Our son-in-law is learning to speak Swiss-German, bravely seeking to communicate in his wife’s mother tongue. The first word he learnt was ‘Pferd’. He subsequently discovered that the Swiss word for horse is in fact ‘Ross’. It was a disappointing start but Mike was not discouraged.
My Anglo-Irish father also sought to speak his wife’s dialect. Unlike Mike, Dad was easily frustrated and often referred to ‘Schwyzerduetsch’ as a throat disease – harsh and guttural. ‘Anyway’, he used to exclaim, managing to sound both crabby and defeated, ‘What’s the point? No one understands the language and no one speaks it beyond the German-speaking borders of Switzerland’.
One thing that undoubtedly makes learning Swiss-German challenging is the wide-ranging dialects. Which one should you go for? The gentle, melodic Baernduetsch or the snappy ‘r’ trilling Zueriduetsch? To compound the difficulty of the varying dialects is the absence of a standard orthography.
In the 5th century BC, two Germanic tribes migrated to Switzerland. The Alemanni moved to the north and east and the Burgundians moved to the west. The Alemanni language gradually morphed into Swiss-German and the Burgundians adopted Latin which later became French. Today there are four nationally recognised languages in Switzerland. In a population of 8.6m, 62% speaks Swiss-German, 22% French, 8% Italian and 0.5% Romansh.
Bern, where are ancestors are from, is one of the four fully bilingual cantons. From the age of five, our daughters spent one afternoon a week with the French-speaking Kindergarteners as a way of encouraging early mixing of the two languages. When shopping in our hometown of Biel, you are free to speak in either language. The shopkeeper or the waitress might respond in Schwyzerduetsch or she might speak to you in French. It makes no difference, either to mutual understanding, or to how you are viewed by the other person.
There is no national newspaper, television or radio in Switzerland. The Swiss Broadcasting Corporation is divided into language departments and each of the 26 cantons broadcasts in the local language. It all sounds very well-balanced and friendly and mostly, it is. There is, however, something playfully referred to as the ‘Roestigraben’. Roesti is a Swiss version of a hash brown potato and the ‘graben’ or trench, is a metaphor for the cultural boundary between German and French-speaking cantons. The Roestigraben is often cited when the two groups make different choices in national voting issues.
In the 1970s when my parents owned an English language school in Kent, the language to master was English because English, rather than German or French, was the international language of business. My father was an outstanding teacher of English. Unfortunately he was not a gifted linguist and never managed to crack what my friend, Kate has described as the ‘fast and complicated language’ that is Schwyzerduetsch. Dad’s linguistic challenges were no doubt amplified by his continued insistence that Swiss-German was not a socially useful language. As a result, my father was unavoidably excluded from conversations that took place between me and my mother as I was growing up.
Since the birth of his daughter, five months ago, our son-in-law’s grasp of Swiss-German has improved, particularly in certain areas. He encourages her ‘goerpslis’ (burps), notes her ‘glucksis’ (hiccups) and fuerzlis’ (farts) and listens when his wife speaks and sings to their baby girl. He told me recently that he now gets the gist of what Polly is saying to Thea. Schwyzerduetsch is, in fact, the perfect language for infants as it is richly onomatopoeic and delightfully musical. I am touched by Mike’s thoughtful interest in our mother tongue. I am aware too that our son-in-law’s engagement with Swiss German is valuable, not only from a linguistic point of view but from the perspective of emotional bonding. Thea’s father is including himself in the circle of family communication in ways that my own father was not able to do.