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Swiss French: 'Same dish but different spices'

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Scott Snyder - A woman speaking on her "natel", or mobile phone.
17:04 CEST+02:00

To an Anglophone, the French spoken in Switzerland may sound much like that used in France, but don’t say that to a Parisian.

Upon alighting at the Gare Cornavin, Geneva’s main train station, a native of Paris who travels here on the train notices a few subtle -- and sometimes not so subtle — differences in the way the locals speak.

The customs are different too, with three kisses on the cheek to welcome a person or to bid him adieu, instead of the two habitually practised in the French capital.

The people here speak French but with a different accent and a batch of unique phrases.

“I find they talk more slowly and the expressions are different,” Corinne Diane, an employee at the French language service of the United Nations Office of Geneva, tells The Local.

“It has a feeling of the past for me,” says Diane, who is originally from Paris.

“When I first arrived here, what struck me in the shops was how people would say ‘faites seulement’ after I told them I was just window shopping,” she says.

“In France you would say, ‘je vous en prie’, the equivalent in English of “please, go ahead” or “please, feel free”.

The Swiss phrase, literally translated, means “do (it) only”.

When thanking someone for bidding them a good day, the French Swiss - or Suisses Romands - say “pareillement” (literally, “samely”) rather than “vous de même” or “the same to you” in English, Diane notes.

“It’s charming: listening to the way they talk it’s almost as if you can feel the old countryside, especially when you go to small cities in Vaud and Fribourg.”

If it seems like Old French to a Parisian that’s because the language spoken in Romandie retains many elements from the 16th and 17th centuries, expert Andres Kristol tells The Local.

Swiss French use “long vowels that were lost in standard Parisian French in the 18th and 19th centuries and that gives the impression they talk more slowly,” says Kristol, who is director of the University of Neuchâtel’s centre for the study of dialects and regional French.

One of the most obvious differences is in the numbers 70, 80 and 90, with many French-speaking Swiss using septante, huitante and nonante instead of soixante-dix, quatre-vingts and quatre-vingt-dix used in France.

“That’s good old French - it’s also Latin,” Kristol says of the Swiss variants.

There are regional differences, with Genevans and residents of Neuchâtel using quatre-vingts instead of huitante.

In shops, items on sale are announced with the word “action” in French-speaking Switzerland, rather than “promotion” in France.

The Swiss have short, convenient words for automatic teller machines — bancomats - and ticket dispensers (automates) — that the French lack.

Francophones in France and Switzerland also diverge in the way they either adopt English words or find ways to translate them.

In France, for example, a tearoom is a “salon du thé”, while in Switzerland it is simpy “un tea-room”.

The Swiss use the English word boiler for what the French call a “chauffe-eau”.

French-speakers in Switzerland have also adapted words from their German-speaking neighbours.

Poutser, for to clean the house, is used (from the German, putzen) rather than faire le ménage.

In some cases, French words take on different meanings in Switzerland, which can be confusing for visitors.

The Swiss say “déjeuner”, for example, for breakfast, instead of “petit déjeuner”.

In Paris, “déjeuner” refers to lunch, which is “dîner” for the Suisses Romands.

The evening meal is “dîner” for the French but “souper” for the Swiss.

“It’s the same dish but the spices are different,” says Kristol, comparing the Suisse Romand language with “standard” French.

Reference:

The regional French language centre at the University of Neuchâtel has produced a Dictionnaire suisse romand that contains 2,400 words unique in their use to western Switzerland.

The scholarly reference book of more than 800 pages was first published in 1997 and updated in 2004. You can consult the online version for free.

A shorter version (293 pages) for a more general audience was published in 2000.

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