Nothing stays the same
Everything is changing constantly. And language is no exception. It comes as no surprise that languages can split off and head in different directions as they evolve under the influence of geography, politics, society and other factors. That’s exactly how we ended up with different languages and regional variations of languages in the first place.
Swiss Standard German is a good example of this very phenomenon. It can still be understood perfectly by people from Germany and Austria – unlike “Schwyzerdütsch”, which is the collective name given to all the Swiss German dialects you come across in different parts of Switzerland. But even Swiss Standard German has some quirks of its own... Swissisms that non-natives might find funny or downright confusing!
The emperor’s new language
It’s said that Friedrich Dürrenmatt was forever having arguments with his German editor in response to his use of typically Swiss expressions. Determined to put an end to the disputes once and for all, he had the Roman emperor in his comedy “Romulus the Great” order “Morgenessen” for his morning meal. In the play, the servant tries to correct him with the standard German word for breakfast. Didn’t he mean “Frühstück”? But the Emperor insists that he wants “Morgenessen”. And he declares that he will determine what counts as “classical Latin” in his own house.
A lot has changed since that play was first performed in 1949. The concept of one variant of a language being superior to another is becoming more and more outdated, with sociolinguistics one of the main influencing factors. We’re going to take a quick look at some fun examples of Swissisms here, but we could easily do the same with typical words and phrases used as standard in Germany and Austria too.
A whistle-stop tour of Swissisms
While we’re on the topic of royals, let’s talk about the word “Abdankung” (a word that sounds strange even to me as a native). While it means “abdication” or “resignation” in Germany, we use it to refer to a “funeral” here in Switzerland. For me, saying someone has “resigned from life” is a funny way of expressing that they’ve died. It’s a bit too casual for my liking. According to the Schweizerisches Idiotikon dictionary of Swiss German dialects, however, it actually comes from “abschliessende Danksagung” and refers to someone saying their final thank you. Sticking with the theme of resigning and retreating, we have the Swiss word “Putsch”, which has gone global and been adopted in lots of other languages (including English, French and Italian) as a way of describing a coup.
Another category is expressions that paint a picture or echo a sound:
- “Das löscht mir ab”: We say something “extinguishes us” if it puts us off doing something (literally, takes away our fire).
- “Eis go zieh”: This is what we say when we’re going somewhere for something to drink. It’s a pretty precise description of the physical act of drinking, when you put the cup up to your lips and create a vacuum so the liquid is drawn into your mouth (that’s the “zieh” in the phrase). You don’t really pour a drink down your throat (“hinter die Binde kippen”) as they like to say in Germany.
- “Töff”: This word for motorbike reflects the sound of the engine as a baby might say it. It could have just as easily been “Brumm-brumm” but that didn’t catch on.
If you use the phrase “Estrich ausmisten” when you’re going to clear out your loft, you’ll be giving away your Swiss roots. That’s for sure! Now, they may use “ausmisten” to clear out a cupboard or a desk in Germany, but it would be strange for them to include the “Estrich”. That’s because our northern neighbours use the word to refer to the floor or, more specifically, the screed. And in Switzerland? It’s kind of the opposite! For us, the “Estrich” is the loft or attic. How confusing! I feel sorry for tradespeople working on both sides of the border...
Words across borders
Lots of Swissisms come from French: Apéro (aperitif), Bébé (baby), merci (thank you), Parterre (ground floor), Portemonnaie (wallet), retour (back), Trottoir (pavement), Velo (bike) – obviously with the emphasis on the first syllable every time. It’s no wonder we’ve borrowed all these words really given that France is right next door and French is one of Switzerland’s official languages. Remember that French was also the lingua franca for centuries and the language used by nobility. That’s why the upper class in cities like Basel and Bern preferred to speak French. If you listen to the dialect in Basel, you can pick up on funny words that sound distinctly French. The word for watch – “Geleretli” – comes from the French question used to ask the time (“quelle heure est-il”). And the word for umbrella is “Bareblü” (think “parapluie”). Sadly, they never made it into the standard language, though.
Resources to help you translate Swissisms
If you ever find yourself struggling to translate tricky Swiss words, your first port of call should be the Apostroph list of Swissisms. You can find it under “Helping instructions” on the myFREELANCE knowledge portal. And good old Duden seldom lets you down either. The German dictionary contains loads of Swiss variants (including the Swiss definition of “Abdankung”). If you want to brush up on your Swissism skills, you might want to try out the quiz published by the Zurich Tages-Anzeiger newspaper. It’s good practice even for us native speakers who grew up with the language. Enjoy!
Have you had any experience of Swissisms yourself? What are your favourite Swiss German words? Email us at email@example.com – we’d love to hear from you!