‘Gruebmatt’ and ‘Cholbode’, on the French-speaking side they use standard French, such as ‘Les Moulins’ and ‘Derrière la Chaux’. Swisstopo

The different fates of Switzerland’s dialects

Dialects play different roles in Switzerland’s language regions: in German-speaking Switzerland they dominate everyday life, while in French-speaking Switzerland they have virtually disappeared, and in Italian-speaking Switzerland they are only spoken with close friends and family. The reasons behind these differences can be found in history.

Alexander Rechsteiner

Alexander Rechsteiner

Alexander Rechsteiner works at the PR department of the Swiss national museum and holds an M A in modern English literature and political science.

They say that a person speaking Swiss German only needs to count to three for you to tell which region or even which village they come from. Many people would probably take a bet on it. By contrast, you can’t normally gauge someone’s social status from their Swiss German dialect. But there is an exception to every rule, as shown by the ‘more distinguished’ forms of pronunciation in Bern and Basel. Nevertheless,  the ‘egalitarian’ nature of Swiss German means that it is spoken and heard in the office, in restaurants, in Parliament and at the theatre.  On the other hand, high German is only used in special situations and for many Swiss Germans it is actually a foreign language.
Switzerland’s language regions. Red: German, purple: French, green: Italian, yellow: Romansh
Switzerland’s language regions. Red: German, purple: French, green: Italian, yellow: Romansh. Within the language regions, there are many idioms, dialects and accents, whose boundaries are sometimes fluid. Wikimedia / Tschubby
On the other side of the imaginary border between the French- and German-speaking regions of Switzerland (known as the Röstigraben), things are somewhat different.  Here, standard French is dominant and the local dialect – known as patois – is only cultivated in a few clubs and associations, and is more a part of folklore than general parlance. As opposed to the Swiss German-speaking area, in the Francophone part of Switzerland there is a myth of a ‘bon français’ – a pure French that is superior to local accents and dialects. This also results in a standardisation of the language and a distinction between educated and uneducated language. Meanwhile, in Italian-speaking Switzerland, the use of standard Italian or dialect depends on the situation. Dialect is spoken with close friends or family and in village shops, but not at major gatherings or in shops in town centres. Switzerland’s three major language regions therefore differ in the way they use dialects. These differences can be explained by their history.
‘Fläckehans’ aka Johann Weisshaupt from Eggerstanden in Appenzell Innerrhoden, tells a joke in Appenzell dialect. Segment from “Schweiz aktuell unterwägs’ of 24.08.1990. SRF
Swiss German dialects belong to a larger language area – Alemannic – which mainly extends across Switzerland, southern Germany, Vorarlberg in Austria, and parts of Alsace. From the 16th century onwards, the Swiss Confederates in this language area increasingly began to see themselves as a single entity. They had their own written language, which they called ‘Landspraach’. The Zurich Bible was even printed in this language. Romanticism, a movement which glorified the past and sought simplicity from around 1800, mainly in Germany, had a special interest in folk customs and dialects. Swiss scholars therefore started collecting songs and poems in dialect that had been passed on orally from one generation to the next, and sometimes even penned their own. This led to an idealisation of Swiss German. The impact of this is still in evidence today, as the use of dialect was not stigmatised in German-speaking Switzerland, and it was spoken both by rural populations and the middle classes in the 19th century. People started to cultivate Swiss German through literature written in dialect and efforts to preserve the language, and it became loaded with national political significance. Finally, during the process of building the nation state, dialect was discovered as a means for Switzerland to define itself as a nation while differentiating itself from its German neighbour. Dialect was seen as particularly ‘republican’ because all sections of society spoke it. This perception is characteristic of the Swiss German mentality, where people are generally suspicious of overt social advancement.
Traditional herdsmen’s songs are common in Switzerland’s rural regions, from the Bernese Oberland and Appenzell to Jura and Vaud. One of the most famous is the ‘Ranz des vaches’ from Greyerzerland. The text is written is Fribourg patois. RTS/YouTube
And throughout French-speaking Switzerland, too, people still spoke local dialects 400 years ago. The patois spoken in western Switzerland mainly belonged to the Franco-Provençal language area, which also covers south-eastern France and the Aosta Valley. The patois spoken in Jura was from the same family as the northern French dialects, known as the ‘langue d’oïl’. How come these dialects had such a different fate to their counterparts on the other side of the Röstigraben? The replacement of dialects by standard French was a very lengthy process. It was facilitated among other things by the advent of printing and the Reformation, which disseminated the French of northern France as a written language.  Reformers translated religious writings into this standardised French from northern France, which was spoken by the elites. In the protestant cities of Geneva and Neuchâtel it became the common language, partly because the protestant printers from northern France settled there and spread the language. Around 1790, scholars even started to actively oppose local dialects. Authorities in Paris sought to standardise the grammar and vocabulary of the French language and to keep it “pure”. This involved attempting to rid it of dialects and linguistic peculiarities. From the 18th century, the social elites associated French with social and economic progress while patois, as a traditional and familial language, was no longer seen as compatible with the image of a modern and industrialised society. This went so far that speaking patois in the classroom was prohibited by law, for example in the canton of Vaud through the 1806 School Act. According to the Historical Dictionary of Switzerland, the traditional dialects even face permanent extinction in the conservative catholic and rural regions of Switzerland. In Valais, less than 6% of the population speaks dialect, in Fribourg it is less than 4%, and in Jura just under 3%.
In 1547, Jacques Gruet from Geneva protested against the growing influence of French priests. He put up a threatening note in patois on the walls of Saint-Pierre Cathedral. The first line says “Gro panfar, te et to compagnon gagneria miot de vot queysi”, which means “Hey fatso, you and your associates should keep your mouths shut!” Recording of Jacques Gruet’s pamphlet of 1547, read by Olivier Frutiger, 2023. Archives d'Etat de Genève
In southern Switzerland, the various local Italian dialects belong to the extensive family of Lombard dialects. As this part of Switzerland is geographically fragmented by mountains and inaccessible valleys, no standardised vernacular emerged, rather the various dialects developed in very different directions. Here, the use of standard Italian was limited to writing and the church. However, migration and increased contact between the regions in the 19th century led to Italian spreading as a lingua franca or common language for people speaking different dialects. Meanwhile, the use of dialect as a spoken language, for example in school and in sermons, was increasingly suppressed or even banned. Unlike patois, however, families in southern Switzerland continued to cultivate the dialects, so they didn’t disappear. In the 20th century, dialect was discovered as a language of cultural rootedness and it was increasingly used as a preferred language in the private sphere. Today, dialects are still spoken by about a third of the population. They are viewed favourably and seen as an identifying factor.
Schools in Ticino banned dialects and taught in Italian. A Ticino classroom, circa 1920. Photograph by Rudolf Zinggeler-Danioth.
Schools in Ticino banned dialects and taught in Italian. A Ticino classroom, circa 1920. Photograph by Rudolf Zinggeler-Danioth. Swiss National Museum
Vüna par ün: Don Francesco Alberti speaking Ticino dialect from Bedigliora, 1939. © Phonogram Archives of the University of Zurich

Multilingual Switzerland

15.09.2023 14.01.2024 / National Museum Zurich
In Switzerland, you can hear countless dialects, accents, types of slang and immigrant languages in addition to the four national languages. Visit the National Museum Zurich for a sensory journey through Switzerland’s language areas. Find out through interactive sound technology how the predecessors of our languages emerged, evolved or died out, how new linguistic and cultural borders arose and how they were (and still are) disputed.

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