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About Swiss (German) Language

Swiss German (German: Schweizerdeutsch, Alemannic German: Schwyzerdütsch, Schwiizertüütsch, Schwizertitsch) is any of the Alemannic dialects spoken in Switzerland and in some Alpine communities in Northern Italy. Occasionally, the Alemannic dialects spoken in other countries are called Swiss German as well, especially the dialects of Liechtenstein and Austrian Vorarlberg which are closely associated to Switzerland's.

Linguistically, Swiss German forms no unity. The linguistic division of Alemannic is rather into Low, High and Highest Alemannic, varieties of all of which are spoken both inside and outside of Switzerland. The reason "Swiss German" dialects constitute a special group is their almost unrestricted use as a spoken language in practically all situations of daily life, whereas the use of the Alemannic dialects in the other countries is restricted or even endangered.

The dialects of Swiss German must not be confused with Swiss Standard German, the variety of Standard German used in Switzerland.

Use

Unlike most regional dialects in modern Europe, Swiss German is the spoken everyday language of all social levels in industrial cities as well as in the countryside. Using dialect conveys no social nor educational inferiority and is done with pride. There are only a few specific settings where speaking Standard German is demanded or polite, e.g., in education (but not during breaks in school lessons, where the teachers will speak in dialect with students), in multilingual parliaments (the federal parliaments and a few cantonal and municipal ones), in the main news broadcast or in the presence of German-speaking foreigners. This situation has been called a medial diglossia since the spoken language is mainly the dialect whereas the written language is mainly Standard German.

Swiss German is intelligible to speakers of other Alemannic dialects but poses greater difficulty in total comprehension to speakers of Standard German, including French- or Italian-speaking Swiss who learn Standard German at school. Swiss German speakers on TV or in movies are thus usually dubbed or subtitled if shown in Germany.

Dialect rock is a music genre using the language; many Swiss rock bands, however, sing in English.

The Swiss Amish of Indiana also use Swiss German.

Variation and distribution

Swiss German is a regional or political umbrella term, not a linguistic unity. For all dialects, there are idioms spoken outside Switzerland that are more closely related to them than some Swiss German dialects. The main linguistic divisions within Swiss German are those of Low, High and Highest Alemannic. Low Alemannic is only spoken in the northernmost parts of Switzerland, in Basel and around Lake Constance. High Alemannic is spoken in most of the Swiss plateau, and is divided in an eastern and a western group. Highest Alemannic is spoken in the Alps.

Each dialect is separable into numerous local sub-dialects, sometimes down to a resolution of individual villages. Speaking the dialect is an important part of regional, cantonal and national identity. In the more urban areas of the Swiss plateau, regional differences are fading due to increasing mobility, and a growing population of non-Alemannic descent. Despite the varied dialects, the Swiss can still understand one another but may particularly have trouble understanding Walliser dialects.

History

As Alemannic dialects, Swiss German dialects did not participate in the second German vowel shift during medieval times — they use mostly the same vowels as Middle High German. Therefore, even though the Alemannic dialects belong to High German, their vowels are closer to Low Saxon[clarification needed] than other High German dialects or standard German. An exception is certain central Swiss and Walser dialects, e.g. some dialects of Unterwalden, of the Schanfigg Valley (Graubünden) and that of Issime (Piedmont).

Most Swiss German dialects, being High-Alemannic dialects, have completed the High German consonant shift, that is, they have not only changed t to [t͡s] or [s] and p to [p͡f] or [f] but also k to [k͡x] or [x]. Most Swiss dialects have initial [x] or [k͡x] instead of k; there are however exceptions, namely the idioms of Chur and Basel. Basel German is a Low Alemannic dialect (like most, but not all, Alemannic dialects spoken in Germany), and Chur German is basically High Alemannic without initial [x] or [k͡x].

Grammar

The grammar of Swiss dialects has some specialties compared to Standard German:

  • There is no preterite indicative (yet there is a preterite subjunctive).
  • There is no genitive case, though certain dialects have preserved a possessive genitive (for instance in rural Bernese German). The genitive case is replaced by two constructions: The first of these is often acceptable in Standard German as well: possession + Prp. vo (std. German von) + possessor: äs'Buäch vo-m-äna Profässär vs. Standard German ein Buch von einem Professor ("a professor's book"), s'Buäch vom Profässär vs. Standard German das Buch des Professors ("the professor's book"). The second is still frowned on where it appears in Standard German (from dialects and spoken language): dative of the possessor + the possessive pronoun referring to the possessor + possession: äm Profässär sis Buäch ("the professor's book").
  • The order within verb groups may vary, e.g. wil du bisch cho/wil du cho bisch vs. standard German weil du gekommen bist "because you have come/came".
  • All relative clauses are introduced by the relative particle wo (‘where’), never by the relative pronouns der, die, das, welcher, welches as in Standard German, e.g. ds Bispil, wo si schrybt vs. Standard German das Beispiel, das sie schreibt (‘the example that she writes’); ds Bispil, wo si dra dänkt vs. Standard German das Beispiel, woran sie denkt (‘the example that she thinks of’). Whereas the relative particle wo replaces the Standard German relative pronouns in the Nom. (subject) and Acc. (direct object) without further complications, in phrases where wo plays the role of an indirect object, a prepositional object, a possessor or an adverbial adjunct it has to be taken up later in the relative clause by reference of (prp. +) the personal pronoun (if wo refers to a person) or the pronomial adverb (if wo refers to a thing). E.g. dä Profässär wo-n-i där s'Buäch vo-n-äm zeigät ha ("the professor whose book I showed you"), dä Bärg wo mär druf obä gsii sind ("the mountain that we were upon").
  • In combinations with other verbs, the verbs gah or goh "go", cho "come", la or lo "let" and aafa or aafo "begin" reduplicate, prefixed to the main verb.

Vocabulary

The vocabulary is rather rich, especially in rural areas: many specialised terms have been retained, e.g., regarding cattle or weather. In the cities, much of the rural vocabulary has been lost.

Most word adoptions come from Standard German. Many of these are now so common that they have totally replaced the original Swiss German words, e.g. the words Hügel 'hill' (instead of Egg, Bühl), Lippe 'lip' (instead of Lefzge). Others have replaced the original words only in parts of Switzerland, e.g., Butter 'butter' (originally called Anken in most parts of Switzerland). Virtually any Swiss Standard German word can be borrowed into Swiss German, always adapted to Swiss German phonology. However, certain Standard German words are never used in Swiss German, for instance Frühstück 'breakfast', niedlich 'cute' or zu hause 'at home'; instead, the native words Zmorge, härzig and dehei are used.

Swiss dialects have quite a few words from French, which are perfectly assimilated. Glace (ice cream) for example is pronounced /ɡlas/ in French but [ˈɡ̊lasːeː] or [ˈɡ̊lasːə] in many Swiss German dialects. The French word for 'thank you', merci, is also used as in merci vilmal, literally "thanks many times". Possibly, these words are not direct adoptions from French but survivors of the once more numerous French loanwords in Standard German, many of which have fallen out of use in Germany.

In recent years, Swiss dialects have also taken some English words which already sound very Swiss, e.g., [ˈfuːd̥ə] ('to eat', from "food"), [ɡ̊ei̯mə] ('to play computer games', from "game") or [ˈz̥nœːb̥ə] or [ˈb̥oːrd̥ə] - ('to snowboard', from "snowboard"). These words are probably not direct loanwords from English, but have been adopted through standard German intermediation. While most of those loanwords are of recent origin, some have been in use for decades, e.g. [ˈʃutːə] / [ˈtʃutːə] (to play football, from "shoot").

There are also a few English words which are modern adoptions from Swiss German. The dishes müesli, and rösti have become English words, as did loess (fine grain), flysch (sandstone formation), kepi, landamman, kilch, schiffli, and the act of putsching in a political sense. The term bivouac is sometimes explained as originating from Swiss German, while printed etymological dictionaries (e.g. the German Kluge or Knaurs Etymological Dictionary) derive it from Low German instead.

 

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