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SWISS GERMAN

Swiss German tips and quirks: Your introduction to ‘Dialekt’

From strange French borrowings to missing tenses and pronunciation oddities, we give you the lowdown on how Swiss German is different from the Standard German you learn in the classroom.

Swiss German tips and quirks: Your introduction to 'Dialekt'
Swiss German is spoken everywhere by people of all social classes and in all social contexts. Photo: AFP

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.

Read also: Tips for learning Swiss German from those who have

But for many native speakers or students of Standard German (or High German, as the official version of the language used in Germany is also called), Swiss German sounds very difficult and can be impossible to understand. Here are some of the main differences.

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’.

On the other hand, if you want to say ‘run’ in Switzerland, you need the verb ‘springen’, which means ‘to jump’ in Standard German. Simple, right?
 

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).

4) Swiss German doesn’t have a simple past

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’).

Read also: Nine Swiss German words everyone needs to know

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!)

‘We don’t like France, Germany or Italy’: How linguistic diversity unites Swiss football fans

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’.

Read also: Eight Swiss German words you can’t translate into English

A version of this article first appeared on The Local Switzerland in September 2018. 

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SWISS GERMAN

15 ways to swear like a Swiss German

You might speak Swiss German, but if you don’t swear in Swiss German, you’re a tourist.

If you are going to swear, then do it in Swiss German. It'll terrify people. Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash
If you are going to swear, then do it in Swiss German. It'll terrify people. Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

Switzerland prides itself on linguistic diversity – and nowhere is that better illustrated than with swearing. 

The most popular swear word in one village or canton may not be known at all a few towns over. 

A callout for readers’ favourite Swiss swearwords from news outlet Blick in 2020 received more than 600 entries, showing the scope of swearing in Switzerland. 

And while this list doesn’t have 600, it does cover some of our favourites. 

By far, the most common theme among these words is idiot or fool. While some are playful, others are particularly harsh. 

Also we haven’t gone into depth on pronunciation, because that’ll often differ from canton to canton – and even from street to street. But if you want a comprehensive guide on how to say most of the following, checkout this link. 

Habasch

Habasch is the perfect word to use when someone has done something wrong. 

A Habasch is basically someone who is incompetent or wrong, but the word is particularly popular in a workplace context. 

Think of it as the equivalent of the ‘you only had one job!’ jab which is relatively common in English. 

It can also be used for someone who has the wrong opinion on an important matter. 

‘Just so fun to say’: Are these the best Swiss German words to learn?

Schnudergoof

This one – which means a cheeky or otherwise naughty young boy – is perhaps the funnest to say of all of the words. 

Pronounced ‘Sch-nood-er-goof’, Schnudergoof isn’t particularly nasty or demeaning, and could be thought of as a combination of the English words goofball and rascal. 

Schnure/Schnorre – as in “Halt d’schnorre” (“shut your mouth”)

Translating literally as ‘mouth’ or ‘trap’, Schnure/Schnorre is frequently used in common with ‘halt die…’ – i.e. shut your trap. 

Existing somewhere in between ‘shut up’ and ‘shut the hell up’, it’s best saved for comfortable situations where you know the intended recipient. 

Heutröchner

This one is particularly popular in northern Switzerland, especially around Solothurn (although it fades in popularity as soon as you hit the French border). 

Heutröchner basically means ‘good for nothing’ – and will commonly be heard when a bus driver ignores a bus stop. 

Gottfridstutz

As a relatively religious country, at least traditionally, it stands to reason that insults involving religion have found a foothold – as blasphemy-loving English speakers no doubt know. 

The best possible translation is probably ‘goddamnit’. As with pretty much anything in Swiss German, there are loads of variations – including Gopfertoori, Gopfridstüdeli, Gopfertami, Gopferteli. 

From ‘cabbage’ to ‘soft pear’: Ten Swiss-German insults you need to know

Pajass

Unknown to many Swiss, Pajass is one of the more popular swearwords in the city of Bern. 

Pajass basically means clown, fool, buffoon or joker. This isn’t a particularly heavy swearword, but it shouldn’t be used too lightly either. 

In 2020, it was voted ‘Switzerland’s favourite swearword’ by Blick readers. 

Säuniggel

Literally translating to dirty pig, this one is a less than affectionate term for someone who is disgusting. 

Whether it be not washing their hands after the bathroom or failing to brush their teeth, Säuniggel is someone who is just plain gross. 

If you’ve been wearing Säuniggel out, then you can go for Grüsel, which has pretty much the same meaning.

A pig in Herdern, Switzerland

A pig in Herdern, Switzerland. Photo by Pascal Debrunner on Unsplash 

Chotzbrocke

Chotzbrocke literally means a piece or part of vomit, which is of course not a particularly nice idea to think about. 

Calling someone a Chotzbrocke? The word usually means a disgusting or arrogant person who has little respect or care for others. 

Gaggalari

This is a particular favourite of ours here at The Local Switzerland – at least in part because it is so difficult to translate. 

Most dictionaries will translate Gaggalari as being clumsy, which is definitely the case, but the word also refers to someone who has a kind of ‘dumb luck’, i.e. fortune keeps smiling on them even though they seem to inelegantly fumble their way through life. 

If you want to describe a clumsy person in a more lovable way, then Lappi is the appropriate term. 

This should not be confused with Gopfertoori, Gopfridstüdeli, Gopfertami, Gopferteli and Gottfridstutz (all listed above), which mean ‘goddamnit’. 

READ MORE: Nine fun Swiss German words without an English translation

Rätschbäse

Put simply, a Rätschbäse is basically someone who tells the authorities – or anyone who’s listening – if you’ve done something wrong. 

This is perhaps best described by English words like ‘dobber’, ‘squealer’ or ‘rat’. 

Although it could be used in an organised crime context, it is usually a little less serious – i.e. telling the train conductor that you think that person over there doesn’t have a ticket. 

This one is related to a Bünzli or a Chreisellinggsblinker. 

Birreweich

Literally translating as ‘soft pear’, a Birreweich is someone who doesn’t have it all together upstairs. Unlike in English where your brain might be your noggin or your noodle, in Swiss-German your brain is otherwise known as your ‘pear’. 

So if a friend calls you a soft pear, it means your friend thinks your brain is mush – and it also might mean you should get some new friends. 

A bunch of green pears

Soft pear is in fact a Swiss insult – and one you will want to avoid. Photo by Olesia Buyar on Unsplash

Tussi 

This Swiss-German insult – which is also common throughout much of Germany – is similar to the terms ‘bimbo’ or ‘blonde’ in English. This term is reserved for the kind of person who might care a little too much about their appearance and less about pretty much anything else. 

It’s also undoubtedly sexist, as it’s rarely if ever used for men. 

Apparently inspired from the legend of Tusnelda, Tussi entered the Swiss-German and German mainstream vernacular in the 1990s and has stubbornly remained. 

SEE ALSO: Top ten Swiss-German romantic nicknames

Schofseckel/Schoofseggel

Like many Swiss swear words, there is an actual meaning and a colloquial meaning. And also like many Swiss swear words, Schofseckel has an animal origin. 

A Schofseckel – known in some dialects as Schoofseggel – literally means the penis of a ram.

But calling someone a Schofseckel basically means they’re an idiot – and not in a particular endearing way. 

Totsch

A Totsch is a loveable fool, a simple-minded person who is sweet enough but is as dumb as a bag of hammers.  Think Homer Simpson. 

This one isn’t particularly vicious, so you can use it among those around you – provided of course they have a Homer Simpson moment. 

Put the dirty washing with laundry detergent in the dryer? “Achh, du Totsch!” 

A person in a suit also wearing a floating ring and a snorkel

This is perfectly normal attire for a Totsch. Photo by Daria Rem from Pexels

Chreisellinggsblinker

Chreisellinggsblinker is a great word, both because it is so fun to say and because you’re likely to encounter more than a few in Switzerland. 

A Chreisellinggsblinker is someone who always does something perfectly – and is not at all shy about telling others what they’ve done wrong, while calling attention to their own perfect performances. 

From correcting your spelling in a text message from a few weeks ago to calling out the inaccuracy of mundane details in a story you’re telling over lunch at work, everyone knows a Chreisellinggsblinker when you see one. 

If you’re familiar with the word Bünzli – basically a ‘goody-two-shoes’ in English – a Chreisellinggsblinker is like an über-Bünzli. 

Continuing the Simpsons theme, if Totsch (lovable fool) is Homer, then Chreisellinggsblinker is definitely Lisa Simpson. 

Chreisellinggsblinker is particularly common in the canton of Zurich, although is can be used through much of the region. 

Think we’ve got it wrong or have some of your own favourites? Please let us know in the comments below!

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