What’s So Different About Swiss German and Standard German?

Previously, we wrote a short introduction to the peculiar world of Swiss German but today, we’ll focus more closely on what differentiates the Alemannic dialects (of which the language spoken in Switzerland is a part of) from the rest of the German-speaking world.

Swiss German is so different from Standard German that when interviewed on German television, anything a Swiss person says will often be subtitled. That’s how difficult it is for speakers of Hochdeutsch to understand that particular dialect.

To be clear, by “Swiss German”, we mean the collection of dialects as they’re spoken as an everyday language throughout the territory of Switzerland and not Swiss Standard German. Although Swiss Standard German still differs from its Hochdeutsch cousin, it’s nowhere near as tough to make sense of.

Swiss dialects as the authentic German

Classifying the Alemannic dialects is a point of contention among linguists – while some argue they should be considered separate languages, others maintain that Swiss German is best described as a pluricentric national dialect. Whichever camp you belong to, it’s clear that the differences with Standard German are stark.

The mountainous geography has helped preserve dialects that have become almost unintelligible to anyone outside of a specific region or even valley. Thanks to their isolation, these local languages are actually a lot closer to the archaic version of German of centuries past. More open languages often take influence from their neighbours and are simplified over time to accommodate non-native speakers but with small and isolated tongues, these changes are slower and less pronounced.

This is what makes the Swiss dialects both so interesting and difficult to try to understand.

The pronunciation

The trouble of understanding the Swiss dialects starts with their pronunciation for most other German-speakers.

The Swiss seem to disdain the k sound and opt for a very throaty ch instead. The German ei become ie, and other some letters are simply omitted (like the -n) or syllables shortened (-ung becomes -ig). While that might not sound like much, it actually makes understanding spoken Swiss languages very difficult to the untrained ear.

As you can see from the video below, even very short phrases become almost their own language. Another interesting thing to note is how much the different dialects vary even inside Switzerland.

For learning more about pronunciation in Swiss German, you should visit this dictionary where you can hear different phrases and words pronounced by native speakers. Another great resource is this page that gives great examples of the differences between Standard and Swiss German.

The vocabulary

Another part where spoken Swiss dialects vary greatly is the day-to-day use of vocabulary.

Of course, different pronunciation also plays a big part in that. While a case might be made to assume that “Verzweigung” and “Verzwiegig” (intersection) are still the same word with a different spelling, it’s difficult to say the same for “Küchenschrank” and (the infamous) “Chuchichäschtli”. So, it’s difficult to determine at which point spelling differences create a new word.

But there is also a large chunk of everyday words that are cardinally different. For example, since some of the Swiss dialects come to close contact with French, quite a lot of vocabulary has been adopted from there. A “Fahrrad” has been transformed into a “Velo” (while still maintaining the capital letter for nouns) and the French “Poulet” is used for the German chicken – “Hähnchen”.

This phenomenon sometimes also produces some interesting mixes of French and German. An answer to the question “How are you?” can very well be “Guet, merci”, with Guet coming from the German “gut” and merci being French for “thank you”.

Swiss Standard German – the good news

With all of this, it might sound impossible for a German speaker to understand anything in Switzerland. But there is actually one ray of clarity which all of those fluent in German can appreciate and that’s the written language.

While the spoken dialects can vary fiercely in both pronunciation and vocabulary, everything written comes in Swiss Standard German. This is the middle ground that all official media is consumed in and that acts as a bridge of understanding between the different regional dialects. While Swiss Standard German still differs in some minor ways from Standard German, it’s a lot easier to comprehend than the everyday spoken tongues.