The rather curious case of German in Switzerland, or what does DE_CH refer to?

Most people know that there are 4 official languages in Switzerland – many assume English is one of them. It isn’t. The four are in fact: German, French, Italian and Romansh. This blog is about German only, and it has a very practical purpose: to try and clarify what is meant by DE_CH rather than DE or DE_DE.

Most people know that there are 4 official languages in Switzerland – many assume English is one of them. It isn’t. The four are in fact: German, French, Italian and Romansh. This blog is about German only, and it has a very practical purpose: to try and clarify what is meant by DE_CH rather than DE or DE_DE. The question comes up fairly regularly with clients wishing to communicate with prospects, customers or employees in Switzerland. And it continues to creat confusion.

German is the language that’s dominant in Central, Eastern and North Western Switzerland. At present 62% of the Swiss population claim this to be their mother tongue. But the situation is a bit special in that it is not “Standard German” they use, neither in speaking nor writing.

For speaking they use a variety of Alemannic dialects, which all go under the term “Mundart” or “Schwyzertütsch” and enjoys a much better social standing than in Germany or Austria where people also speak dialects at home and in the pub, but not on TV, in parliament, or other public situations – whereas in Switzerland they do (much to the irritation of the French-speaking Swiss who find this habit irksome, because if they do learn German, they learn “Standard German”, and not Swiss German). Swiss Germans speak and are expected to speak Schwyzertütsch whatever the situation; in fact it would not enter anyone’s mind to speak in Standard German – unless out of politeness if people are present who do not understand Swiss German.

Swiss German is not a sociolect, i.e. you cannot draw any conclusions about social class or education. All layers of society speak it. Besides, the Swiss in general (whatever their educational level) have an almost irrational dislike of speaking standard German, they’d rather speak bad English or halting French! They tend to feel ill at ease and handicapped when being forced to speak Standard German. The fact that they call “Standard German” “Schriftsprache”, i.e. the written language, is a further proof of the rather odd and distant relationship they have with it. It is not close to their heart; they think it is stilted, pompous, etc. In fact there is that old joke when a boy says to his mum: “Listen Mum, that man over there speaks like we write”.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is no mixing of Standard German terms or phrases when speaking dialect, except perhaps if you want to be ironic. That means there is no continuum or overlap between the two forms of German, they are always kept separate (that was not always the case in the past, for example around 1900). But today, they are definitely two different kettles of fish. By contrast, it is perfectly acceptable to sprinkle spoken Swiss with English words, such as “sorry”, “challenge” or “easy”! In fact, you hear a lot of that.

When it comes to writing (books, newspaper, official publications, academic papers, corporate communication, job applications, etc.) the Swiss use what is called “Schweizer Hochdeutsch” or “Swiss Standard German”, which has the official denomination DE_CH. That is the language that is used in the NZZ, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, as opposed to what the FAZ, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, would use, which is DE_DE.

The most obvious difference between these two variants is typographical – the absence of the letter “ß” in DE_CH. So, dear clients, dear PMs, please take note: If you do not want “ß” (as in Fluß, draußen, Maß), then specify DE_CH.

Naturally, that is only the tip of the iceberg. Differences are present on the lexical level too: “parkieren” as opposed to “parken”, “grillieren” instead of “grillen”, “kehren” as opposed to “wenden”, “Natel” for “Handy” or “Mobiltelefon”, etc. Sometimes, DE_CH uses a different gender (as in “das Tunnel”, “das Tram”, “das E-Mail”, etc.). On top of that of course there are many words that have to do with politics, democracy, the legal and the school system, company law, cooking etc., which are very different from DE_DE.

There is a long list of “Helvetisms”, i.e. terms that are typical for Switzerland and which help to provide that “local” feel, if that is what you want to create. “Apéro” instead of “Aperitif”, “Bahnhofbuffet” as opposed to “Bahnhofrestaurant”, “Gipfeli” rather than “Hörnchen”, “Rahm” rather than “Sahne”, etc. Many of them are taken from French, such as “Camion” for “Lastkraftwagen”, “Chauffeur” for “Fahrer”, “Velo” for Fahrrad, “Coiffeur” for “Friseur”, “Billett” for Fahrkarte, “Poulet” for “Huhn”, “Kondukteur” for “Schaffner”.

Proverbs exist that are specific to Switzerland (or certain cantons), and there are differences in the use of tenses between DE_DE and DE_CH. There are also a few peculiarities in sentence constructions and, importantly, there are differences in the formatting of letters and in the way numbers are written (the decimal separator in DE_CH is the comma, but NOT in prices: CHF 120.50). The most important lesson to take away: DE_CH does NOT refer “Schwyzertütsch” – that refers to the SPOKEN language, the Mundart, only. DE_CH, it is what you want when you write for a Swiss audience and you do not wish to alienate them with DE_DE. So, if you want to address the locals in German-speaking Switzerland, you do well to specify DE_CH as the language code.

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