Friday, November 04, 2005


I recently received a job offer for a position in Zürich, Switzerland. I ended up turning it down, but in the several weeks during which I thought I was really going to make the move, I learned quite a bit about Swiss German---also known as Schweizerdeutsch, Schwyzerdütsch, or any number of other spellings that attempt to mimic the pronunciation of this language that really exists only in spoken form.

Of course I'm aware that language can differ widely among the different countries in which it is spoken, as well as within a single country. But what I did not realize before embarking on a crash course in Swiss German is that it's pretty much incomprehensible to someone who's studied only Standard German (Hochdeutsch). Even Germans can't understand the speech of German-speaking Swiss. I'd thought the language variations were on the level of those in English-speaking or Spanish-speaking countries---a Mexican might think a Spaniard talks funny, but they'll still be able to communicate---when in fact they are much more like the variations among Chinese dialects (see this previous post for a treatment). Although the Swiss write in High German, they perform a sort of simulataneous translation when reading out loud into the very different sounds of Swiss German, just as Taiwanese speakers do when reading something in written Chinese. And I won't even get into the variations within Swiss German itself---people will go so far as to refer to Zürich German or Bernese German!

For those who have struggled with the intricacies of German grammar, Swiss German might be a relief in that it does away with a few of the more difficult constructions. For example, the simple past tense is replaced with the somewhat more regularly constructed perfect tense; one always uses "Ich bin ... gewesen" instead of "Ich war". And the question of which pronoun to use in a relative clause---der? die? das? den? dem?---disappears, for there is only one relative pronoun in Swiss German: wo.

One of the more interesting features of Swiss German, in my opinion, is that they say not "Vielen Dank," but "Merci vilmal". The "merci" undoubtedly comes from a French influence (and there is speculation that the Swiss choose to keep it to distinguish themselves from Germans) but the "vilmal", from German vielmal, gives the phrase a multilingual twist that I find completely apropos for a country with four official languages.

Actually, it's the uniqueness of Swiss German that contributed to my decision not to move to Zürich. I'd originally thought of it as an opportunity to turn my German competency into German fluency, but for an aspiring interpreter and world traveler, Swiss German would ultimately not have been that useful. Perhaps the next time I apply for a job in Europe, I'll focus on France, Germany, or Italy. In the meantime, I'll be exchanging my Pimsleur Swiss German course for Mandarin 3.


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