Switzerland explained For Members

Polentagraben: The invisible barrier separating Switzerland

Sandra Sparrowhawk
Sandra Sparrowhawk - [email protected]
Polentagraben: The invisible barrier separating Switzerland
The border to Ticino (the city of Lugano is pictured here), the Italian-speaking part of the country, is known as the “Polentagraben”. Image by Andreas from Pixabay

Though not as well-known as its counterpart Röstigraben, the Polentagraben is one of the most prominent signs of Switzerland’s cultural, linguistic, and gastronomical diversity.


Chances are that even if you’ve lived in Switzerland for a while, the existence of the so-called Polentagraben may be news to you.

The term ‘Polentagraben’ was termed only a few years ago to describe the cultural border between the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland south of the Gotthard pass and the rest of the country – though with little success compared to its predecessor Röstigraben. The latter defines the cultural divide between the German and French-speaking regions.

The Polentagraben takes its name from the word ‘Polenta’ – a corn flour meal considered almost a national dish in the Ticino region – and ‘Graben’, which means border, gap, or rift.

READ ALSO: Röstigraben - the invisible barrier separating Switzerland

What does Polentagraben actually refer to?

In reality, it means that although they are from the same country, culturally the Swiss from the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland and those living in other parts of the country aren’t quite as alike as one may think.


And that is not only because they speak different languages, have different political attitudes, lifestyles, and mentality - or because Swiss-Italians have a completely different approach when it comes to handing out pocket money (Ticino parents are said to be stingier than their Swiss-German counterparts).

People living in Ticino and the southern part of the canton Grigioni call Italian their mother tongue, while people from the remaining parts of the canton Grigioni (or Graubünden, Grischun) speak either German, Romansh and/or Italian growing up.

Though Italian is taught in some parts of Grigioni as well as Switzerland outside of Ticino and southern Grigioni, the cultural divide is still present and the Swiss living in Switzerland’s German and French parts are on the whole unfamiliar with the Swiss-Italian way of life.

READ ALSO: Swiss Italian vs standard Italian: What are the key differences?


Ticino, in particular, differs from the rest of Switzerland, not only due to being located on the other side of the Alps, but also in terms of its political and economic climate. It is a historical fact that the position between the federal government in Switzerland and the canton of Ticino has had its fair share of ups and downs.

In the 19th century, for instance, it was the simultaneous establishment of state structures in Ticino and the transformation of the confederation of states into a modern nation state that led to conflicts.

The rather reserved attitude of the people of Ticino towards national unification and the centralisation of languages and cultures in Ticino led to the opinion that Ticino places local interests above those of the state – and this is still true in some part to this day.

Lavertezzo in Ticino, Switzerland, where Swiss Italian is spoken.

Lavertezzo in Ticino, Switzerland, where Swiss Italian is spoken. Photo by Radek Kozák on Unsplash

And not only that, but since the 1970s, Ticino has had a school system that differs from many Swiss-German models. Children must attend primary school for five years and middle school for three years.

In the Deutschschweiz (German-speaking Switzerland) children attend primary school for six years, compared to an eight-year attendance in the Romandie – whereas nearly all cantons state that children must attend middle school for 3 years, rather than the five mandatory in Ticino.

So, is it a serious border?

The short answer is, no. However, though the term Polentagraben has never quite garnered a fanbase as large as the Röstigraben - neither domestically or internationally – its existence can’t be denied.

Just last year, the people of Switzerland accepted the proposed increase in women’s retirement age from 64 to 65 years. Unlike the Deutschschweiz, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland backed the many women of the country in voting against the proposal – and this is nothing new.

The Swiss from the German part of Switzerland tend to have different views on public service compared to those in the Italian part. The latter tend to be more open to supporting a strong welfare state for the people.


Similarly, though the consensus across Switzerland is that all four national languages should be promoted more in schools to bring the country’s different language areas and its people closer, the reality looks somewhat different.

In fact, when discussing the promotion of teaching languages in schools and at universities in the Deutschschweiz and Romandie, many understand this to mean German, French and even English – the former being Switzerland’s two chief languages. Italian, which around 8.2 percent of the population speak either as a first language or second, is hardly ever a topic of discussion.

However, this is by no means due to a lack of interest in the language. In the summer, Ticino – Switzerland’s only fully Italian-speaking canton - is a very popular weekend destination for many Swiss, with some very lucky ones buying up second homes in top-rated tourist towns such as Ascona, Lugano and Locarno.

Similarly, the Swiss are also very fond of their neighbour to the south, frequenting Italy through much of the summer months.

So, there is hope for the Polentagraben to cease to exist yet.


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