Swiss German is the dialect of the standardized German language that is spoken in some 65% of Switzerland. It is very similar to the German language, but with notable differences in phonology, grammar and vocabulary.
I will do my best to explain the most important differences in a simple way, so that you can understand them even if you don’t actually speak either language. And I won’t go into too much detail because I don’t want to confuse anyone, so think of this as an intro to the key differences between German and Swiss German!
The short answer is no, Swiss-German is not a coded language and therefore can’t be described as an official language. However, standardized German language is one of the four official languages of Switzerland, with Italian, French and Romansh as the other three.
As you would expect, Swiss German is influenced quite a lot by the other official languages of the country and most notably by French. When someone wants to thank you in Swiss German they are more likely to say merci than danke, so just because you hear one word don’t immediately assume you should reply in French.
Swiss-German is pretty much just a variation or a dialect of standardized German language. It is the collective name for Alemannic dialects that are spoken in Switzerland. But keep in mind that Alemannic dialects are a family of many different dialects, and there are still lots of differences between the spoken languages in that family.
And that can be said for any language. British English is quite different from Welsh English, just like Swiss German differs from the German language spoken in Germany. But remember that even in Germany you have many different dialects, depending on the exact region of the country.
Swiss German differs from standardized German language in phonology, vocabulary and grammar. But for the most part, people who speak German can perfectly understand those who speak Swiss German, with maybe a couple explanations on phrases they haven’t encountered before.
Swiss-German is not a coded language, so it doesn’t have an official grammar you can refer to. But there are certain differences and “rules” you should know, which will make it much easier to communicate with German-speaking Swiss people.
First of all, Swiss-German doesn’t have the eszett (ß), but instead it uses ss in its place. The pronunciation remains the same since these are both ways of indicating that the word has a long or hard S, so this difference is something you will notice only in written language.
Second, Swiss-German doesn’t really have diphthongs/double vowels. The official German language has all sorts of vowel combinations like ei, eu, au etc., but you don’t really see this in Swiss-German. The language has just monophthongs – au will become either u or uu, depending on the exact pronunciation. Double vowels are used to indicate a longer pronunciation, whereas a single vowel indicates a short pronunciation.
A great example of the rules I’ve mentioned so far is the color white. In German, it’s weiß. But in Swiss-German, which doesn’t use the eszett or diphthongs, the word is actually wiiss.
And there are other notable differences, like the lack of k at the beginning of words in Swiss-German. It becomes ch, and it is pronounced like ch is pronounced in High German, so kalt becomes chalt.
Another notable difference is that Swiss German doesn’t have n at the end of infinitives like standardized German does. German laufen is laufe in Swiss German, and it has a slightly different meaning in the latter language.
Bear in mind that all of these are just the most common differences. There’s a lot of other differences that aren’t encountered as often, and as with every rule there are lots of exceptions. But I assume you’re not looking for a full lesson in the language, but rather just want the essentials.
Words and phrases that are used quite often are perhaps where you see the most differences between German and Swiss-German. Most of those differences are just regional and there’s not really a rule to them. So, you best bet is to learn them by heart since there’s not really a method to when you should use a certain phrase.
I will list the Swiss-German versions of some of the most common phrases in the table below. And if you’re interested in a particular phrase that is not listed in a table or just think I missed something important, feel free to let me know in the comment section!
There is A LOT more where that came from, and if you want to learn even more I highly recommend you check out eldrid.ch. The page has a great course on Swiss German, but it might be a bit confusing for total newbies to the language.
Anna is the co-owner of expert world travel and can't wait to share her travel experience with the world. With over 54 countries under her belt she has a lot to write about! Including those insane encounters with black bears in Canada.