Swiss German is spoken by around two thirds of people in Switzerland. Referred to by its speakers as ‘Dialekt’ or ‘Mundart’ (vernacular) of even just ‘Dütsch’ (as in ‘Deutsch’ or German), Swiss German is actually a range of different dialects.
In general, speakers of the different Swiss German dialects can understand each other, although some varieties like those of the cantons of Uri and Valais are notoriously difficult to understand, even for Swiss German speakers.
1) Swiss German is not (usually) written down
Unlike Standard German, Swiss German is basically only spoken, although people do use it in less formal written situations like sending emails or text messages to friends and family.
Because there are no standard spellings, however – and because people tend to spell by copying the sounds in their own particular dialect of Swiss German – the result can be pretty confusing.
For formal correspondence, and in books and newspapers, people actually use Standard or High German which gives you a clear head start in Switzerland if you already read German.
But just to make things that much trickier, the Standard German used in Switzerland is not exactly the same as that used in Germany. For one thing, there are some orthographic differences. There is, for example, no double s 'Eszett’ character (ß) in Swiss Standard German so that the word ‘Straße’ (Street) in Standard German is written ‘Strasse’ in Switzerland.
There are also some word choices that sound very odd to German ears, which brings us to our next point.
2) Looks can be deceiving
Swiss German words may sometimes look the same as High German words but actually have a different meaning. For example, the verb ‘laufen’ in Standard German means ‘run’ but in Switzerland it means ‘walk’.
3) Swiss German is peppered with French words
Want an ice cream in the German-speaking part of Switzerland? It’s ‘Glacé’ you want, not ‘Eis’. You are just as likely to hear ‘Merci’ for ‘thank you’ as the German ‘Danke’. Then there are other examples of French borrowings like ‘Velo’ for bicycle’ (It’s ‘Fahrrad in Standard German) or Trottoir for pavement (‘Gehsteig’ in Standard German).
Finally some good news. When you are speaking Swiss German, you won’t need to use all those pesky irregular simple past forms seen in High German (like ‘ich fand’ meaning I found’, ‘ich war’ for ‘I was’ and ‘ich bekam’ for ‘I got’).
In Swiss German, this past simple form doesn’t exist. Instead Swiss German speakers always use a present perfect. So if you want to say ‘I got’ you used the composite form ‘I ha ubercho’ (‘Ich habe bekommen’ in Standard German) or ‘I ha gfunda’, meaning I found (Ich habe gefuden in Standard German).
Luckily, the verbs that use the auxiliary verb ‘sein’ (to be) for the present perfect in High German also use the ‘sein’ in Swiss German. So ‘Ich bin gegangen’ (Standard German for ‘I went’) is ‘I bi ganga’ in Swiss German.
5) There is no genitive case in Swiss German
Swiss German speakers don’t use the Standard German genitive case which you can see here in the phrase ‘Der Hund des Vaters’ (meaning ‘the father’s dog).
Instead, Swiss German speakers use either a form of ‘von’ (of) as in ‘D’Hund vom Vater (‘the dog of the father) or change the word order to the following ‘Em Vater sin Hund’.
'Start the day with a smile, and you have already won,' the text above reads.
6) Swiss German vowel sounds are different
People studying Standard High German will have been taught that the vowel pair ‘ie’ is usually pronounced like ‘ee’ in English while ‘ei’ is usually pronounced like ‘eye’. So ‘reif’ (mature) is pronounced ‘rife’ and ‘tief’ (low) is pronounced ‘teef’.
But Swiss German is different. For example (‘Zeit’, or time) is pronounced ‘zeet’ (or ‘ziit’) in Swiss German. The same goes for Rhein (as in the river), often spelled ‘Rhy’ in Switzerland and pronounced 'Rhee', or 'klein' (small), which sounds like ‘clean’. Then there is the word Switzerland, which is ‘Schweiz’ in Standard German but something like ‘Schwiiz’ in Switzerland.
Want to try a football chant? Here goes: ‘Hopp Schwiiz!’ (Go Switzerland!)
Unfortunately, there are exceptions to the above rule. The highly evocative word ‘Fleisch’ (German for meat) does not fit the pattern.
Sticking with spelling and pronunciation for a moment, there are actually several patterns you can learn that could help learn Swiss German. A lot of ‘au’ words (‘Maus’ and ‘Haus’ for example) which sound like mouse and house in Standard German sound more like a double ‘oo’ in Swiss German. So Maus sounds like moose and Haus like Hoose.
7. A little thing called -li
Standard German diminutives end in -chen, so Haus (house) becomes Häuschen (little house). In Swiss German, however, it’s all about the -li. So Haus turns into Hüsli (which sounds like Hoosli). One of our favourite Swiss German shop names is Znünihüsli, which means something like ‘little mid-morning snack shack’.