Speech can be very telling.
Within a few seconds of hearing an American speak, you could have a pretty good idea of which state they’re from—thanks to their regional accent.
From New York to California, and from Minnesota to Texas, there are tons of different regional features that make up the various American accents.
In America, we could find it slightly difficult to understand someone because of their accent, but on the whole we all use the same vocabulary and grammar.
This isn’t the case in German-speaking countries. Even in Germany alone, there are many regional dialects—meaning Germans can use a different vocabulary from one another, as well as having varying accents.
But that’s not all—things can get even more complicated once you cross the border and head in die Schweiz (to Switzerland).
Oftentimes Swiss German is referred to as a completely different language, since the dialect is so different from Hochdeutsch (standard German taught in schools). Even though all the Swiss can speak and understand Hochdeutsch, they will often speak their Swiss dialect among themselves.
This can be quite scary for German learners—if German speakers can’t even understand each other, how on earth are we meant to communicate with them?! It’s not too daunting a task to learn a dialect, though, and the better your knowledge of German is, the easier it is to learn.
Learning Swiss German will not only add a dialect to your list, but it also opens up a new country you’ll be able to travel to!
Fancy adding a new string to your German bow? Here’s our handy guide to getting started with Swiss German!
The Slick Beginner’s Guide to Learning Swiss German
How to Learn Swiss German
You’ll already be catching up on your favorite German TV shows, movies and pop stars to help brush up your listening skills, so why not start dipping into Swiss culture too?
Even though most Swiss TV shows will be in Hochdeutsch, the characters and presenters will usually have a distinctive Swiss accent, so they’re a good way to gradually acclimatize to Swiss sounds. If you’re looking for inspiration, check out “10vor10,” a current affairs show. When you’re ready for TV in the Swiss dialect, tune into TeleZüri, an online channel dedicated to Swiss German.
If you’re just getting started with German-language TV, you might need a little glossing with the dialogue and narration. One particularly helpful and dynamic way to do this is with FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Another way to immerse yourself in Swiss German is to do word searches and crosswords. These will help you improve your vocabulary and will also help you learn how to spell words! You can buy a book of puzzles from Amazon, or if you’re ever in Switzerland you could pick one up on your travels. You can also have a look online and print off word searches and crosswords. Here’s a really good site for all your Swiss German puzzle needs!
And last, but by no means least… get cooking! Switzerland has many traditional dishes, which are often cheese-based. Have a look online for recipes (this website has a great selection of traditional Swiss recipes) and take them into the kitchen. By reading a recipe in Swiss German, you’ll be honing those reading skills while picking up new vocab in the process! Not sure what to cook or bake? One obvious option is Fondue. This very popular dish is a large pot of melted cheese, into which you dip chunks of bread and potato. If you’re more into your baking, try baking Meitschibei biscuits, a delicacy from the city of Bern.
7 Main Characteristics of Swiss German
1. The “ch” sound
The Swiss love “ch.” So much so, it appears in most words. Even if it isn’t usually in the Hochdeutsch version, they’ll probably find a way to squeeze in a “ch” somewhere. It’s pronounced exactly in the way a German would say the “ch” in acht (eight), so as you can imagine, it’s quite a tricky sound for us English speakers to master.
Try it out in these two words. These are super hard though, even by Swiss standards, just because of how often the sound appears in them. Once you’ve mastered these, though, you’d make any Swiss native proud!
Chuchichäschtli (kitchen cupboard)
Chäs Chüechli (cheese cake)
It’s important to note that a “k” at the start of any word is turned into the “ch” sound. You can see this in the two above examples—Käs becomes Chäs and the “kitchen” stem of the first word changes from Kuche to Chuchi.
2. There’s no “n” at the end of words
In standard German, infinitives end in an “n,” however this is not the case in Swiss German.
machen becomes mache (to do)
This also means that some words which are composed from two separate words lose the “n” from the middle.
Lebensgefährlich [Leben + gefährlich] becomes Läbesgeföörlich (perilous)
3. The diminutive is “li”
In Hochdeutsch there are two diminutives: chen and lein. When you add these suffixes to nouns, the final word describes a smaller version of the original noun. So Tischlein means “small table” and is the diminutive of Tisch (table).
However, in Swiss German, you create the diminutive by adding “li” onto the end of the original noun.
Heftchen becomes Heftli (little books)
4. “S” becomes “sch” when it’s before a consonant
Remember that whenever an “s” appears before a consonant, it usually changes to a “sch” sound. This is always the case, and you don’t have to remember any rules about when it doesn’t happen—phew!
Wespe turns into Wäschpi (wasps)
5. An “e” at the end of words often turns into “i”
This was the case in the above Wespe example. In Hochdeutsch there are many words that end in “e”—just one example is Kuche (kitchen). In Swiss German, these—and many of the other words that end in “e”—will be pronounced as if they end in an “i.”
Küche beomes Chuchi (kitchen)
Remember the “k” switches to a “ch” sound as explained in the first point.
6. Diphthongs become single vowels
A diphthong is when two vowels come together to create a new vowel sound. An example in English is the “i” and “e” together in “lied.” Many Hochdeutsch diphthongs become single vowel sounds in Swiss German.
Haus becomes Huus (house)
Raum turns into Ruum (room)
7. “ß” doesn’t exist in Swiss German.
There’s no “ß” in Swiss German—it was abolished a few centuries ago! So you don’t have to worry about when to use it or when to use “ss.” In Swiss German, you always just use “ss.”
heißen turns into heisse (to be called)
Handy Swiss German Vocab List
As mentioned previously, Swiss German has many different words from standard German. To get you off to a good start, here’s a list of handy vocab:
- Grüezi (Hello)
- Widerluege (Good bye)
- Merci vilmal (Thanks a lot)
- Pröschtli! (Cheers!)
- Z’Morge (breakfast)
- Z’Mittag (lunch)
- Z’Nacht (dinner)
- Wii (wine)
- Gömmer? (Shall we go?)
- Velo (bicycle)
- poschte (to shop)
- Chuntsch? (Are you coming?)
- Es Bitzeli (a little bit)
- Kolleg/Kollegin (friend — male/female)
- Hüüsli (toilet)
So there we have it! Your beginner’s guide to learning the ins and outs of Swiss German! Of course, since the Swiss can speak perfect Hochdeutsch, they’ll be more than happy to switch to something easier for you if you’re having trouble communicating in the dialect.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try and learn the dialect—being able to speak and understand Swiss German will help your own Hochdeutsch to improve, and it’s one more step towards becoming much more immersed in German and Swiss-German culture.
If you can’t wait to be mistaken for a local, learning Swiss German is definitely something that you need to add to your German to-do list!