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Two forms of German are used in Switzerland. High German, or Hochdeutsch (also known as Schriftdeutsch, “Written German”) is the same language used throughout German-speaking Europe. Swiss-German, or Schwyzertütsch, comprises dozens of regional dialects unique to Switzerland, and is unrecognizable to speakers of High German.
No one speaks High German in everyday situations in Switzerland – oral use of High German is restricted to school education, the mass media and public speaking. In all other situations, everyone naturally uses their own local dialect of Swiss-German. And unlike in Britain or France, no one in German-speaking Switzerland strives to copy a Zürich accent or a Basel accent in order to gain greater credibility. Using the dialect of your home town is a source of pride.
However, Swiss-German is hardly ever written. It’s only relatively recently that a dictionary laying down agreed spellings has been compiled, and it’s still open to some controversy: ask a Swiss person to write something in Swiss-German and they’ll probably struggle to think of how to spell the words. Everybody writes in High German (which is also the language of all signs and public notices) – but when reading out loud, they mentally transcribe the High German text into their own dialect of Swiss-German as they’re going along. People see the written word Dienstag (Tuesday), and say tseeschtig; or Abend (evening), and say obik. Many High German words simply aren’t used: guten Tag (hello) is grüezi in Swiss-German; Straßenbahn (tram) is Tram; Fahrrad (bicycle) is Velo; while regional differences mean that Wiese (meadow) is Wise in St Gallen but Matte in Bern. Add in a range of idiosyncratic regional accents, much greater than the accent difference between, say, Munich and Hamburg; a tendency to stick the coy diminutive -li onto the end of nouns, and to use the throat-rasping ch (as in the Scottish loch) wherever possible; and a stress pattern that lays emphasis in unfamiliar places (usually on the first syllable of a word); and the gulf from High German becomes unbridgeable. To a speaker of Hochdeutsch, Swiss-German sounds archaic and singsong … and this seems to delight the Swiss, who get their own back when they ask Germans to say the Swiss word for “kitchen cupboard”: transliterated as chuchichäschtli, it sounds, when spoken correctly, like a cat coughing up a hairball. Even the Swiss affectionately dub their own language Mundart, or “mouth skill”.
Much has been written about the role of Swiss-German as an emblem and symbol of Swissness, and how the accent of each region reflects that region’s character: the taut, stretched vowels of Baseldytsch; the slow, loping tone of Berntütsch; the clipped efficiency of Züridütsch; and so on. No Swiss would dream of erasing these differences beneath a unified norm – and no such norm exists. We’ve picked a rough transliteration of Bernese dialect to use here, which will be universally understood, even if they do say things slightly differently elsewhere. Even if you stumble and splutter, the very fact that you’re attempting to get your tongue around Swiss-German pronunciation at all will prove a winner with the locals – very much more so than if you were to launch without warning into the slick, snooty language of the “big canton”, Germany.
Any attempt to lay down rules for Swiss-German pronunciation is doomed to failure, since pronunciation of vowels in particular varies from district to district, and even from village to village. The following is only the loosest of guidelines.
In written German, note that all nouns begin with a capital letter, and that an umlaut ( ¨ ) over a vowel is sometimes replaced by an “e”: Graubünden can be written as Graubuenden. In Switzerland, the German letter ß is always written out as “ss”.
Most of the time, pronounce all vowels: grüezi has a definite “eh” in the middle, and Grossbrittanie has two vowel sounds at the end. However, eis has only one vowel sound. In our transliteration a double vowel, such as in Määntig or Ziischtig, doubles the length of the sound.
a as in father
ä is sometimes pronounced as in bear (eg Bärn) and sometimes as in paid (eg spät)
ai as in lie
au as in house
äu as in oil
e as in day or wet
ee roughly as in day
ei as in height or sometimes as in free
eu approximates to an ü sound
i as in leek
ie as in free
o as in bottom or rose
ö is like the French eu, or the “urgh” in the middle of “colonel”
u as in boot
ü is like the French u, or a tight-lipped version of true
y is a double-length ee – Schwyz is pronounced shveets
There are no silent consonants. Differences from English include the following:
ch is a strong throaty rasp, as in the Scottish loch
gg is pronounced “ck”: “Egg” is eck, and may even be written as Eck
j is like an English y: “Jura” is yoora
k has a throaty rasp attached to it: danke is transliterated as dunkcha
s is like a softened English z
sp at the start of a word is pronounced shp
st is always pronounced sht
w is like an English v
z is always pronounced ts
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