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Differences in Swiss German — Helvetisms

written by: Mark Muller • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 9/11/2012

Switzerland has a number of deviations from Standard German called Helvetisms. This article will give you an introduction of Swiss Standard German including examples of Helvetisms and explains the use of the German language in Switzerland.

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    German is an official language in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Switzerland. German is also spoken in the Italian province Bolzano-Bozen, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Namibia, Romania and Slovakia. Germany accounts for a large part of the native German speaking community followed by Austria and Switzerland; people in the German part of Switzerland communicate using standard German with a significant number of exceptions called Helvetisms. Helvetisms are distinct characteristics of Swiss German that are not to be confused with dialects, which only span certain geographic areas.

    Helvetisms manifest themselves in vocabulary and pronunciation, yet sometimes the deviation of Standard German is reflected in syntax and orthography as well. The most significant difference of Swiss German versus Standard German is the lack of “ß" (Eszett) in the official alphabet; instead “ss" is used such as in grüßen (to greet), which you find as grüssen in Swiss Standard German — the blend of standard German and Helvetisms.

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    Examples of Helvetisms

    In the non-comprehensive list below, examples of Helvetisms are shown in italics:

    • Bahnhofbuffet / Bahnhofrestaurant (railway restaurant)
    • Poulet / Huhn (poultry)
    • Coiffeur / Friseur (hairdresser)
    • Lenker / Fahrer (driver)
    • Trottoir / Gehsteig (sidewalk)
    • Schulreise / Klassenfahrt (school trip)
    • Velo / Fahrrad (bicycle)
    • Identitätskarte / Personalausweis (identity card)
    • Parkieren / Parken (to park)
    • Spital / Krankenhaus (hospital)
    • Lichtsignal / Verkehrsampel (traffic light)

    Another characteristic of Swiss Standard German is that some feminine articles are replaced by neuter article such as in:

    • das / die Email (email)
    • das / die SMS (short message service)
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    Use of German in Switzerland

    People in the German part of Switzerland use (strong) dialects in their daily life; Swiss Standard German is only used to talk in school and universities, federal parliament, national news broadcasts and in other special situations including talking to native Standard German speakers, who do not easily understand the way German is spoken in Switzerland. When it comes to written language, people in the German part of Switzerland make use of Swiss Standard German.

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    Learners of German needn’t worry too much about Swiss Standard German because the Swiss people will certainly understand them when foreigners talk or write to them in standard German. Yet, I would like to recommend you remember one word for greeting people you are not familiar with. If you use Grüezi (hello) instead of “Hallo" in Standard German, you will be demonstrating awareness for the existence of Helvetisms which will certainly be very welcomed in Switzerland.

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    Author's own experience