Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Not death, famine, pestilence, war and Fabian (the most popular name for Swiss boys) but the five languages of Switzerland.

Really this is about the use of English in Switzerland but we'll need to cover a bit of background first.

Switzerland has four official languages (you can decide for yourself which one is death, which famine, which war and which pestilence). These four languages are:
  • Swiss German (not German);
  • French;
  • Italian; and
  • Romansch.
Swiss German is distinct from (High) German in more than just dialect. Most notable to the casual observer is the presence of non-German words in common parlance. For example:
  • the hairdresser is a 'Coiffure' not a 'Frisuer';
  • a bicycle is a 'Velo' not a 'Fahrrad';
  • wish someone a good meal with "En guete" (which roughly translates to have a good digestion) instead of "Malzeit!"; and
  • thank someone with "Merci vielmal" instead of "Vielen dank".

French is a language spoke in the part of Switzerland to the west of the Röstigrauben (Rösti ditch) and Italian is spoke in the sunny southern canton of Ticino (over the hills and nearly in Italy).

Romansch is spoken by about 1% of the Swiss population located in parts of south-eastern Switzerland. In fact it is a group of dialects but is officially recognised as a language as it is the closest living relative of spoken Latin.

However, it is the fifth language that is of most interest. This unholy and unofficial half-brother of the four official languages exists for a good reason. Is is not very efficient or cost effective to always use four languages.

If you are trying to shift inventory then designing, producing and placing promotional materials that say
(and a word in Romansch that I can't find online!)
is not a good idea.

A simple sign that says Sale can be understood by all, is cheaper to produce and doesn't take up all that valuable window space used to entice people into your shop.

But beware of thinking that all usage of the English language in Switzerland is so sensible.

In fact, don't think of the use of English at all. It is not like the French adopting English words to create 'le weekend' and 'le parachuting'. This is a (sub)language in its own right - dubbed Swinglish.

The most notable example of Swinglish is the word that the Swiss use to describe what it is to think and behave in a way appropriate to being Swiss - 'Swissness'. An important concept in a country of compromise and agreement.

But there are some occasions where Swinglish provides some confusion and (oft puerile) entertainment for a native English speaker.

Exhibit A is the German for mobile phone - das Handy.

Now, sometimes the Swiss call it a 'Natel' and "mein Handy" doesn't sound quite the same in a Swiss accent. But it's still a bit confusing...


Exhibit B is a popular Swiss German superlative. Through the 20th Century, popular American culture brought words like 'hip', 'cool', 'bad' and 'wicked' to the land of 'super', 'spiffing' and 'ace'. And the Swiss have… 'tip top'.

Exhibit C is the use of the word 'hit' to describe a deal. Remembering that the German language compounds nouns this can lead to some interesting results. Price (Preis) deal is mildly amusing and deal of the day (Tag) a little entertaining. But the supermarket Migros has won my award with this promotion at its cafeteria.


But none of this schoolboy humour can quite prepare you for this range of dental hygiene products. Are you sure you want to put that in your mouth?


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