Local Lingo

Do you speak Swiss? I’m assuming you don’t, because “Swiss” as a language doesn’t exist.

Switzerland has four national languages: German*, French, Italian, and Romansch. English gets thrown around a bit for good measure but isn’t an official language. For such a small country, having so many languages seems like a lot! Especially considering that in the US, one could literally drive for days and still only run into English speakers.

That’s not the case here. If I drive for 30 minutes, I cross the Röstigraben. We saw this word Graben on April 2; the bears in Bern used to call the Bärengraben their home. The bear pit. In English, as translations for Röstigraben, I’ve heard Rösti ditch, Rösti barrier, or Rösti curtain. You can get the idea that Graben describes a trench of sorts, a barrier creating a rift.

So what the heck does Röstigraben mean?! Rösti is a typical Swiss German meal; I would just call it hashbrowns (shredded potato cooked in a pan). It is not a typical Swiss French or Swiss Italian meal. Thus, the Röstigraben is essentially the language barrier between these different linguistic regions in Switzerland.

I’ve heard it said that when you learn a new language, you learn a new mindset/culture/way of life. Besides the fact that I couldn’t agree more, the case of languages in Switzerland proves it to a T. Let’s look at a political example (more on politics on P day!). French-speaking Swiss are known for consistently voting “yay” to the the Swiss Germans’ “nay”. This is particularly true when votes regarding social or foreign policy are on the docket. The thinking between these two peoples is radically different.

AND YET, both groups are proudly and fiercely Swiss. Despite four national languages and culturally different people groups, Switzerland stands united.


*High German is the national language and is taught in school, but dialects of Swiss German have more prominence in daily life (a true diglossia). Different areas of Switzerland (Basel, Zurich, Bern, mountain villages. etc.) each have their own version of Swiss German. What’s more, when you put certain Swiss German dialects in the same room, they aren’t mutually intelligible!! Oh Switzerland, you never cease to amuse me.


6 thoughts on “Local Lingo

  1. Röstigraben! I love that! As a student, I lived in Fribourg, Halley, which, as you know, is both French and German-speaking. But it was living with a family and being their au-pair that really immersed me in the language and idioms. Thanks for a great post!

  2. Pingback: Nation of Neutrality | halley gentil

  3. Pingback: Political Parties | halley gentil

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