There’s no such thing as a Swiss language – but there are four official languages in Switzerland to choose from.
A lot of people assume that Switzerland has its own language, which they generally call, naturally enough, Swiss. Trust me when I say that for translation services professionals, asking us if we “speak Swiss” is as annoying as any question we’ll ever be asked, because there is no such thing as a “Swiss” language. Switzerland has, in fact, four official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh (although Romansh is spoken by a small number of Swiss folks).
Of course, that’s not to say that these four languages are spoken exactly as they are in their native countries – the Swiss have made these languages their own, and more accurately you would refer to them as Swiss German, Swiss French, and Swiss Italian, reflecting the Swiss influence on each. They’re all spoken in different areas of the country, and many of the official sections of Switzerland (known as Cantons) are bilingual or even trilingual.
The Rise and Fall
The language situation in Switzerland isn’t static; in fact, it’s changing all the time. Sixty years ago, nearly three-quarters of Swiss citizens spoke German, and almost none spoke anything but the four main languages. Today, the German percentage has dropped to just over 60%, while almost 10% of the households in Switzerland speak a language other than German, Italian, French, or Romansh. Romansh itself has dropped dramatically from 1% of the population to 0.5%. French and Italian have moved up and down over the years but today are at basically the same levels as in 1950.
The 9% of other languages is a mixed bag, combining traditional Romance and Germanic languages like Franco-Provençal, Lombard, Walser, and Sinte with immigrant languages brought recently into the country, like Serbo-Croatian, Slovenian, Albanian, Portuguese, Spanish, English, Turkish, Dutch, Greek, Russian, Chinese, Thai, Kurdish, Macedonian, and even Bulgarian. In that sense, Switzerland rivals the United States for sheer variety of languages spoken by its citizens.
Switzerland and Translation
As one might well imagine, this means that the translation industry inside Switzerland is booming. Not only does every Swiss citizen have the right to communicate officially with the government in any of the four official languages, and receive a response in that language, but just doing business in Switzerland can mean translating Swiss German to Swiss Italian, or to Greek or Kurdish. Much as in the USA, even though these languages have no official status in the country, sometimes it makes sense to cater to those populations. After all, if you’re trying to sell something, you can’t necessarily ignore 9% of the population.
So, the lesson here is don’t ever ask a translator if they speak Swiss! And if you’re planning a trip to Switzerland, make sure you choose a language to communicate in – and don’t just go with Swiss German because it’s most spoken – check to see what’s spoken in the Cantons you’ll be visiting!
Image courtesy worldofmaps.net