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Röstigraben: What is Switzerland’s invisible language and culture barrier?

Röstigraben: What is Switzerland’s invisible language and culture barrier?
A map which showcases Switzerland's linguistic regions. Image: Swiss Statistical Office.
Perhaps the most prominent sign of Switzerland’s cultural, linguistic and gastronomical diversity, the Röstigraben is a well-known concept in Switzerland.

If you have lived in Switzerland for a while, you’ll know about the cultural divide between the German and French-speaking regions, called the Röstigraben.

The word “Rösti” refers to the Swiss German name for a potato dish which (somewhat) resembles hash browns. 

The dish is popular in German-speaking Switzerland but is almost non-existent in Romandie, the French-speaking part of Switzerland. 

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“Graben” means border, gap or rift – and thereby Röstigraben symbolises the rift between the two largest linguistic groups in Switzerland. 

This isn’t the only border of its type in Switzerland, although it is the best known. 

The border to Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of the country, is known as the “Polentagraben”, getting its name from the prevalence of the dish polenta in the Italian-speaking part of the country. 

But with less than ten percent of the country speaking Italian (8.2 percent) compared with 62.5 percent German and 23 percent French, the focus tends to be on the Röstigraben both internationally and nationally. 

What does Röstigraben actually refer to?

In reality, it means that although they are from the same country, culturally the Swiss-Germans and Romands could be from two different planets.

And it is not only because they speak different languages, have a different culture – and because Swiss-French men don’t wear socks with sandals like their Swiss-German counterparts.

But let’s focus on the people living in the French-speaking cantons of Switzerland, otherwise known as Romandie. 

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Geneva, Vaud, Jura and Neuchâtel speak only French, while Valais and Fribourg speak predominantly French but also German. 

Bern, the seat of the de facto capital, is also bilingual, but with more German than French speakers. 

Is it a serious border? 

Although the Röstigraben is taken seriously, generally speaking it only refers to cultural and linguistic divergences rather than any evidence of a real rift between the two. 

In football for instance, a game between Germany and France will likely be supported by the linguistic regions of Switzerland corresponding with the team. 

However whenever the Swiss national side is involved, everyone cheers for Switzerland no matter where they are from. 

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The divide did become more serious however during the first two waves of the Covid pandemic, where the divergent linguistic regions saw huge differences between infection rates, hospitalisations and even deaths. 

In the lead up to Christmas in 2020, the number of cases was four times higher in French-speaking Switzerland than in areas where German was spoken. 

Also, as hospitals in the Suisse Romande became saturated in November, those in the Swiss-German part did not. 

In fact, several facilities in the most-impacted regions had to transfer some of their coronavirus patients to medical centres in Bern and Zurich. 

There was a similar imbalance in the first wave of the pandemic. 

During this time, experts sought to work out why the difference was so stark.

Coronavirus in Switzerland: Why have the French and Italian-speaking regions been so hard hit?

Plenty put the blame down to Latin Switzerland’s “warm” nature and culture of three kisses to say hello, while others pointed to the fact that the French and Italian-speaking parts of Switzerland shared borders with countries which were much harder hit than German-speaking Switzerland. 

There were also differences in the lockdown rules in place in different cantons, which may have played a role. 


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