Monday, October 19, 2015

Country Profile: The Languages of Switzerland

Over the last few weeks, we've looked into the linguistic diversity of countries like Israel, Honduras, and Azerbaijan, which each have either one or two official languages. However, this week we're taking a look at a little country nestled in the Alps that has an impressive four official languages: Switzerland!

The Official Languages

The four official languages of Switzerland are German, French, Italian, and Romansch. However, they do not all enjoy exactly the same degree of "officialness", since laws and other government documents do not have to be created in Romansch, unlike the other three languages.

Val Trupchun in the Swiss National Park
The most spoken of these four languages is German, which is the native language of over 60% of the Swiss population. Most of these people speak Swiss German, which is not a standard variety of the language but instead a group of dialects used in Switzerland. These dialects often contain loanwords from French and Italian, and occasionally even English. Swiss German also has differences in phonology and grammar that make it so difficult for Standard German speakers to understand that Swiss German speakers are often subtitled on German television.

French is the second most spoken language in Switzerland, and is the native language of about 20% of the Swiss population. It is primarily used in Romandy, a large swath of western Switzerland. Many of these speakers use Swiss French, which is a group of dialects used in Switzerland, just like Swiss German. However, Swiss French is not nearly as different from Standard French as Swiss German is from Standard German. Swiss French only has a few minor lexical differences from Standard French, and French speakers from France and Switzerland can easily understand each other.

Third place goes to Italian, which is used by over 6% of Swiss people. If you've noticed the pattern forming, then you might have guessed that most Italian speakers in Switzerland speak Swiss Italian. It also consists of a group of dialects used in Switzerland, but once again, the differences from Standard Italian are relatively small and come from the use of French and German loanwords. Italian is primarily spoken in southeastern Switzerland.

Last but not least, there's Romansch, also spelled Romansh, which is used by about .5% of the Swiss population. This Romance language is primarily used in bilingual areas of southeastern Switzerland. It has been a national language since 1938 and an official language since 1996. Romansch is used in schools in Romansch-speaking areas, but there are few monolingual speakers of the language today since most people in these areas also learn German.

Other Languages

With all of those official languages vying for attention in Switzerland, there isn't much room for other languages to take hold. However, there are four mentioned by the Ethnologue that we felt were worth mentioning: Lombard, Sinte Romani, Walser, and Arpitan.

Lötschental Valley in Switzerland, where Walser is spoken.
Lombard is a Romance language that is closely related to Italian. However, both Italy and Switzerland consider it to simply be a dialect of Italian. There are about 300,000 native speakers of Lombard in southern Switzerland, as, well as over 3 million in northern Italy.

Sinte Romani, on the other hand, is a variety of the Romani language spoken by about 21,000 people in Switzerland. Due to the linguistic influence of German, it is not mutually intelligible with other Romani languages used around the world.

Switzerland is also home to about 10,000 speakers of Walser, a Germanic language spoken in the Swiss canton of Wallis, which is known as Valais in French. Since it is primarily spoken in isolated areas and has retained many features that are no longer used in Swiss German, it is quite difficult for Swiss German speakers to understand.

Finally, there are about 7,000 native speakers of Arpitan, also known as Franco-Provençal or Romand. This Romance language is used in French-speaking areas of Switzerland, as well as small parts of France and Italy.