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Swiss German

Swiss German (Schweizerdeutsch, Schwyzerdütsch, Schwiizerdütsch, Schwyzertütsch) is any of the High German dialects spoken in Switzerland. The term Hochdeutsch (High German) is, in a Swiss context, often reserved for Standard German, which is imported from Germany and thus not a Swiss German dialect.

Unlike most 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 or educational inferiority. There are specific settings where speaking Standard German is demanded or polite, e.g. in school classes (but not during breaks), in parliament, in TV news, in the presence of German-speaking foreigners, but outside of such settings two Swiss do not speak Standard German with each other.

The Swiss dialects do have marked regional differences in pronunciation and vocabulary, but are mutually understandable - with a few exceptions from mountain regions, e.g., in the German part of Valais. Swiss dialects are an essential part of the local cultural identity, which goes in some places down to the local village or cultural subgroup level (the upper class of Basel has their special dialect as well as the farmers of Adelboden). In some regions a politician who doesn't speak the local idiom has lower chances in elections.

Swiss German dialects are a spoken language. All formal writing, newspapers, books, and much of informal writing is done in Standard German, which is usually called Schriftdeutsch (written German). Some Swiss authors (e.g. Jeremias Gotthelf) and newspapers do insert dialect terms in their texts which is acceptable use.

There exist relatively few written works in Swiss dialects, but today especially young people use the dialect more and more in informal written communication (e.g. email). There are no official rules about writing Swiss German - spelling is mainly up to the individual.

It expresses strong regional, cantonalal and national Swiss separateness, setting Swiss residents apart from those living in "the big canton" (Germany).

Swiss German is intelligible to speakers of other Alemannic dialects, but usually not intelligible to speakers of Standard German (which includes French or Italian Swiss who learn Standard German at school).


Unlike most German dialects, most Swiss dialects did not participate in the second German vowel shift during medieval times - they use mostly the same vowels as Middle High German. As such, even though Swiss German linguistically is a High German language, its pronunciation is in places closer to Low German or Dutch than other High German dialects or standard German.

Example with SAMPA pronunciation: The Standard German Haus (haus) is in Swiss Dialects still Hus (hus) while some dialects in Central Switzerland retain the even older form Huis (huis)

Examples (in SAMPA):
English Standard German German SAMPA Zürich Dialect Uri Dialect
House Haus ['haus] ['hu:s] ['huis]
brown braun ['braun] ['bru:n] ['bruin]


The Swiss [X] is pronounced very deep down in the throat.

Typical of all Swiss German dialects is that they do not have voiced plosives and [z]. Instead, short plosives are distinguished from long plosives. Stress is usually on the first syllable. In Bern, even the word Tabu ('taboo') has stress on the first syllable.

Most Swiss dialects that have initial [k_X] or [X] instead of older [k_h]; there are however exceptions, namely the idioms of Chur and Basel. Basel German is a mix between High and Low Alemannic (most, but not all, Alemannic dialects spoken in Germany are Low Alemannic), and Chur German is basically High Alemannic without initial [X] or [k_X].

Examples (in SAMPA):
Basel German Zürich German Standard German
['k_hAffi] ['k_XAfi] ['k_hAfe] coffee
[k_hA] [XA] [k_hAn] can (first person singular)
[glai] [Xli:] [k_hlain] small


The grammar of Swiss dialects has some specialties compared to German: there are less forms (only one past tense compared to three in German, only three cases compared to four in German) and the syntax has more freedom. The Swiss German dialects also do without a future form. Instead the present is used together with a time marker – such as tomorrow.


The vocabulary is rather rich - especially in rural areas there are lots of special terms retained, e.g. regarding cattle or weather.

Swiss dialects have borrowed quite a few words from French, which are perfectly assimilated. Glace (ice cream) for example is pronounced /glas/ in French but ['glAs:e:] in many Swiss German dialects. And in recent years, Swiss dialects have also borrowed some English words which already sound very Swiss, e.g. ['fu:d@] (to eat, from "food"), ['geIm@] (to play computer games) or ['sn2:b@] - (boarding, from "snowboard"). While most of those loanwords are of recent origin, some have been in use for decades, e.g. ['SUt@] (to play football, from "shoot").

Distribution of Dialects

Distribution of Swiss German dialects

There are a number of distinct dialects in Swiss German (yellow). Although dialects of some regions are generally differentiated, it is possible to hear from which town somebody is coming merely by listening to a person's speech. As people move around more in recent years, this distinction has weakened. The regional dialects, however, remain strong.

The main dialects are of Graubünden (GR), of St. Gallen (SG), Appenzell (AP), Thurgau (TG), Glarus (GL), Schaffhausen (SH), Zürich (ZH), Zug (Z), Schwyz (SZ), Lucerne (LU), Uri (UR), Unterwalden (UW), the Valais (VS), Aargau (AG), Bern (BE), Basel (BS), Solothurn (SO) and Fribourg (FR). Swiss German is also spoken in the north of Italy (P). The German dialect in the north west of Ticino (T) is a distinct dialect.