Language differences between German and Swiss German

Swiss German is very different to Standard German, to the extent that a lot of Germans have difficulty understanding it. Finding a translator with local knowledge is therefore critical.

Swiss German is really a collection of German dialects used by around 4.5 million people in Switzerland, as well as in some alpine communities in Italy. It is most widely used in spoken communication, as well as in some less formal written media such as emails, local newspapers, personal letters and some books. Unlike local dialects in some countries, the Swiss take pride in speaking Swiss German and frequently use it for business meetings and other formal matters.

Swiss German is not to be confused with Swiss Standard German, which is broadly used for written communication as well as international business, national news and some TV. Although many Swiss citizens also know German, they essentially learn it as a foreign language. Businesses planning to target the Swiss German market will need to find a native speaker proficient in their chosen dialect. Here are just some of the many differences between Standard German and Swiss German.

Spelling and Grammar

In written materials, the most obvious difference may be the use of ‘ss’ in Swiss German rather than the ‘ß’ found in Standard German. Due to the fact that it is predominantly a spoken language, different spellings may be used for the same word.

In terms of grammar, there are numerous differences. One of the most important is that Swiss German does not use the past tense (preterite), instead using the past participle: ‘I have been in Switzerland’ rather than ‘I was in Switzerland’. There is no subjunctive mood, with Swiss German using the auxiliaries würd and chönnt (‘would’ and ‘could’). Swiss German lacks the Genitive case, and there are no relative pronouns – just the all-purpose word wo (where), which covers all cases and genders.

Regional dialects are often flexible in terms of word order, differing both from each other and from Standard German. Some words might have a different gender than in Standard German, and many more English words are borrowed.

Terminology

The differences in vocabulary between Standard German and Swiss German are too numerous to list. One of the most famous examples is the word for ‘small kitchen cupboard’: Kuchenkasten in Standard German but the highly guttural Chüchichäschtli in Swiss German. French influence is more obvious, with some terms showing both languages, such as merci vielmal (thank you very much).

Pronunciation

Once again there are many differences in pronunciation. This can be particularly noticeable for vowels and diphthongs; ue, ie and üe, for example, are pronounced as two sounds in Swiss German but one in Standard German, whilst i, u and ü are pronounced as one sound in Swiss German but two in Standard German.

So, what does this all mean?

When dealing with Swiss German, you will need translators familiar with the specific local dialect in which you are working, since dialects differ markedly from each other, let alone from Standard German. If you are working across different Swiss German populations, you may need to consider translating your materials into several dialects and even sub-dialects.

This may seem daunting, but Comtec is here to help. We’re experts in all things languages and will be able to offer advice on how to proceed. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch on +44 (0) 1926 335 681 to discuss your needs with us!

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