If you’re a German learner, I bet that after the gruelling hours spent trying to get your head around the grammar rules, you were excited for the big reward: speaking to native German speakers! Well, I’ve got some not-so-great news for you… the German you’ve been learning might not get you far in German-speaking Switzerland. Welcome to the world of Swiss German.

What is Swiss German?

Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh. Swiss German is the term used to describe the languages spoken in the German-speaking areas of Switzerland. In Germany, people speak different dialects in different regions, such as Bavarian, Swabian etc. along with Standard German, the language spoken by all Germans. In Switzerland, Swiss German isn’t a term used to describe one language, but a collective term for all Alemannic dialects spoken across all social groups. This even includes some Alpine communities in Northern Italy that border Switzerland. The term Swiss German also goes by different names and is written differently depending on who/where says it: Schwiizerdütsch, Schwyzerdütsch, Schwiizertüütsch, Schwizertitsch, Mundart

What is Swiss Standard German?

Swiss Standard German is different from Swiss German. Swiss Standard German is a variety of Standard German (the one spoken across Germany), and is taught to Swiss children from the age of 6. It is the written form of the official German spoken in Switzerland. As most people speak in the dialect of their region, you won’t hear much Swiss Standard German. For example, you may find that while the news might be presented in standard German, when the weather forecast begins the presenter might start speaking in dialect… Better make sure your weather app is working.

Some facts about Swiss German:

  • The Swiss German dialect differs from (Swiss) Standard German on various levels such as vocabulary, pronunciation and syntax. These differences are called Helvetisms
  • Swiss German has its own dictionary. Der Duden is the dictionary of the Standard German language, created in 1880. Standard Swiss German has their own official (swiss) version of it, called Schweizerhochdeutsch
  • Some reasons for Swiss German differing from Standard German might be that the orthography could not be catered for on the Swiss typewriter. A Swiss typewriter is designed for three languages: German, French and Italian. This meant there was no ß key or any upper-case umlauts, only ä, ö, and ü. 
  • In Kindergarten, both students and teachers speak Swiss German. Some schools have a “Swiss Standard German” day to get the kids used to it before going to school!
  • Of course, German TV shows are not translated for Swiss German TV. However, many Germans have trouble understanding Swiss German dialects. Those in the far north of Germany especially have trouble. 
  • Although Swiss Standard German is the proper language to write in, nowadays, it’s more and more normal to send text messages in written Swiss German too. There are no rules at all about written Swiss German though. If you receive a text in a dialect, you might find it easier to understand it if you read it aloud!

How do I pronounce Swiss German?

The “Ch”

A sound you’ll encounter a lot in a Swiss German conversation is “ch”. This is pronounced the way a German pronounces eight, ‘acht’.

Infinitives don’t end in “n”

Most German infinitives (the basic form of a verb) end in ‘n’ eg. ‘spielen’ (to play), ‘machen’ (to make or do), ‘gehen’ (to go). In Swiss German, they lose the ‘n’. ‘Machen’ becomes ‘mache‘. This means compound words that include an infinitive lose the ‘n’. For example, Lebensgefährlich  (perilous) is instead ‘Läbesgeföörlich‘.

The diminutive ‘li’

If you want to make something sound smaller in German, you have two options for creating a diminutive word; ‘lein’ or ‘chen’,* for example kitten (from Katze) is ‘Kätzchen‘.

In Swiss German, diminutives are created by adding the suffix ‘li’ on the end. I think we can agree that it’s quite a lot sweeter. Like in Standard German, they still add an umlaut to the vowel of a diminutive word, for example kitten is ‘Kätzli‘.

*This for Standard German. Other German dialects have different rules. In Bavarian, for example, kitten is ‘Katzerl’.

Better learn some French, too 

In Swiss German and Standard Swiss German, a lot of French words are used, too. For example ‘lavabo’ and ‘poulet’ from your list below are French. They also officially use “velo” instead of “Fahrrad” for bike! “Ich fahre mit dem Velo zur Arbeit.” is a perfect sentence in Standard Swiss German.

Since Switzerland has four official languages, it’s obvious that they influence each other. German has the strongest influence on the other three languages. But French definitely has the strongest influence on (Standard) Swiss German. 

Do I need to learn Swiss German to get around in Switzerland?

If you speak Standard German then people in Switzerland will understand you. You don’t need to learn Swiss German for a holiday. That said, if you’re there for a long time you will inevitably pick up Swiss German words, phrases and intonations. 

If you’re still interested in expanding your German to encompass its Swiss sister Sprache, feast your eyes on the words and phrases below.

20 Essential Swiss German phrases

Swiss German – German – English

1. Schweizerdeutsch – Schwizerdütsch – Swiss German

2. Grüezi (mitenand) – Hallo (zusammen) – Hello everyone

3. Hoi (zämme) – Hallo (zusammen) – Hi everyone

4. Uf Widerluege – Auf Wiedersehen – Good bye

5. S’bitzli – Ein bisschen – A little bit

6. Lose – Hören – Listen

7. Min Kolleg – Mein Freund – My friend

8. d’Chilä – Die Kirche – The church

9. Poulet – Hühnchen – Chicken

10. Lavabo – Waschbecken – Sink

11. Go poste – Einkaufen gehen – Grocery shopping

12. Ich gang go poschte – Ich gehe einkaufen – I go grocery shopping

13. Chuchichäschtli – Küchenschublade – Kitchen drawer

14. Merci vilmal – Vielen vielmals – Thanks a lot

15. Z’Morge – Frühstück – Breakfast

16. Z’Mittag – Mittagessen – Lunch

17. Z’Nacht – Abendessen – Dinner

18. Chuntsch? – Kommst du? – Are you coming?

19. Chasch mer öppis helfe – Kannst du mir mit etwas helfen? – Can you help me with something?

20. Het öpper ahglüüte? – Hat jemand angerufen? – Did someone call?

21. Es schmöckt huere komisch – Es riecht voll komisch – It smells very strange