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Why is Switzerland divided into 26 cantons?

A small country of 8.7 million people and the geographical area of merely 41,285 square kilometres, Switzerland is made up of 26 states — known here as cantons. How did this happen?

the cantons joined the Confederation over several centuries.
The 26 flags waving in the Alps represent 26 Swiss cantons. File photo from Depositphotos

A lot of foreigners who only think of Switzerland in terms of cheese, chocolate, watches, banks, army knife, and maybe Roger Federer, are surprised to discover that this country has four languages and is divided into 26 cantons.

Recently, The Local explained why the country is multilingual.

READ MORE: How did Switzerland become a country with four languages?

But how and when did it become a confederation of 26 cantons?

This division did not happen overnight but took centuries of both bloodless and bloody upheavals.

Before the end of the 13th century, the area that is now Switzerland was a motley of separate territories that fell under different rulers, empires and dynasties.

Things famously changed with the events of August 1st, 1291, when the three “Forest Cantons” — Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden — formed the foundation of present-day Switzerland.

The other cantons left their former territories and allegiances over the next centuries, with Glarus, Zug, Zurich, Bern, and Lucerne coming into the fold by 1353. And by the first decades of the 19th century, all 26 cantons joined the confederation.

However, at that time they were mostly disparate and autonomous states. That changed in 1848, when the system of federalism as we know it today was introduced in Switzerland.

The 26 cantons of Switzerland with their crests and major cities. Image: Wikicommons.

Since then, the system has worked pretty well, with one notable exception: when the town of Moutier voted in March 2021 to leave canton Bern and join Jura instead.

Liechtenstein, by the way, is not a canton, even though the Swiss invaded it three times — by mistake.

The current cantonal map of Switzerland. Image: Wikicommons

The current cantonal map of Switzerland. Image: Wikicommons

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The 26-state federalist system is working well — so well in fact, that in 2014 a small group of activists in Sardinia pushed to leave Italy and become the 27th canton of Switzerland, to be called Canton Marittimo.

It’s beautiful but we have no space. Photo by Daniel SLIM / AFP

The group’s leader, Andrea Caruso, insisted that such a move would be mutually beneficial as it “would bring the Swiss miles of stunning coastline and untapped economic potential. Sardinia could retain considerable autonomy, while also reaping the benefits of Switzerland’s direct democracy, administrative efficiency and economic wealth”.

Needless to say, this idea did not materialise, as Rome didn’t like it and Switzerland is already pretty full.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why Switzerland’s cantons are so powerful

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For members


How to talk email, websites, social media and phone numbers in Swiss French

It's a very common experience to have to give out your phone number or email address in Switzerland, or take down the address of a website, so here's how to do this if you're in the French-speaking part of the country.

How to talk email, websites, social media and phone numbers in Swiss French

The correct names for punctuation marks used to be fairly low down on any French-learner’s list, but these days they are vital whenever you need to explain an email address, website or social media account.

Likewise if you want to talk about websites, or social media posts, there are some things that you need to know. 


Obviously punctuation points have their own names, and making sure you get the periods, dashes and underscores correct is vital to giving out account details. 

Full stop/period . point. Pronounced pwan, this is most commonly heard for Swiss websites or email addresses which end in. ch (pronounced pwan ce ash).

If you have a site that ends in .com you say ‘com’ as a word just as you would in English – pwan com.

At symbol @ Arobase – so for example the email address [email protected] would be jean pwan dupont arobas bluewin pwan ce ash.

Ampersand/and symbol & esperluette

Dash – tiret

Underscore _ tiret bas 

Forward slash / barre oblique

Upper case/capital lettersMajuscule (or lettre majuscule)

Lower caseminiscule

The following punctuation points are less common in email or web addresses, but worth knowing anyway:

Comma , virgule. In French a decimal point is indicated with a comma so two and a half would be 2,5 (deux virgule cinq)

Exclamation mark ! point d’exclamation – when you are writing in French you always leave a space between the final letter of the word and the exclamation mark – comme ça !

Question mark ? point d’interrogation – likewise, leave a space between the final character and a question mark 

Brackets/parentheses ( ) parenthèse

Quotation marks « » guillemets 


If you need to give your phone number out, the key thing to know is that Swiss-French people pair the numbers in a phone number when speaking.

So say your number is 079 345 6780, in French you would say zero septante-neuf, trois-cents quarante-cinq, soixante-sept, huitante (zero seventy-nine, three hundred forty-five, sixty-seven, eighty ).

Mobile numbers in Switzerland  begin with 079 or 078 (zero septante-neuf or zero septante-huit).

Social media

If you want to give out your Twitter or Instagram handle, the chances are you might need to know some punctuation terms as described above.

Otherwise the good news is that a lot of English-language social media terms are used in Switzerland too.

Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have the same names in Switzerland and have entered the language in other ways too, for example you might describe your dinner as très instagrammable – ie it’s photogenic and would look good on Instagram.

On Twitter you can suivre (follow), aimer (like) or retweet (take a wild guess). You’ll often hear the English words for these terms too, though pronounced with a French accent.

There is a French translation for hashtag – it’s dièse mot, but in reality hashtag is also very widely used.

Tech is one of those areas where new concepts come along so quickly that the English terms often get embedded into everyday use before the French-speakers can think up an alternative.

READ MORE: French-speaking Switzerland: Seven life hacks that will make you feel like a local