Schwytzertüütsch, ech ha di gärn! Will the Swiss allow me to love their language?

How much can I learn the language of this isolated land?
How much can I learn the isolated language of this land?

Grüetzi! Lately I’m experimenting with Swiss German because I’m going to Switzerland to stay in the German-speaking area. About two-thirds of Switzerland speaks German as their first language. However, they speak a unique dialect, or, more accurately, a diverse family of dialects. I’ve been having a hard time because the internet does not offer a lot of resources, and I could not find any native speaker resources where I live and work.

Delving into other communities

I love to find out about how other people think and live. When I was in high school, I had a fascination for other religions and cultures. I enjoyed going to different places of worship, and meeting people from other countries–as shy as I was–brought me joy. By the end of high school, I decided that I wanted to go overseas as a foreign exchange student to France; moreover, I would leave my WASPy Denver suburb for college, to study at a majority Jewish university on the East Coast of the US. In the university decision, I explicitly stated that I wanted a “cultural experience.” When I came to study in Ukraine during college, I took it to the next level: I wanted to become as Ukrainian as I could. Moving out of my familiar atmosphere, how long could I immerse myself? Like a porpise, I could never be a fish, but how long could I stay under water?

Soon I learned that I could be understood as long as I could speak a language that others understood, but I could only understand if I spoke the language others spoke. If I wanted to experience intimacy among them, I had to use the language that they thought in, that they spoke with their loved ones. A version of the language would not suffice; I needed the exact language, no matter what its relationship with the standard dialect.

Hard to find materials

Needless to say, it’s not always easy to find materials in every language and dialect. For most people, communication–making oneself understood–is the goal. The majority language serves well. For example, if you go to Morocco, you can usually be understood in English or French. You can stretch to be understood by more people if you learn one of the major Arabic dialects, such as Literary Standard (Fusha), Egyptian, or Levantine. But where to do you turn if you want understand, and so want to learn Moroccan dialect, or even Marrakech dialect? or Tashelhit Berber, an unrelated language spoken in the High Atlas Mountains?

Now you understand my problem in trying to learn Swiss German, or Schwytzertüütsch. The Swiss are famously isolated, as well as multilingual. On the one hand, everyone speaks at least German and French, and probably English, and maybe Italian. Making yourself understood is easy. On the other hand, Switzerland’s isolation preserved many rare dialects of languages. When one linguist set out to study Swiss German, another responded, “Which valley?” Hundreds of significant local variations exist in this portion of this tiny country. Even German spoken in Zürich sounds significantly different from the dialect of Lucerne, 50 kilometers away.

The problem is two-fold. First, resources are very hard to come by. Second, I imagine that the Swiss aren’t used to having foreigners want to learn Swiss German, so how helpful will they be?

Resources

In spite of the fact that Swiss German is not usually written and does not have a standard written language, I’ve made progress on the first problem. On-line I’ve found some word lists and verb conjugations for major verbs. Here are the modal verbs, for example.

Inf Inf 1pres 2pres pl.pres subj. cond.
NHG können chöne cha chasch chönd chönn chönt
NHG mögen möge mag magsch möge mög möcht
NHG müssen müese mues, muen muesch müend mües müesst
NHG wollen wele wott, will wotsch wänd well wett
NHG sollen söle söll sölisch söled söll sött
NHG dürfen türffe türff türfsch türffed türffi türft

There are also YouTube videos that help, although they usually just teach your greetings. Since my daughter doesn’t know any German at all, these videos helped me teach her greetings in Schwytzertüütsch. One channel, Maryangel24, offers to go in a little deeper to teach you about food, cursing, and others.

Even better, I found a great site that has podcasts for learners of Swiss German. Someone reads a simple story for about 10-15 minutes in Swiss German, although the variety depends on the speaker. The text is written in Standard German (Hochdeutsch), and there are explanations of some of the unusual vocabulary. Fortunately for me, I know Standard German; if I didn’t this resource would be less helpful.

Will the Swiss help me?

I will see how it goes for the second problem. I have three questions I’ll be paying attention to during this experiment:

  1. Will the Swiss allow me to speak broken Schwytzertüütsch?
  2. Will they get frustrated–or offer to do me a “favor”–and choose to speak English instead?
  3. If I ask how to say something, will they give me the Swiss or Standard word?

To be honest, maybe it’s annoying–maybe even intrusive–to try to speak and think like a local, even prying into the intimate language of these people. As I said, I will see how it goes.

How deep can I go?

With such a lack of materials I don’t know how deeply I can go into the language of the local people. I have my materials that I put together, plus what I learned from YouTube and podcasts.

Next I’ll just need to see how it goes with the people I’m trying to speak with. Will they try to keep me out or welcome?

Have you tried to go deeply into another language? another country? How did it go?

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19 thoughts on “Schwytzertüütsch, ech ha di gärn! Will the Swiss allow me to love their language?

  1. That’s quite a challenge you’ve set yourself there!

    I do wonder how this is going to go down with the locals. I’m from neighbouring Bavaria, so I speak Bavarian (of which there are also quite a few different dialects). “Outsiders”, although they usually do acquire the regional vocab after having lived there for a while and they understand the dialect, they don’t usually attempt to speak Bavarian, but stick to Hochdeutsch instead. The reason being that to the natives, someone “faking” it just sounds ridiculous. You’re either Bavarian or you aren’t.

    I’ve no idea how things are perceived on that front in Switzerland… can’t wait to read your debrief 🙂

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    1. Thanks for your comment! This is the attitude that I find so interesting. Why do speakers of some languages expect foreigners to try to speak them, while speakers of others shame outsiders for even trying? What about the dynamic brings about this difference?

      It seems that speakers of minority languages often like their minority status, as it allows them a way to keep outsiders out. I know that when my Arabic got to a certain level, it made some Moroccans nervous. Similarly, I knew someone who learned Hungarian fairly well, and it was met by some cold shoulders in Hungary.

      I have no idea what would happen if, say, a German moved to downtown Detroit and tried to speak Inner City English, usually spoken by African Americans. How would people react to that?

      It’s an odd dynamic, and I don’t understand it. That’s one of the reasons for my Swiss experiment.

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  2. I’m very curious too. I think every Swiss’ aversion to speak standard German may help you. If there is any way to avoid it, we will.
    However I do think many will offer English, especially younger people in bigger cities. If you go to a smaller, non-touristy town, you may have a hard time integrating, but I can almost guarantee you that the local Swiss will just reply in Swiss German. Having said that I’m not sure that they would appreciate the effort. As any German can tell you, their Grützi (unlike the proper Grüezi) is rarely appreciated. If they live in Switzerland it’s pretty much expected that they understand Swiss German, but most probably wish they didn’t try to speak dialect.

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  3. One resource you might find useful is the channel of the Zürich-based magazine chreisgleis.tv on Vimeo. The videos contain interviews about all sorts of topics, and it always impresses me how many different varieties of German one gets to hear — some interviewees speak pure Hochdeutsch, some are immigrants who speak German with a foreign accent, some seem to speak a form of Swiss German which is quite easy to understand, and others I can barely understand at all!

    http://vimeo.com/gleis1

    I’ve only been to Switzerland once (Zürich), but I actually found that the locals were less likely to reply in English than in Germany or Austria (I did speak Hochdeutsch however).

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  4. Grüezi, Griessich…. That’s a great challenge! Like wannabe polyglott said already, if Swissgermans can avoid talking Standard German they’re happy. Many Swissgermans assume that if you’re not “from there” you’ll never be able to talk their dialect “properly”. – I lived there for 16 years (mainly Zürich) and studied some dialects (Luzäärn, Bärntüütsch, Chuurer Dialäkt etc. and of course Züritüütsch) and really enjoyed the differences! Once you’re there, watch Swissgerman TV and listen to the local radio, talk to locals etc. I insisted with locals to talk back in Swissgerman to me and it worked pretty well and I tried to repeat phonetically what they were saying. It may happen that people will talk back English to you – especially in the bigger cities – but if you insist, they will carry on talking Swissgerman. – I’m looking forward to reading your next post about your experience in Switzerland!
    Thank you for linking back to my posts! As for some resources, I still like Massimo Rocchi’s performance “Äuä!” for the Bäärntüütsch 😉 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TU-eI0WhjGU) – Ooouso…! 😉

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  5. Good luck!

    Since finishing at the German School, I’ve been (half-heartedly) trying to learn Bavarian/Austrian, partially because I think it sounds cool, and partially because my father learnt his German working in Austria and he really can’t speak Hochdeutsch. It’s a bit of a challenge trying to find resources for it – you’ve done a good job with Swiss German. I think it will help you a lot to be in that area. Since I’ve spent the last four years at school speaking Hochdeutsch (I went in with my “pfiate” and my “semmel” and came out realising that I hadn’t said either of those words in at least two years [but managed to pick up “nee” and “geil” to the point where the teachers gave us a list of “unacceptable” words as we went into the oral exam]…) it’s difficult for me to read/study dialect because I automatically pronounce it more Hochdeutsch-y. I’m beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t maybe swap to Schwaebisch, since there are a few Schwaebisch-speakers in my area and it’s easier to learn something when you can speak it.

    Best of luck with it all, anyway. It’s notoriously like banging your head against a brick wall to get Germans to speak to you in German if you’ve got an accent, but maybe the Swiss will be different.

    I have a question: Is there any sort of standard spelling for Swiss German, or does each valley just write it down phonetically? I know the Swiss kids at my school got special provisions in exams for not getting marked down for missing esszets, but other than that it just seemed pretty much like standard German.

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  7. Zyriacus

    In my experience, the Swiss are a bit peculiar when talked to in Switzerdütsch by foreigners. Since most of them are at least bilingual they will answer in “Schriftdeutsch” (German as it’s written) or if they feel to identify your origin they answer in English or French. So it will quite a challenge to engage in Switzerdütsch conversation. However a good way to come to grips with the language/the dialect will be listening to the radio or watching TV.

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    1. This was certainly my experience. My aunt was especially good this way, because she would actually help me with Schwitzerduetsch, and correct me when it came out in Hochdeutsch. If I began a conversation in dialect with a stranger, they would usually humor me as long as their patience held. Then they would switch to Hochdeutsch or English or something.

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