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Linguistic Free-For-All


Swiss German–The German with Fewer Rules

Most German students love to complain about the “insane” number of rules in German, and to some extent I can understand their frustration. German offers a plethora of grammar rules. So here’s my simple solution: Learn Swiss German instead. If you have studied German in a classroom setting in the United States, chances are you were indoctrinated into High German, the universally accepted standard form of German that is used in all German-speaking countries. In your classes, you may have heard hushed rumors about the existence of Swiss German. Maybe a teacher joked about it being caused by an incurable throat condition. It is infamous for the wonderful word “Chuchichäschtli” (small kitchen cupboard), which involves a deep, unappetizing clearing of the throat. In reality, however, Swiss German is a very interesting variation on German. Some of its dialects are actually very similar to dialects spoken in Germany, particularly along the Swiss/German border, but just as there is no ONE swiss germanGerman dialect, there is no ONE Swiss-German dialect. There are four major groups of Swiss German; each, in turn, is divided into countless subdialects. How “sub” is “sub”? Well, subdialects can be so different that people from different Swiss regions at times cannot understand each other. What a blessing it is, then, that everyone who speaks Swiss German also speaks High German, the official language used in school. So why have Swiss German at all? Well, if you look a little more closely, you will find that Swiss German is quite possibly the greatest language ever, particularly in the eyes of early elementary students.

1. Swiss German has NO real grammar rules. It does follow German grammar to some extent, but adherence to the rules is quite loose and varies considerably among different dialects. Most notably, rules about word order are not nearly as unforgiving as they are in High German.

2. Swiss German has NO real spelling rules. Thus, a word, such as “Schwiizerdütsch” (Swiss German), could be spelled five different ways, and all of them could arguably be correct. This is mostly due to the fact that Swiss German is NOT a written language. It is generally used only in speaking.

Take your pick: Schwiizerdütsch–Schwyzertütsch–Schwiezertütsch–Schwizerdütsch–Schwizertütsch

3. Swiss German has NO simple past. What a relief! No irregular simple past verbs to memorize! The fact that Swiss German has no simple past is, of course, related to the fact that it is exclusively a SPOKEN language and as you probably remember from your German classes, spoken German uses the present perfect tense; only written German uses the simple past.

4. Swiss German has NO genitive case. This, of course, makes the case system 25 percent less complicated than High German. As an additional bonus, there is also no special masculine accusative form to memorize. It is identical to the masculine nominative.

5. Swiss German has NO relative pronouns. Instead, it uses the wonderful all-purpose word “wo” (where) for all cases and genders.

So what’s not to love? Obviously, Swiss German is quite possibly the perfect language to learn. It has almost no rules and so much variation between dialects that no one can really say what’s wrong or right. It’s a veritable linguistic free-for-all. I love the way it works, and I love the way it sounds. I just wish that I, with my Lower-Eastern Swiss dialect, could understand a word of what that guy from the Upper-Hinter Valais Valley was telling me the other day.

If you are interested in learning more about Swiss German, check out the following links:

— An excellent blog by a native German about Swiss oddities in general and Swiss-German in particular.

— A list of select Swiss-German words and their High-German equivalents: http://www.forums9.ch/sprachen/coop/dialekte_quer.htm

— The official song of the Swiss national soccer team in Swiss German. To compare different versions of Swiss dialect, print out the song lyrics (with English translation) from this site (http://www.allthelyrics.com/forum/swiss-german-lyrics-translations/69036-baschi-bring-en-hei-swiss-german-to-english.html) and then go to the youtube version http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jyFJ_puWlrE

— If you just warogernt to listen to some Swiss German being spoken, here’s an interview with Switzerland’s greatest tennis player, Roger Federer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uA_Z3Yb_2-4

— If you are linguistically inclined, you might enjoy hearing the same text read in different Swiss-German dialects: http://www.dialekt.ch/mp3/wallis/Vergleich_WS7.htm.

— Try out the Swiss-German “oracle”. It tells you where you’re from in Switzerland, based on the way you would pronounce certain words. It’s fun even if you don’t speak Swiss German because it gives you an idea of how differently the same Swiss-German word can be pronounced. Just click on the drop-down menu options and pick a pronunciation.

The quintessential Swiss-German word, the one that everyone who wants to learn Swiss-German has to master: Chuchichäschtli (in German: Küchenkästchen–small kitchen cupboard).

Swiss German

2 Responses to Linguistic Free-For-All

  1. Thank you for very interesting read – I’m trying to learn Swiss german at the moment 🙂

    • ddyve says:

      Good luck! I think it’s a fun language and in some ways easier than standard German. You are providing some useful resources.

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