Like German and French, Italian has full official status on the federal level in Switzerland: all laws and official documents have to be written in these three languages.
Romansh has "partial" official status, i.e. it is used on the federal level when needed for communication with Romansh speakers.
However, each Swiss canton and, generally, even each community can choose which language to use for its own official communication.
Italian is the only official language of the Canton of Ticino and one of the three official languages of the Canton of Graubünden.
Romansh is recognized as an official language only in the Canton of Graubünden, (the largest Swiss canton, but with less than 200,000 inhabitants, also the canton with the lowest population density).
According to an article about Swiss languages published in July 2016 by swissinfo.ch, German (both High German and Swiss German) is spoken by about 63% of the population, French by about 23%, Italian by about 8%. Romansh is spoken by less than 1% of the total population.
The Third Swiss Language: Where Italian is Spoken
Swiss Italian is the Italian spoken in the Canton of Ticino and in the southern part of the Canton Graubünden. (see map of Ticino, right and map of Graubünden below)
The territory of present-day Ticino was annexed from Italian cities in the 15th century. With the creation of the Swiss Confederation in 1803, the lands were named Ticino, after the largest river in the area. To read up on the history of Ticino: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ticino
The official name of Ticino is Repubblica e Cantone Ticino (Republic and Canton of Ticino). Because of historical ties, the people of Ticino have a strong cultural affinity to their Italian neighbors.
Ticino is the only canton where Italian is the sole official language. Over 87% of the people speak Italian as their native language, around 666,000 according to Ethnologue. (About 10% speak German, and about 5% speak French.)
In the Canton of Graubünden about 15% of the population speaks Italian (just under 30,000).
Please note: The numbers and percentages I'm quoting show some variation in the French, German, English, and Italian articles I consulted about Swiss languages.
Swiss Italian - Svizzero Italiano
Over the centuries, the Swiss Italian language has been influenced by the local Ticinese dialects and the other national languages, French and German. There are Helveticisms (words typical for Switzerland), differences in idiomatic usage and syntax, and loan words (not known in Standard Italian).
Here are a few loan words that come from French or German:
To book, reserve (a room or table) Italian: prenotare. Swiss Italian: riservare. French: réserver.
Change, money back Italian: resto. Swiss Italian: ritorno. French: retour.
In addition to Swiss Italien, a part of the population of Ticino speaks Ticinese, which is a group of dialect varieties of the Lombard language. For many Italian speakers, Ticinese is difficult to understand.
Ticinese has now been named an endangered language. (According to Ethnologue, there are 303,000 speakers of Ticinese in Switzerland.)
The Fourth Swiss Language: Where Romansh/Rumantsch is Spoken
The Romansh language is spoken primarily in the southeast of Switzerland, in the Canton of Graubünden, where it has official status alongside German and Italian. (Besides the two spellings above, there are a number of other ways to spell the language.)
Romansh is a descendant of Vulgar (or spoken) Latin. In 2012, it counted just over 36 thousand people who called it their main language. At 0.9% of Swiss citizens makes it the least spoken of the four official Swiss languages.
The spoken Romansh language is generally divided into 5 dialect groups, which together form a continuum. Still, there are recognizable differences even from village to village. The most widely spoken dialect is Sursilvan, which is used by more than half of the speakers of Romansh. In addition to the 5 major dialects, there are a number of other recognized dialects.
Although they are closely related, the Romansh dialects are not always mutually comprehensible. For that reason, when speakers of different varieties talk with each other, they tend to use Swiss German rather than their own dialect. Apparently for Romansh speakers, identity is tied largely to the local dialect region.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, grammar and spelling guidelines were developed for the regional written dialects. Now, each of the 5 Romansh dialect varieties has its own standardized written language. Romansh is taught in some of the local schools.
In 2000 a bilingual high-school diploma was introduced in Graubünden. Since then, if they wished, students have been able to follow studies and graduate in Romansh/German or in Italian/German.
Pan-Regional Rumansch Grischun
There were attempts to create a unified written Romansh language in 1867, and again in 1958, but these did not gather much support during the early days. A main criticism was that such a created language would be artificial and destroy the Romansh cultural heritage.
Nevertheless, attempts to introduce the standardized Rumansch Grischun in local schools have continued. Finally, in 2015, a hesitant compromise was reached: This unified version of the language is not to be introduced before grade 7. As expected, both supporters and opponents are unhappy.
How do the Swiss Manage?
In researching this topic, it became clear to me that accommodating these four languages and various dialects remains a challenge for Swiss communities and their government.
Resentments between language groups continue to exist. And still Switzerland, a small country of only 8.5 million inhabitants, is somehow managing.
One key may be the autonomy that the individual cantons and communities have in choosing their official language(s), and how and where the languages are taught, etc.
Maybe direct and frequent voting gives the citizens a sense of control? Maybe becoming bilingual by the time they get to school let children become more tolerant towards other languages?
Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She's a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitterand Instagram, and leave any comments right below!
In our previous post, we focused on the bilingualism of many Fribourgers. The German spoken in Fribourg is clearly of the Swiss German variety, with a few French expressions mixed in at times.
And while Swiss German is the generic label for the dialect, there are plenty of regional differences that a foreigner would only detect after a while.
When you're traveling in countries where you speak the language, you may notice that both formal and informal greetings often vary from region to region.
For example, when we were traveling in Northern Germany a couple years ago (see our post: From Utrecht to Hamburg: Dialects and Travel Tips in Northern German), we first couldn't make out the informal greeting we heard everywhere: “Moin.” We first thought it was an abbreviation of “Morgen,” as in “Guten Morgen” (Good morning), but it was clearly used all day.
Digging a little further, we found that while “morgen” may be one etymological explanation for “Moin,” another one could be the Dutch, Frisian, and Low German word “moi,” meaning “beautiful” or “good.”
This week we are exploring a few Swiss German expressions we encountered while skiing in the "Berner Oberland". (Above picture of "Saaner's Loch)
“Grüezi” and a Swiss German Ear-Worm
To get a little taste of the Swiss German language, listen to this YouTube Video of a popular song by a Swiss group, The Minstrels, from the late 60s.
It was the #1 song in Switzerland in 1969 for 10 weeks, made it to #3 in Germany, and sold over 1.5 million copies in 27 countries.
Even if you know some German, you'll have a hard time understanding the simple refrain. But listening to it a few times, you'll start distinguishing verbs, their grammatical modifications. You'll also pick up a few Swiss German idiosyncrasies.
Ja, grüezi wohl Frau Stirnimaa Ja, grüß sie wohl, Frau Stirnimaa (Hello there, Ms Stirnimaa)
Sagget sie, wie labbet sie, wie sind sie de so dra? Sagen Sie, wie leben Sie, wie sind Sie denn so dran? (Tell me, how's life, how's it going?)
Grüezi wohl Frau Stirnimaa Sagget sie, wie labbet sie, wie gaht's denn ihre Ma? Sagen Sie, wie leben Sie, wie geht es ihrem Mann? (Tell me, how's life, how's your husband doing?)
Quick note: There is no standard written form of Swiss German. Letters and letter combinations are mostly attempts to express the way words sound.
And while you'll notice how the verb forms and endings are different from Standard German and hear how the “n” and “m” endings are dropped, we won't try to explain much more.
Just listen to the Swiss German language melody.
Swiss German in the Berner Oberland
This week the public schools in the canton of Bern have vacation, and besides a little French, we hear mostly Swiss German in the villages and on the mountain between Zweisimmen and Gstaad.
Even for us German speakers, some of the Swiss German we come across is a little hard to understand.
Briefly: In general, the dialects spoken in Switzerland (collectively called Swiss German) belong to the Alemannic variety of German.
Greetings: “Grüezi” vs. “Grüess eech”
Grüezi is arguably the most well-known Swiss German greeting. It's an abbreviation of “Gott grüez i” or literally in German: Gott grüß euch. (May God greet you.)
A variation of “Grüezi” is “Grüezi mitenand,” with “mitenand” (“miteinander” - together) making it clear that the greeting is for more than one person.
This greeting is used mainly in the Zurich area and in the east of Switzerland.
In the western part, around Bern and Basel, it's more common to hear “Grüss eech,” which also means literally: Gott grüß euch.
Indeed, here in the Berner Oberland, we've been hearing “Grüss eech” or “Grüess eech mitenand,” all over the place: when entering a restaurant, going into a shop, when sharing a gondola or chair lift with others. People even greet you as you're walking in the village.
In a restaurant: the verb “sein” - “sii” and “gsi” (or “gsy”)
Today, we ate on the terrace of a mountain restaurant. After greeting us “Grüess eech mitenand,” our waitress asked: “Was derfs sii?” - Was darf es sein? (Lit: What may it be? Meaning: What can I get you?)
When we finished our meal and she started to clear the table, she asked: “S isch guat gsi?” - Ist es gut gewesen? (Lit: Was it good? Meaning: How was the meal?)
Swiss German uses a shorter and older form of the verb “sein.” Instead of “sein,” it's “sii” and instead of “gewesen,” it's “gsi.”
Meal time: “Ä Guätä!”
It was a beautiful, sunny day and the terrace was crowded. So, as is typical for many European countries, we shared our table with other restaurant guests.
We ordered “Röschti” (Rösti), which are fried potatoes prepared in a typical way in Switzerland. A meal of Röschti comes in all kinds of combinations: with a fried egg, with ham, with vegetables, etc.
Note also: The letter combination “st” (appearing anywhere in a word) is pronounced “sch.” The German word “ist” becomes “isch” (the -t is dropped)
We were served first, and when our meal arrived, our table neighbors wished us “Ä Guätä!” This is literally, “(Have) a good one!” and best translates to “Enjoy your meal!” The equivalent in Standard German would be: Guten Appetit! literally: Good appetite!
When we finished and were ready to leave, while our table neighbors received their meals, we wished them “Ä Guätä!”
Other useful words and phrases we heard
We often heard teenagers saying “Sali” or “Sali mitenand.” - Hallo, alle. - Hi everybody. “Sali” is less formal than the greeting “Grüezi.” It comes from the French “salut” (hi/hey).
The French “Merci” (thank you) has been appropriated by Swiss German as well, and you hear it alone or also as “Merci vilmals” - Vielen Dank (Thanks a lot).
The German “Auf Wiedersehen” (Goodbye) has the Swiss German equivalent of “Uf widaluege,” and means the same, “luege” - sehen (to look).
Probably a leftover from the old telephone technology of bells, if you want to say “I'll call you,” you'd say “Ich lüt dir a.” This literally means: Ich leute dich an, or Ich leute bei dir an (I'll ring you.)
If you're just learning German and are trying to understand Swiss German, don't despair. Even native Germans have a tough time understanding rapidly spoken Swiss German, even more so speaking it.
But as with any language or dialect you want to learn, there are many ways to do it.
Here are three iPhone apps that will help you: Gruezi Switzerland (free), Schweizerdeutsch Lernen ($0.99), and uTalk Classic Learn Swiss German ($9.99).
We have not tried any of these yet, so let us know what you think below.
Bio: Ulrike & Peter Rettig are co-founders of Gamesforlanguage.com. They are lifelong language learners, growing up in several European countries before moving to Canada and the United States. You can follow them onFacebook,Twitter, andInstagram.
Visiting the town in Switzerland where I spent several years working in my first job, reminded me of my French language learning days. Fribourg or in German Freiburg (im Üchtland) is a bilingual city, and not to be confused with “Freiburg im Breisgau,” which lies in the Black Forest.
Pure immersion aficionados may well scoff at this: But working and learning French in a town where my native language German was well understood, had many advantages for me.
For one, I could always revert to German when my French instructions to the draftsmen in the structural engineering firm where I worked, were met with a doubtful stare.
Also, when the rapid French in a shop or restaurant was still beyond my listening skills, I could typically get a German, or Swiss-German translation, thereby generating “comprehensible input.”
CANTON FRIBOURG'S ROAD TO OFFICAL BILINGUALISM
The canton of Fribourg is one of three Swiss cantons that are officially bilingual. The other two are the cantons of Bern and of Wallis/Valais.
Fribourg entered the Swiss Confederation in 1481. Throughout the centuries both French and German were spoken in the region. For the canton of Fribourg the road to official bilingualism was a complicated one, with plenty of detours.
Since the early days, there have been various shifts. At first, German was the language used by the government (1483-1798). Then between 1798 and 1856, French and German alternated.
From 1857 on, both languages have had official status in Fribourg, but until 1990 only French was legally binding. Since 1991 both languages can be used for a binding contract.
Only the two north/northeast districts of the canton (of a total of seven), are predominantly German- speaking. It's more likely that residents of those districts learn and speak French, than residents of French-speaking districts learn German. (A possible reason? Many French speakers may be reluctant to learn Swiss-German.)
At this time, around 63% of the about 300,000 people in the canton of Fribourg speak French, 21% speak German, and close to 4 % speak Italian (which is not an official language in the canton).
A few years ago, the “Day of Bilingualism” (Journée du bilinguisme/Tag der Zweisprachigkeit) was set for September 26 and coincides with the European Day of Languages to foster language learning and bilingualism.
In the public schools of the canton of Fribourg, students learn a second language from grade three on. In communities where German is spoken, students are encouraged to learn French as the second language, and vice versa.
Nevertheless, in spite of such efforts and policies to foster bilingualism, language differences remain a point of discussion and sometimes also of controversy.
THE CITY OF FRIBOURG
The city of Fribourg is right on the language border between French and German. About 40,000 inhabitants live within the city proper. This number increases to 60,000, if adjacent suburbs are included and to nearly 100,000 for the larger metropolitan area.
A few years ago, the completion of a new suspension bridge and the closing of the arched Zähringer Bridge diverted traffic from the neighborhood near the Cathedral and created another Fribourg landmark. (see picture)
Official city statistics mirror the language distribution of the canton as a whole. Still, it seems that there is a greater concentration of bilinguals living in the city, which may be in part because of the university.
The University of Fribourg (created in 1889) is Switzerland's only bilingual university. Both French and German are used as languages for teaching and for the administration.
In 2009, the Institute of Multilingualism was founded, which conducts research of how multilingualism affects education, the workplace, and migration.
Because the two languages intersect throughout the city, you'll find interesting signage in French, German, and also in Swiss-German dialect (which has no standard written form).
During a visit a couple of years ago, Ulrike had a tiny cameo role in a YouTube clip "We are Happy from Fribourg" by a Fribourg film maker. He used the Pharrell Williams' song "Happy" from the movie "Despicable Me 2", similar to what other Swiss cities have done. Maybe you can spot her at ~2.36 minutes into the clip, which also shows many images of Fribourg.
In fact, she was walking through the Farmer's Market where you can always find many delightful language tidbits. This time as well.
On Saturday morning, Fribourg has a farmer's market that stretches from the City Hall Plaza down the Grand Rue. Vendors from the region as far as (French-speaking) Lausanne come to sell their wares. When I'm around, I spend an hour or so poking around and I always find some language learning opportunities.
Interestingly, the vegetable and fruit stands seem mostly set up by farmers that speak Swiss German.
For the first time in all the years, I saw a stand that sells snails. The “Schneckenpark” translates into French as “Élevages d'Escargots.” The above picture on the front of the stand explains both expressions: the raised, slanted boards of the snails' park.
Another stand advertises in typical German compound-word fashion: “HOLZBACKOFENBROT AUS BIO GETREIDE” and with the wordier French: “PAIN FAIT AU FOURNEAU DE BOIS & CEREALES BIO.” Both translate to something like “bread made with organic flour in wood-burning oven.”
Not all stands advertise bilingually. Some have signs that are only in French or only in German. When it's Swiss German, even I sometimes need the help of a local person.
Take this sign of a Swiss-German butcher: The word “Metzger” (butcher) abbreviated to “Metzg” presents no problem. But hey, how about “gglùschtig's ù säüber gmacht's”? To decode that, I had to dig deep into my Swiss-German language memory.
The word “gglùschtig's” means “tasty, a pleasure to eat” - not to be confused with the German word “lustig” (funny). I'm not sure about the double “g” and the grave accent on the “u.” Probably, it's a way to represent Swiss-German pronunciation.
The word “säüber” is as tricky as “gglùschtig's.” One could easily confuse it with the German word “sauber” (clean). But the letter combination “äü” suggests the sound of a word closer to the German “selber” (self).
The word “gmacht's” is easy and just means “made.” The suffix “-'s” (for “Gemachtes”) adds the idea of a “made” product.
So “gglùschtig's ù säüber gmacht's” would best be translated as: “tasty and homemade (or self-made) products.”
LANGUAGE LEARNING WITH FRENCH & GERMAN SIGNS
With its medieval town center and old ramparts, the city of Fribourg is a great place to walk around and explore. When you pay attention to street signs or signs on shops and restaurants, you'll see some interesting words and language combinations.
French sign in a restaurant window: Les croûtes au fromage
These are bread slices dipped in white wine, topped with cheese, (often also with cornichons and tomatoes) and grilled in the oven. The advertised prices and types of preparation indicate a substantial meal.
la croûte – the rind
le fromage – the cheese
Street signs combining French and German.
One of the quarters of Fribourg is called “Schoenberg,” a German word meaning “beautiful mountain.” (Note that in the French spelling, the German umlaut is replaced by an “oe.”)
One of the roads leading up to the quarter is called “Chemin du Schoenberg” (chemin – the French word for way, path.)
Not everybody loves this French specialty: Beef Tongue
German/French sign in a restaurant window: Rindszunge/Langue de Boeuf
la langue, die Zunge - the tongue
le boeuf, das Rind - the beef
les capres/die Kapern - the capers
German speakers may notice a spelling error on the German sign: It should say "Rindszunge IN Kapernsauce"
Strolling through the city streets you'll see many signs that make you smile.
A favorite of mine is the one above the Rue des Epouses, which I described in a previous post 11 Language Clues from German and Swiss Signs. Look for item#11, if you need a translation of the French or the German, which is on the other side of the sign.
If you ever visit Fribourg and the Cathedral, or are looking for the above sign, you'll also pass by the bookshop Librairie "Bien-être" on one side, and the modern furniture store "Forme + Confort" on the other side of la Rue des Epouses.
In "Bien-être" you'll find all kinds of books (in French) about well-being, alternative medicine, etc. And - you can say hello to my sister Ingrid.
Bio: Peter Rettig is the co-founder of Gamesforlanguage.com. He is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact or below.
The Italian Travel Memories expand on our GamesforLanguage travel-story based courses, which use the cities' real street names, places, restaurants, hotels, etc. We visited many of them ourselves and tell you a little more about each Italian city.
The travel stories, which are the basis of our GamesforLanguage courses, use real street names, places, restaurants, hotels, etc., many of which we visited ourselves.
In future blog posts, we'll provide additional details for the other cities our young travelers visit in Germany, France, Italy, and Spain.
Pisa is Marco's first stop in Italy, a university town with a long history, and known the world over for its Leaning Tower.
Visiting Pisa? Here's a short introduction to this historic Tuscan city to help start your own Italian travel memories.
We'll follow Marco's discoveries in Pisa, for those of you who have done or are doing our Italian 1 course: Marco in Italia.
In our travel-story course, you learn everyday conversational language. Here, we've listed a few basic terms in Italian that will help you in your travels.
Quick Facts about Pisa
The city of Pisa is located in Tuscany, one of Italy's 20 Regions. It lies near the mouth of the Arno River, about 50 miles west of Florence and around 5 miles from the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
(Note: Italy is further divided into 96 provinces, with the city of Pisa being the capital of the Province of Pisa.)
Pisa's origins date back at least to the time of the Etruscans, 5th century B.C. Later, it became a Roman colony and rose to the status of an important port city. During the early Middle Ages, the Republic of Pisa developed into a powerful maritime nation, involved in lively trade and power struggles around the Mediterranean.
Pisa's decline was accelerated after the 15th century when the Arno River started to silt up.
Now a quiet university town of around 90,000 inhabitants, the city of Pisa is renowned for its art and architecture.
[Please Note: PISA is also an anagram that stands for The Programme for International Student Assessment. That has nothing to do with the city. PISA is a recurrent study that measures the scholastic performance of 15-year-old pupils worldwide.]
Marco Magini is a young student who learned some Italian at home and later studied it in school. However, this will be his first visit to Italy.
During his flight to Pisa, Marco chats with the flight attendant and with the woman who sits next to him - all in Italian. It's a perfect way for him to practice his language.
His flight lands at the Pisa International Airport, also named Galileo Galilei Airport, and the main airport in Tuscany.
Marco continues to use his Italian as he goes through passport control. He explains to the officer why he is traveling to Italy and how long he'll stay.
Corso Italia and Ponte di Mezzo
Marco's aunt, uncle, and cousin Valeria live on Corso Italia, which leads through the city center, from Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II to near Ponte di Mezzo.(see picture)
If you're in Pisa at the end of June, you could watch a traditional spectacle, the Battle of the Bridge (called "Gioco del Ponte") which takes place on the Ponte di Mezzo. Two teams battle it out: the Mezzogiorno (the neighborhoods south of the Arno) against the Tramontana (the neighborhoods north of the Arno). It's Pisa's most important annual event. (Find more information HERE .)
The centrally located Ponte di Mezzo takes you over the Arno River to the other side of the city. Standing on the bridge, you get a stunning view of the river bank and the shops and buildings there.
la città - the city
la bocca - the mouth (of a river)
mezzo - central, half, halfway
il gioco - the game
il mezzogiorno - the south, midday, noon
la tramontana - the north, north wind
Travel Memories in la Piazza dei Miracoli
No Italian travel tips about Pisa without the Leaning Tower! It's just a 15 minute walk from Ponte di Mezzo to the Piazza dei Miracoli (also called Campo dei Miracoli).
The Piazza dei Miracoli includes a number of magnificent buildings: The Cathedral (begun in 1063), the Baptistry (built between 1153-1284), the Campo Santo cemetery (started in 1278), and the Leaning Tower (completed in 1350).
The buildings combine Moorish elements (arabesques) with Romanesque colonnading and spiky Gothic niches and pinnacles.
Apparently all of the buildings on the Piazza dei Miracoli lean to some extent (which you can see on the picture above). They're constructed on soft soil composed of mud, sand and clay, which started settling soon after building began.
Because of its height, the Tower was most in danger of eventual collapse. It was closed to the public from 1990 to 2001, as an international team of engineers found a way decrease the lean and to stabilize the tower.
la passeggiata - a walk, stroll
15 minuti a piedi - a 15 minute walk
l'edificio - the building
il campo - the field
il duomo - the cathedral
la torre - the tower
pendente - leaning
il campanile - the bell tower
la terra - the soil, earth
On the way back to Corso Italia, Marco and his cousin Valeria stop at Borgo Stretto, a picturesque street with shops, bistros, and cafés, on the northern side of the Arno. There, Marco buys a travel guide.
Afterwards, they go to a café for an Italian-style coffee and pastry: Marco orders "un macchiato," Valeria "un cappucino," and they both have "una crema di mascarpone con i cantuccini."
(And, if you are like us: Many travel memories come back with the food or drinks, we tried while there.)
il borgo - the borough, district (in a town), village
stretto - narrow, tightly bound
la strada - the street
i negozi - the shops
una guida turistica - a travel guide
un macchiato - an espresso with a "stain" of milk
macchiare - to stain, add a splash (of sth)
crema di mascarpone - dessert made of Italian cream cheese
cantuccini - twice-baked almond cookies, biscotti
Other Places to visit in Pisa
Piazza dei Cavalieri (Knights' Square): Historically the headquarters of the Order of Knights of St. Stephen, the square is located in Pisa's student quarter.
Banks of the Arno: A walking tour along one of the banks of the Arno River is especially beautiful in early evening.
Mural "Tuttomondo" by the artist Keith Harding: 1989, painted on the back facade of the church of St. Anthony. It shows 30 characters put together like a puzzle, each one representing an aspect of the world in peace.
Museo delle Navi Antiche (Museum of Ancient Ships): Archeological museum of ancient ships with nine well-preserved Roman ships, discovered during an excavation in 1998.
Marco's Next Stop
From Pisa, Michael takes the train to Florence. There he gets together with a friend he had met in Boston.
Have you been to Pisa and have more travel memories and suggestions? We'd love to hear from you!
Bio: Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage.com. She's a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitterand Instagram, and leave any comments right here!