Linguistically, Swiss German forms no unity. The linguistic division of Alemannic is rather into Low, High and Highest Alemannic, varieties of all of which are spoken both inside and outside of Switzerland. The reason "Swiss German" dialects constitute a special group is their almost unrestricted use as a spoken language in practically all situations of daily life, whereas the use of the Alemannic dialects in the other countries is restricted or even endangered.
The dialects of Swiss German must not be confused with Swiss Standard German, the variety of Standard German used in Switzerland. Even though Swiss Standard German is influenced by the Swiss German dialects to a certain degree, it is a variety of the Standard German language and very distinct from Swiss German proper. Any native speaker will immediately note the difference.
There are quite a number of practical books and small dictionaries with direct English to Swiss German references, which can occasionally be found in bookstores in Switzerland. There also are a few comprehensive books and dictionaries that translate some of the major Swiss dialects into Standard German. To most Germans the Swiss dialects are as incomprehensible as the Dutch language. There is hardly any example of dialects in the English language that might illustrate the situation. However, almost any Swiss German speaker will be able to speak Standard German or even some English when necessary. Most conversations between native Swiss German speakers will be in Swiss German unless there are Germans or Austrians involved in the conversation, in which case the Swiss will usually switch to accommodate them.
Swiss German is intelligible to speakers of other Alemannic dialects but is usually not intelligible to speakers of Standard German, including French- or Italian-speaking Swiss who learn Standard German at school. Swiss German speakers on TV or in movies are thus usually dubbed or subtitled if shown in Germany.
Dialect rock is a music genre using the language; many Swiss rock bands, however, sing in English.
Each dialect is separable in numerous local sub-dialects, sometimes down to a resolution of individual villages. Speaking the dialect is an important part of regional, cantonal and national identity. In the more urban areas of the Swiss plateau, regional differences are fading due to increasing mobility, and a growing population of non-Alemannic descent. Despite the varied dialects, the Swiss can still understand one another (although on occasion just barely) but may particularly have trouble understanding Walliser dialects.
|Zürich dialect||Unterwalden dialect||Schanfigg and Issime dialects||Standard German||translation|
Most Swiss German dialects, being High-Alemannic dialects, have completed the High German consonant shift, that is, they have not only changed t to [t͡s] or [s] and p to [p͡f] or [f] but also k to [k͡x] or [x]. Most Swiss dialects have initial [x] or [k͡x] instead of k; there are however exceptions, namely the idioms of Chur and Basel. Basel German is a Low Alemannic dialect (like most, but not all, Alemannic dialects spoken in Germany), and Chur German is basically High Alemannic without initial [x] or [k͡x].
|High Alemannic||Low Alemannic||Standard German||translation|
Swiss German are not aspirated. Aspirated have (in most dialects) secondarily developed by contractions or by borrowings from other languages (mainly standard German), e.g., /ˈphaltə/ 'keep' (standard German behalten); /ˈtheː/ 'tea' (standard German Tee [ˈtʰeː]); /ˈkhalt/ 'salary' (standard German Gehalt).
In the dialects of Basel and Chur, aspirated /k/ is also present in native words.
Unlike Standard German, Swiss German /x/ does not have the allophone [ç], but is always [x], or in many dialects even [χ]. The typical Swiss shibboleth features this sound: Chuchichäschtli ('kitchen cupboard'), pronounced [ˈχuχːiˌχæʃtli].
Neither Swiss German nor the Swiss national variety of standard German exhibits final devoicing, unlike the German national variety of standard German (for example, "Zug" is pronounced [tsuːg] and not [tsuːk]).
Most Swiss German dialects have gone through the Alemannic n-apocope, which has led to the loss of final -n in words such as Garte 'garden' (standard German Garten) or mache 'to make' (standard German machen). In some Highest Alemannic dialects, the n-apocope has also been effective in consonant clusters, for instance in Hore 'horn' (High Alemannic Horn) or däiche 'to think' (High Alemannic dänke). Only the Highest Alemannic dialects of the Lötschental and of the Haslital have preserved the -n.
The phoneme /r/ is pronounced as an alveolar trill [r] in many dialects, though certain dialects, especially in the Northeast or in the Basel region, have an uvular trill [ʀ] like that of standard German.
Like Bavarian dialects, Swiss German dialects have preserved the opening diphthongs of Middle High German: , e.g. in /liə̯b̥/ 'lovely' (standard German lieb, but pronounced /liːp/); /huə̯t/ 'hat' (standard German Hut /huːt/); /xyə̯l/ 'cool' (standard German kühl /kyːl/). Note that some of those diphthongs have been unrounded in several dialects.
Like Low Saxon dialects, most Swiss German dialects have preserved the old monophthongs , e.g. /pfiːl/ 'arrow' (standard German Pfeil /pfaɪ̯l/); /b̥uːx/ 'belly' (standard German Bauch /baʊ̯x/); /z̥yːlə/ 'pillar' (standard German Säule /zɔʏ̯lə/). A few Alpine dialects show diphthongation similar to Standard German, esp. some dialects of Unterwalden and Schanfigg (Graubünden) and that of Issime (Piedmont); for examples see above.
Some Western Swiss German dialects (e.g. Bernese German) have preserved the old diphthongs , whereas the other dialects have like Standard German. Zurich German and some other dialects distinguish primary diphthongs from secondary ones that arose in hiatus position, i.e. Zurich German from Middel High German versus Zurich German from Middle High German , e.g. Zurich German 'leg, woman' from M.H.G. bein, vrouwe versus Zurich German 'free, building' from M.H.G. frī, būw.
|short /a/||long /aː/|
|short /f/||/hafə/ 'bowl'||'the honest ones'|
|long /fː/||/afːə/ 'apes'||/ʃlaːfːə/ 'to sleep'|
Stress is more often on the first syllable than in standard German, even in French loans such as [ˈmɛrsːi] or [ˈmersːi] "thanks". Note that there are many different stress patterns even within dialects. Bernese German is one of the dialects where many words are stressed on the first syllable, e.g. [ˈkaz̥ino] 'casino', whereas standard German has [kʰaˈziːno]. However, no Swiss German dialect is as consistent as the Icelandic language in this respect.
|literal translation:||she||comes||our||Christmas tree||come||decorate|
|translation||She comes to decorate our Christmas tree.|
|translation:||She doesn't let him sleep.|
|perfect tense:||Si||het||ne||nid||la schlafe.|
|literal translation:||she||has||him||not||let sleep|
|translation:||She hasn't let/didn't let him sleep.|
|modal verb:||Si||wot||ne||nid||la schlafe.|
|literal translation:||she||wants||him||not||let sleep|
|translation:||She doesn't want to let him sleep.|
Most borrowings come from Standard German. Many of these are now so common that they have totally replaced the original Swiss German words, e.g. the words Hügel 'hill' (instead of Egg, Bühl), Lippe 'lip' (instead of Lefzge). Others have replaced the original words only in parts of Switzerland, e.g., Butter 'butter' (originally called Anken in most parts of Switzerland). Virtually any Swiss Standard German word can be borrowed into Swiss German, always adapted to Swiss German phonology. However, certain Standard German words are never used in Swiss German, for instance Frühstück 'breakfast', niedlich 'cute' or zu hause 'at home'; instead, the native words Zmorge, härzig and dehei are used.
Swiss dialects have quite a few words from French, which are perfectly assimilated. Glace (ice cream) for example is pronounced /glas/ in French but [ˈɡ̊lasːeː] or [ˈɡ̊lasːə] in many Swiss German dialects. The French word for 'thank you', merci, is also used as in merci vilmal, literally "thanks many times". Maybe these words aren't direct borrowings from French but survivors of the once more numerous French loans in Standard German, many of which have fallen out of use in Germany.
In recent years, Swiss dialects have also borrowed some English words which already sound very Swiss, e.g., [ˈfuːd̥ə] ('to eat', from "food"), [ɡ̊ei̯mə] ('to play computer games', from "game") or [ˈz̥nœːb̥ə] or [ˈb̥oːrd̥ə] - ('to snowboard', from "snowboard"). These words are probably not direct loans from English, but have been adopted through standard German intermediation. While most of those loanwords are of recent origin, some have been in use for decades, e.g. [ˈʃutːə] (to play football, from "shoot").
There are also a few English words which are modern borrowings from the Swiss German languages. The dishes muesli, and rösti have become English words, as did loess (fine grain), flysch (sandstone formation), bivouac, kepi, landamman, kilch, schiffli, and the act of putsching in a political sense.
Today all formal writing, newspapers, books and much informal writing is done in Swiss Standard German, which is usually called Schriftdeutsch (written German). Certain dialectal words are accepted regionalisms in Swiss Standard German and are also sanctioned by the Duden, e.g., Zvieri (afternoon snack). Note that Swiss Standard German is virtually identical to Standard German as used in Germany, with most differences in pronunciation, vocabulary and orthography. For example Swiss Standard German always uses a double s (ss) instead of the eszett (ß).
There are no official rules about writing Swiss German. The orthographies used in the Swiss German literature can be roughly divided in two systems: Those that try to stay as close to standard German spelling as possible and those that try to represent the sounds as well as possible. The so-called Schwyzertütschi Dialäktschrift was developped by the famous Swiss anglist and phonologist Eugen Dieth, but nearly only language experts know about these guidelines. Furthermore, Dieth's originally proposed spelling proposed some special signs not found on a normal keyboard, such as 〈ʃ〉 instead of 〈sch〉 for [ʃ] or 〈ǜ〉 instead of 〈ü〉 for [ʏ]. Later on there was evolved a more simplified version, which can be written with "a normal typewriter" , and this one has found a good reception by dialect writing authors, dialectologists and, to a certain degree, also other users.
A few letters are used differently from the Standard German rules:
Since the 19th century, a (more quantitatively than qualitatively) quite considerable body of Swiss German literature has accumulated. The earliest works were in Zurich German (Johann Martin Usteri, Jakob Stutz); strong Bernese influence show the works of Jeremias Gotthelf which were published at the same time. Some of the more important dialect writing authors and their works are: