Politics For Members

Why did MPs ban Swiss German from the parliament?

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
Why did MPs ban Swiss German from the parliament?
Debates in the Swiss parliament are held in (High) German. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

It’s official: Switzerland’s main language can’t be used in parliamentary debates. What are the reasons for this decision?


In Switzerland, nearly 63 percent of the population speak Swiss German as their primary language — the biggest linguistic group in the country.

French speakers are next (almost 23 percent), followed by Italian (8.2 percent) and Romansh (0.5).

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

Yet, despite its predominance, parliamentary debates in Swiss German are strictly verboten. This is the decision that majority of National Council deputies approved on Tuesday, throwing out a motion by one MP seeking to allow parliamentary debates also in Swiss German (schwyzerdütsch).

Official business in both chambers of the parliament is routinely conducted in High German, although French, Italian, and Romansh are also official languages.

In his motion, deputy Lukas Reimann, argued — unsuccessfully, as it turned out — that German-speaking Swiss have a close “emotional connection” with schwyzerdütsch (Swiss German), and it is the language "in which we can express ourselves in the most accurate way".


'Swiss German is easier than French'

Reinmann also sparked some debates among his French-speaking counterparts with his comment that “Swiss German is easier than French because there are only two tenses".

French and Italian speaking MPs all master High German, but Reinmann suggested they should learn schwyzerdütsch instead.

However, deputy Céline Weber pointed out that Swiss German consists of many regional dialects and asked which one MPs should learn.

“I like dialects — but in the evening over a beer. If we want to do serious work here, we have to agree on a language that allows everyone to follow the debates,” said deputy Philip Bregy, arguing that High German is a better common denominator, as all MPs speak and understand it, which is not the case with schwyzerdütsch and its dialects.

There is another reason for the refusal as well: Swiss German is a spoken language and there is no official written version.

The Federal Council, which also opposed Reimann’s motion, pointed out that debates in Swiss German would complicate the work of parliamentary interpreters and would make it difficult to publish the speeches of elected officials in writing.

READ ALSO: Swiss German vs Hochdeutsch: What are the key differences? 


"Not realistic"

The debate about High German versus its Swiss version is not new in the parliament.

Recently, David Raedler, a deputy from the French-speaking canton of Vaud, has pushed for schools in French cantons to teach Swiss German as a second language.

Right now, High German is taught in those regions (and vice-versa — students in Swiss German parts learn French, while Italian-speaking Ticino gives priority to French as the first foreign language).

A Geneva linguistics professor Juliane Schröter said Raedler’s idea is valid.

Students “learn [High] German for years at schools in French-speaking Switzerland – but when they go to Swiss German regions, they don't understand a word there,” she told SRF public broadcaster in an interview in April. 

She added, however, that learning Swiss German "doesn't seem realistic, given the many dialects. And teachers in French speaking Switzerland are not qualified to teach it, because they don’t speak Swiss-German dialect themselves."


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