Encyclopedia of Linguistics

Sample Entry: Switzerland


Switzerland, or more properly the Swiss Confederation, which consists of 26 cantons (states, provinces), is a small country with an area of only 41,284 square kilometers and a population of 6,873,867 according to the 1990 census. However, it shows features of interest to the student of language far in excess of its size.

Historically, the Swiss citizenry has spoken four languages: German, French, and Italian, which are shared with its neighboring countries, and Romansh (or Rhaeto-romansh), a distinct Romance language, that is, one descended from Latin and related to French, Italian, Spanish, and others. This linguistic mix is the result of the processes that have led to the composition of modern Switzerland. The original confederation was an oath of eternal allegiance taken between four German-speaking cantons in the mountainous center of the country in 1291. German had been brought to this area by the Alemannic invaders who were part of the expansion of Germanic peoples into the old domains of the Roman Empire from the fifth century on. Following 1291, the confederation expanded through the addition of more and more cantons, reaching its present shape only at the beginning of the 19th century. While some of these cantons were, like the original four, German speaking, those in the west have always spoken French, while the incorporation of the southern areas brought in Italian (principally in the canton of Ticino) and Romansh (spoken in the canton of Grisons). Thus, the linguistic boundaries shown on the map below are in fact older than the state boundary of Switzerland. Even the increasing Germanization of the Romansh area is a process that began well before its entry into the Swiss Confederation.

All four of these languages are defined as "national languages" in the federal constitution and--since the 1996 revision, when Romansh was added to the other three--as "official languages" of the confederation. This is an unusual state of affairs, especially for Europe, and Switzerland has been cited as a possible model for the European Union with respect to the accommodation of several official languages.

Although Switzerland is at a national level quadrilingual, it is far from the case that the four languages are evenly distributed through the population, or that all areas of Switzerland are multilingual. In practice, despite much internal migration and the large number of foreigners resident in Switzerland, most areas of the country are essentially monolingual; each of the three major languages has its territory in which it functions as the single language of public life. The Swiss school system aims to provide all Swiss with some knowledge of a second national language, and while many Swiss do indeed have impressive linguistic repertoires, this goal is by no means fully achieved. The following statistics and map show the numerical and geographic distribution of the country's four languages.

Numbers and percentages of Swiss population who nominated one of the national languages as their main language in the 1990 census:

German:      4,374,694    63.6%
French:       1,321,695    19.2%
Italian:         524,116       7.6%
Romansh:    39,632        0.57%

Territories of the four languages of Switzerland (1: French; 2: German; 3. Italian; 4: Romansh):

The patterns of language use in communication between the language communities of Switzerland vary widely, with the Italian and Romansh speakers far more likely to accommodate to their compatriots from the larger communities. Indeed, English--a popular choice as third school language, and one that many Swiss would prefer to be taught over a second national language--is now widely used as a lingua franca. The situation is exacerbated by widespread apprehension, especially among French-speaking Swiss at the perceived dominant position of the German-speaking community, and by the existence of diglossia in the German speaking area.

Diglossia, as originally defined, is the existence side by side within the same community of two distinct forms of the same language, each with its own functions. Ferguson's original article on this phenomenon uses German-speaking Switzerland as one of the canonical examples (see Ferguson). In this area, Swiss Standard German, which is quite similar but not identical to Standard German as used in Germany, is used for most written functions and such highly formal spoken genres as university lectures, while local dialects, known collectively as Schwyzertüütsch, are used for most spoken purposes. These dialects are so different from Standard German as to be practically mutually unintelligible with it. The differences are due primarily to varied phonological and grammatical histories, but there are also many lexical items peculiar to the Swiss dialects. The table below presents a few examples of these characteristic phonological and lexical distinctions:

Zurich German    
Standard German    
to take out    
let's go home    
Gömer häi    
Gehen wir nach Hause    
one, two, three    
äis, zwoo, drüü    
eins, zwei, drei    
four, five    
vier, föif    
vier, fünf    
I was there    
I bi dëët gsy    
ich war dort    

There is widespread reluctance, and in many cases inability, among German-speaking Swiss to use Standard German easily for spoken purposes, especially informally, yet Standard German is what many Swiss learn at school.

Historically, too, the French and Italian areas of Switzerland had local dialects, but the situation in both these areas differs from that found in German-speaking Switzerland. The local dialects of French belong to the Franco-provençal group, a family of dialects sharing features with both northern French (to which Standard French belongs historically) and the Occitan languages of the south of France. However, to all intents and purposes, these dialects are now lost in Switzerland, and with the exception of a few very old people, everyone in the French speaking parts of Switzerland speaks Standard French. This is not identical, however, with Parisian Standard French, but incorporates a few older features that have been replaced in Parisian French, as demonstrated in the table below:

Swiss Standard French
Parisian French
he must be helped
il faut lui aider
il faut l'aider
soixante-dix (sixty plus ten)
quatre-vingts (four twenties)
quatre-vingt-dix (four twenties plus ten)

The local dialects of Italian, which belong with those of northern Italy, are still spoken, but until recently they had very low standing. Standard Italian was regarded as the language of prestige, having been widely spoken and serving as the written norm. In recent decades, however, the Swiss dialects of Italian have gained in usage and prominence as a mark of local identity.

Romansh has been spoken continuously in the southeast portions of Switzerland since Roman times. Linguistically, it belongs with other languages of northern Italy (Ladin, Friulian) and shares features with both northern Italian dialects and French. Like other languages of Switzerland, particularly German, it exists as a chain of dialects that have crystallized as five written standards since the time of the Reformation in the 16th century. Of these five written forms, those of the upper Rhine valley and the lower Engadine (the left and right-hand ends of area number 4 on the map) have enjoyed particular support. However, despite its long history and its official status at both federal and cantonal levels, Romansh is endangered. A steadily decreasing proportion of Swiss report Romansh as their first language in the census held every ten years, and its territory has been shrinking under pressure from German for many centuries. Virtually all speakers of Romansh are fluent in German, often in addition to other languages as well. There have been and continue to be, however, strenuous efforts to ensure the survival of Romansh.

The precarious state of the language is not helped by the existence of the five written versions. In 1982, a unified written form of the language was introduced that now enjoys considerable support and has greatly facilitated the publication of official materials in Romansh. Even works of literature are now being written in this standard.

The Lia Rumantscha, with its seat in Chur (the capital of Grisons, the canton where Romansh is spoken), is the main organization coordinating and driving the work of language maintenance and language planning for Romansh. It was founded in 1919 as an umbrella organization for the growing number of societies and groups founded in the previous century to promote and protect Romansh. Although not a statutory body, the Lia Rumantscha is financed by very generous grants from both federal and cantonal governments. Its activities include translation services, terminology creation and definition, publication, and language promotion. In those municipalities with a majority of Romansh speakers, Romansh is used as the language of instruction at junior levels of school, and is available as a subject at secondary and even tertiary levels of education.

The linguistic situation in Switzerland is complicated, and is a matter of intense discussion within the country itself, not least because of the perception that the linguistic communities of Switzerland do not so much live together as past one another. Pride in this "diversity in unity," however, is an important feature of Swiss identity.

Ray Harlow

See also Diglossia, Language Planning

Further Reading
Clyne, Michael, The German Language in a Changing Europe, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995
Dürmüller, Urs, Changing Patterns of Multilingualism: From Quadrilingual to Multilingual Switzerland, Zurich: Pro Helvetia, 1997
Duval-Valentin, Marianne, "La situation linguistique en Suisse," in Language Reform: History and Future, edited by István Fodor and Claude Hagège, vol. 1, Hamburg: Buske, 1983
Ferguson, C.A., "Diglossia," Word 15 (1959)
Watts, Richard J., "Linguistic Minorities and Language Conflict in Europe: Learning from the Swiss Experience," in A Language Policy for the European Community, edited by Florian Coulmas, Berlin and New York: Mouton, 1991

The activities of the Lia rumantscha are described at www.liarumantscha.ch.

Encyclopedia of Linguistics | Synopsis | Adviser List | Entries | Scope | Style Guide  
Sample Entries: Function Words , Swadesh, Morris , Switzerland , Serbo-Croatian and South Slavic Languages