Linguistic geography of Switzerland

The linguistic geography of Switzerland is on the main tripartite, with the Swiss German region (Deutschschweiz) in the northeast, the Swiss French part (Romandie) in the west and the Swiss Italian (Svizzera Italiana) Ticino in the south. There remains a small Romansh speaking minority in the Grisons.

The four official languages of Switzerland are German, French, Italian and Romansh. Native speakers number about 64% (4.6 million) for German (mostly Swiss German dialects), 20% (1.5 million, mostly Swiss French, but including some Arpitan dialects) for French, 7% (0.5 million, mostly Swiss Italian, but including Lombardic dialects) for Italian and less than 0.5% (35,000) for Romansh.

The Cantons of Fribourg, Berne, Valais and Grisons are officially bi- or trilingual (Grisons). In fact, Jura and Ticino are also bilingual, but the traditional German minority is very small.


Development of linguistic demographics in Switzerland since 1950 according to official census data:

year German French Italian Romansh other
2000 63.7 20.4 6.5 0.5 9.0
1990 63.6 19.2 7.6 0.6 8.9
1980 65.0 18.4 9.8 0.8 6.0
1970 64.9 18.1 11.9 0.8 4.3
1960 69.4 18.9 9.5 0.9 1.4
1950 72.1 20.3 5.9 1.0 0.7


The German speaking part of Switzerland (Deutschschweiz Suisse alémanique Svizzera tedesca) comprises about 65% of Switzerland (North Western Switzerland, Eastern Switzerland, Central Switzerland, most of the Swiss plateau and the greater part of the Swiss Alps).

In most Swiss cantons, German is the only official language (Aargau, Appenzell, Basel, Glarus, Lucerne, Nidwalden, Obwalden, Schaffhausen, Schwyz, Solothurn, St. Gallen, Thurgau, Uri, Zug, Zurich).

The canton of Bern has a French minority, while in Fribourg and Valais, German has minority status. In the canton of Graubünden, more than half of the population speaks German, while the rest speak Italian and Romansh. In each case, all languages are official languages of the respective canton.

While the French-speaking Swiss prefer to call themselves Romands and their part of the country la Romandie, the German-speaking Swiss used to refer to (and, colloquially, still do) the French-speaking Swiss as "Welsche" and to their area as Welschland, which has the same etymology as the English Welsh. In Germany Welsch and Welschland refer to Italy; there, the term is antiquated, rarely used, and somewhat disparaging.

In contrast to the Italian- and French-speaking Swiss, the German-speaking Swiss do not feel very close to their German neighbours in the north (or Austrian neighbours to the east) even though, in the case of Germany, the Alemannic dialects on both sides of the Rhine are similar. The reasons for this are mainly historical, as the German part of Switzerland has effectively been culturally and politically separated from the rest of the German-speaking areas since the late Middle Ages and officially since the Peace of Westphalia. Another factor is the status of the dialect. Standard German is the official language and is used in writing and to a great part by the media, but the spoken language in Switzerland in all social classes is almost exclusively Swiss German (more precisely one of the Swiss German dialects) - in Germany, people with higher education seldom speak a marked dialect.

The German-speaking Swiss do not feel as a uniform group; the average German speaking Swiss feels foremost belonging to Solothurn, St. Gallen, or Uri and sees himself not speaking Swiss German but the Baseldytsch (dialect of Basel), Bärndütsch (dialect of Bern) or Züridütsch (dialect of Zurich). The marked subsidiarity of the Swiss federalism where many political decisions are taken at municipal or cantonal level supports this attitude.

The German-speaking part of Switzerland has no single culture. In the Middle Ages already there was a marked difference between the rural cantons and the city cantons focusing on trade and commerce. After the Reformation, all cantons were either Catholic or Protestant and the denominational influences on culture added to the differences. Even today, where all cantons are somewhat denominationally mixed, the different historical denominations can be seen in the mountain villages, where the Roman Catholic Central Switzerland abounds with chapels and statues of saints and the farm houses in the very similar landscape of the Protestant Bernese Oberland show Bible verses carved on the housefronts instead.


Romandy (la Suisse romande, Romandie, Welschland, Welschschweiz or Westschweiz,Svizzera romanda) is the French-speaking part of Switzerland. It covers the area of the cantons of Geneva, Vaud, Neuchâtel, and Jura as well as the French-speaking parts of the cantons of Berne, Valais, and Fribourg. About 1.5 million people (or 20% of the Swiss population) live in Romandy.

Standard Swiss French and the French of France are the same language, with some differences. For example, like some other regions of the French-speaking world, Swiss people (as well as many Francophone Belgians) use septante (seventy) instead of soixante-dix (literally, "sixty ten") and nonante (ninety) instead of "quatre-vingt-dix" ("four twenties and ten"). In much of Romandy, speakers use huitante (eighty) instead of the standard French "quatre-vingt" (four-twenty) and "sou" for a 5-centime coin. Historically, the vernacular language used by inhabitants of most parts of Romandy was Francoprovençal. Francoprovençal (also called Arpitan) is a French variant sometimes considered halfway between Standard French (langue d'oïl, originally spoken in northern France) and Provençal (langue d'oc, spoken in southern France). Standard French and Francoprovençal/Arpetan, linguistically, are distinct and mutual intelligibility is limited. Increasingly, Francoprovençal/Arpetan is used only by members of the older generations.

The term Romandy does not formally exist in the political system but is used to distinguish and unify the French-speaking population of Switzerland. The television channel Télévision Suisse Romande (TSR) serves the Romande community across Switzerland, is syndicated to TV5, and CanalSat Romande on October 2.


Italian Switzerland (Svizzera italiana, Suisse italienne, italienische Schweiz) is the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, which includes the Canton of Ticino and the valleys of Mesolcina, Calanca, Bregaglia and Poschiavo in Graubünden. It is sometimes referred to as La Terza Svizzera (Third Switzerland), due to Italian being the third most spoken language in the country.

The linguistic region covers an area approximately 3,500km² and has a total population of around 400,000 inhabitants, 80,000 of which are foreign nationals.

The most important towns in Italian Switzerland are in Ticino and are:

In 1996 the region established its first university, the Università della Svizzera italiana, which is based in Lugano and Mendrisio. The region's international airport is located in Agno.


On the cantonal level, Romansh is an official language only in the trilingual canton of Graubünden, where the municipalities in turn are free to specify their own official languages.

Significant communities of Romansh speakers remain in the Surselva, the Oberhalbstein valley, the lower Engadin and the Val Müstair.

Romansh has been recognized as one of four "national languages" by the Swiss Federal Constitution since 1938. It was also declared an "official language" of the Confederation in 1996, meaning that Romansh speakers may use their Romansh idiom for correspondence with the federal government and expect to receive a Romansh response – in Romansh Grischun, because the federal authorities use the standardized idiom exclusively.

Immigrant languages

The non-official language with the largest group of native speakers is Serbo-Croatian with 103,000 speakers in 2000, followed by Albanian with 95,000, Portuguese with 89,500, Spanish with 77,500, English with 73,000, Turkish 44,500, and a total of 173,000 speakers of other languages, amounting to roughly 10% of the population with a native language not among the four official languages.


See also

External links

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