Schwiizerdütsch, the language that plays
Like a hyperactive small dog with my to-ing and fro-ing, I am now back in Switzerland and writing this post on the eve of my departure for Germany. A number of reasons contributed to my exit from France, none of which are especially provocative so no need to worry. One simple way of explaining it is to say that I picked sides. No one ever asked me to of course, my allegiance to France loosened of its own accord following a number of incidents, which include watching one young French guy express great disgust after hearing that I had tried to learn some Swiss German (Schwiizerdütsch) while in Switzerland. In his response I saw several things: intolerance, a sense of superiority for his own culture, and ignorance about what Swiss German actually is – i.e. pretty different in numerous respects to German. Swiss German folk speak both Swiss German and (High)German, while Germans have genuine difficulty understanding Schwiizerdütsch. Swiss German is technically a spoken language, and only turns up in written form in informal mediums of communication such as email and internet writings.
I find the language in stark contrast to the image and understanding most people would have of Switzerland and its citizens. Namely that of being orderly, reserved, clean ( ) and staid.
It’s a language that implies movement. Simply put, its sounds are very up and down. Descriptively put, some parts of their words create sounds like that of a smallish round stone plopping into the river; of sand shaken within a container to slosh against and fall back from its walls. Of an object pushing into and then bounding off of a material that’s slightly elastic but still innately taut; and of a spring being twisted closer and closer around into itself.
Speaking Swiss German means to let sounds be held, sometimes even seemingly unstretchable sounds such as percussion consonants that introduce or end a word (for example can you imagine somehow teasing out and giving longer life to the “per” of percussion or the “d” of end?); and brass/string instrument-sounding twangs found more in the middle of words. Letting these sounds be held and then released. But it is a reluctant release all the same, often the very first syllable of a word is produced and kept around in such a leisurely way that you would believe that the rest of the word would also keep that initial feeling of a kid shuffling their feet as they left the park for home. For the most part listening to Schwiizerdütsch evokes in me the sense of someone who’s in the process of tripping while they can still catch themselves. The holding of sounds is the tension and the suspension of the moment that seems to stretch in truth to infinity when the person is first falling. The release of the sound is then the sudden abrupt “stop” as the person stumbles forward and jarrs against their rescuing foot and leg to interrupt the descent.
Not only in sound but in use is it a language for dawdling. To demonstrate my point I give you the prime example of the Swiss habit of saying “Auso…….” when they’re ready to leave each other and mutually agreed on parting ways. It’s equivalent to the French word “Alors”, having a rough meaning of “so……” or “alright then…..”. It’s thus a non-committal filler word that facilitates moving along in some direction, although you’re not going to specify or propose the direction yourself. What I find endearing and adorable with “Auso” is that it’s secretly the real goodbye. Goodbye, the word, might have been spoken 5-10 minutes before someone physically walks away, at which point they might make a “tsk” noise or exhale just a little more noticeably and then let out the “Auso…………” My suspicion is that not only is the Auso…. a cultural quirk, but a way for Swiss people to not actually ever leave one another. Although once the Auso is spoken people might leave straightaway, it’s always said in a drawn-out way and seems to linger in the air afterwards, substituting for the bodies and minds that once inhabited that space. Another reason why I like the Auso…. is because it’s a sort of display of culture-specific manners, and yet is a pleasantry that is executed to come out awkwardly, or rather, to express awkward feelings. “I’m gonna go… I don’t have much more to say…” or “I don’t really want to leave but I have to go…” or “Maybe you’d be cool with me staying longer but… I’m gonna go…” It’s a kind of honesty spoken through openly being maladroit.
To sum this all up, contrary to my French acquaintance I have admiration for Swiss German because it is probably one of the most effective ways to get the most out of sound, to really capture sounds. This feature combined with their myriad of strange expressions that rhyme no less (e.g. ä svärg im bärg – a dwarf in the mountain), their penchant for putting “-li” on the ends of nouns to signify a smaller or cuter version of the noun, and the fact that it is a language that lacks precision and whose use is not dictated by rulebooks, makes me take a fair amount of pleasure in observing and and listening to the people of dr Schwiiz. I know that they take a lot of pride in their language (however it is spoken as their own regional dialect of course), but I guess one thing I am really curious about is whether they actually take pleasure in producing and hearing these sounds that conjure up so many vivid images in my head.