Many people think that only three languages are spoken in Switzerland, but in fact, the country is a melting pot of languages and cultures. Switzerland is divided into 26 cantons and local and municipal regions have full jurisdiction over language issues. All over the country, and in some areas in each city, different official languages, local dialects, and even foreign languages have coexisted for a long time, preventing the birth of a single national Swiss language. There are historical and geographic reasons for this multilingualism: depending on the neighbouring countries, the cantonal languages are of German-speaking, French-speaking or Italian-speaking origin. There are four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh. There are many unrecognised languages aside from these, many of which take the form of different local dialects.
German, spoken by more than 60% of the population, is the most widely-spoken language in Switzerland and the first learned in schools. Standard German (Hochdeutsch) is most commonly used in written documents and Swiss German (Schweizerdeutsch) is the most commonly spoken. Despite the commonality of the two languages, Swiss German is considered a language in its own right, featuring a variety of dialects. There are both linguistic and lexical differences between standard German and Swiss German. If you hear the beginning of a conversation between two Swiss people, they will almost certainly greet each other with “Grüezi” rather than using the German “Guten Tag”. If you do a Swiss person a favour, you shouldn’t be surprised to hear them respond with “Merci vilmal”: they aren’t confused, they are simply speaking to you in Swiss. It isn’t only vocabulary that is different in Swiss German, but the use of grammar as well. The word e-mail, for example, is feminine in standard German (“die E-Mail”), but in Swiss German it is neuter (“das E-Mail”).
French is the second most-spoken language in Switzerland. As with the German-speaking cantons, a Swiss French dialect is used that is different from the standard language. Although the two languages are very similar to each other, the French dialect (referred to as patois romande) has lexical and grammatical peculiarities that effectively make it different from its source language. The Romance language patois, of Franco-Provençal origin, is characterised by its own use of phrases and vocabulary, and whose pronunciation and meaning are incomprehensible beyond the Jura Mountains. Nevertheless, there are few people left today who master this language, which has been in danger of extinction for years. It is more common, in fact, to both speak and write standard French while retaining an accent different from the standard Parisian.
While Swiss German and Swiss French have dialects that are difficult to understand for native German or French speakers, Swiss Italian is very different. The Swiss Italian language does not vary greatly from the Florentine mother tongue and is spoken by a small percentage of the Swiss population living in the south of the country. Italian remains the official language for written documents, but dialects are commonly used for everyday communication. The Ticinese dialect is one such example, whose assonance is similar to the Lombard dialect of bordering Valtellina.
Aside from the Swiss languages of German, French and Italian, there is a fourth official language, Romansh, which is also known as Rumantsch Grischun. This language, spoken by less than 1% of the Swiss population, is the product of the union of 5 Neolatin dialects and shares many similarities with the Ladin and Friulian dialects, both spoken in north-eastern regions of Italy.
In a multilingual country such as Switzerland, where the predominant language differs from canton to canton, the presence of a pivot (or bridge) language is necessary – such as English. Although English does not have an official status, it is the most widely spoken foreign language in the Switzerland. Given the growing number of international businesses with registered Swiss offices or branches, English has become necessary as a business language and is used alongside standard German. Aside from English, there are other foreign languages in the Swiss melting pot. According to the latest data released by the Federal Statistical Office, the proportion of foreign languages such as Portuguese, Albanian and Serbo-Croatian is now increasing as a result of the last 20 years of migration.
Now, more than ever, multilingual Switzerland could benefit from a translation agency with years of experience and excellent quality standards. In a multilingual territory, brought to life by different dialects, translation and interpretation is extremely sensitive. The translator must not only take into account grammatical differences with standard languages, but linguistic and lexical peculiarities. Global Voices is the perfect partner for your business in Switzerland: our linguists have many years of experience in specific sectors. To discover more about our language the numerous translation and interpreting services we offer, please visit our website’s home page.