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.

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12 thoughts on “Schwiizerdütsch, the language that plays

  1. yes, yes yes. A most pleasing language. I imported a Swiss student just so I could hear Swiss German and the sounds brightened my day.

  2. You wrote “dwarf” as “svärg”. I guess that’s close enough, but most Swiss people would write and pronounce it as “zwärg” 🙂

    The “Auso” thing is an awesome observation. I never noticed it, but it’s totally true, especially around Zürich. In other places, people also say things like “Hey” or “machs guet” (do it well, have a good time or something along those lines) to say goodbye.

    As for the question of whether we take pleasure in producing and hearing these sounds… I guess it’s just our language. I never really thought much about how it sounds to people whose first language is not Swiss German. But I think there is more playfulness in how we speak, compared to, say, Americans, which may be a result of the fact that there are no official rules, as you point out. Swiss people like to make up their own words and phrases, and local communities or “social groups” (like friends, or colleagues) often have unique words that nobody else understands. Different local terms are actually a pretty common workplace discussion if Swiss people from different places work at the same office (“so, how do you guys call the first piece of a fresh loaf of bread? Morgeli? Mutschli? Aahöieli?”), and there’s a lot of pride in local terms (“Du besch ke Lozärner wenn ned weisch was en Bomper esch” – “You’re not really from Lucerne if you don’t know what the term Bomper means”).

  3. It’s funny to read about our language as seen from the outside, I think you’re pretty on target with some of your analyses…

    What I always enjoy observing is when I write a word with letters that, if I would read them aloud, would sound totally different. An example: in the phrase “jo ond nei” (yes and no), I would actually pronounce “nei” as “näi” or “naai”. Or I would say “ich bin” (I am) as “ech ben”, but I never write it that way because I – here it comes – trip over it if I read that again! (I would pronounce the “e” too low and too far back in the throat).

    But this makes it also fun to write it, because you can be so inventive! I love to double letters, for example (“iich bin”).

  4. Hey Lukas, thanks for correcting my zwärg 🙂 How very Swedish and unSwiss to have spelled it that way!

    It’s been great reading these comments, I’m glad you guys have mentioned as well the Swiss penchant for making up new words and playing around with spelling.

    It entertains me how there’s such a gap between the reserved, proper, disciplined image that Swiss people have as a citizenry, and the fun and play inherent in the language. After having read a few blogs written by foreigners living and working in Switzerland, I can see that they miss out hugely by learning High German to get by. High German is of course more practical and necessary for them, but it’s going to take them so much longer to get to the fun, good stuff in the Swiss spirit when they don’t have the crazy language with all it’s surprising little inserts of crudeness (huere guet? :)) in everyday use; creative new words and expressions; and just the fun that you guys have with sound in sayings and rhymes. Without Swiss German they’re going to see locals as more behaved, innocuous and generic than they really are.

    I guess having High German as your media/professional language – your front – allows Swiss German to remain completely free. It seems to be a language that you guys tangibly feel and respond to in real time. For example Peter, you’re not the first Swiss German speaker I’ve come across who’s mentioned how it’s not so straightforward knowing how to sound or spell words in Schwiizerdutsch at a given moment. I find that weird but being a language geek I also kind of like it. It lets me imagine that the portions of your brain devoted to language are fresh and self-refreshing. Open to possibilities.

    It is so funny though…. that a land known for its rules and standards maintains this still pretty secret secret of having a language that runs completely amok. Every country has different groups and subcultures that shape language their way, but I find it interesting that for as organised as Switzerland is (especially the Swiss German parts eh?) there’s somehow been an insistence that the language remain exempt from imposed order.

    Anyway, merci vüu mou for your comments. And though I love it, I refuse to gracefully excuse myself with an Auso now… I must always be free to tease it along with everyone who uses it 🙂

    P.s. Bomper = potato?

  5. As an American who grew up attending Zürich’s fine public schools, and whose Swiss-German was often mistaken for that of a native Zürcher, I would write “auso” as “also.” “Also, göh mer dänn?” “Sooo…should we head out?”

    • 🙂 Swiss potaytoe potahtoe

      Having been taught and influenced by someone more of the Bern & Solothurn persuasion, I have been obliged to use “u”s instead of “l”s. Such as “merci vüu mou” instead of what I assume is “merci vil mal”? Hmmm… wish I could think of some more examples ‘cuz I know there are plenty, but access to memory bank is temporarily denied.

      Actually I recently heard an Italian guy saying something that sounded like “Auso”. I was thrown, but he could have been saying Ah so or Also 🙂 Though, Ah so sounds nothing like Auso.

  6. Hehe, it’s so funny to hear other people talking about our language. We just spent 20 days in guadeloupe (caribbean island) and there were surprisingly many people enjoying our funny language. one of the most difficult thing to say seems to be the “ü”, “ä”, “ö” etc.

    what we did was installing one of those swiss german dialect apps on their cellphones, like “Mundart” on for Android, and we just had a blast with all those words…. we had to pronounce them over and over again.

    so, as we say: tschüüüüüssss

  7. Pingback: Book Review: Hausfrau | MJ's Book Blog

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