Making sense of the language confusion

by Julia Slater,

It’s astonishing that the Swiss can understand each other. Not only do they have four languages, but well over half of them speak one way and write another.

Switzerland is at the intersection of three major European cultures – German, French and Italian – and the only language it can truly call its own, Romansh, is spoken by less than 0.5 per cent of the population.

German-speaking Swiss, about two thirds of the population, have a plethora of different dialects, which are mutually understandable, but each with strong local colour.

The 35,000 speakers of Romansh are divided between five “idiomas”, each with its own dialects. In some parts of Ticino there is a difference from one village to the next.

Language is a topic of endless fascination to the Swiss. Swiss German radio has a popular programme, Schnabelweid, where listeners can ask about the meaning and origins of words.

“Da Num e da Pum” in Romansh explores the derivations of names, and Italian language Swiss radio often talks about the dialects of Ticino and the neighboring areas of Italy in its “La domenica popolare” programme. “Intré-No” on the private Radio Fribourg is a weekly programme in patois.

A new exhibition at the National Library in Bern called Sapperlot! takes a closer look at the language landscape of Switzerland. It draws on the rich phonogram archive held at Zurich University, on the archives of the scholarly dictionaries of the four Swiss languages, and on the written holdings of the National Library itself.

“Half the audios are historic, and the other half are contemporary… We wanted to present a colourful potpourri,” co-curator Peter Erismann explained to

read more on SWISSINFO.CH

Note by the editor: I think Switzerland could be an example for many other countries having difficulties with ‘language-minorities’.

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