Simpson Swiss Blog
 

 

 

 

Living in Switzerland
– Mind Your Language

Although I have lived in Switzerland for the past 10 years, as an outsider, I often see life in Switzerland from a very different perspective to the Swiss.

I’m an outsider (Auslander) because I was not born here ( I’m a Brit) and I still struggle to learn the language which in the eastern part of the country I live is German (Deutsch). Well actually strictly speaking it’s Swiss German a distinct variant of High German as spoken by people in Germany.

Swiss German and High German are quite different and those people that only speak one of these languages would not be able to understand the other. For those native Swiss who speak Swiss German not all of them would be able to understand each other either, as there are a few dialects that mean some Swiss are unintelligible to other Swiss.

I frequently raise an eyebrow among the Swiss when they ask me how long I have been here, since when they get the answer (10 years) they don’t understand why I haven’t yet learned the language.

Not wishing to offend them in any way I usually make something up, like I’m not good at learning languages, which is actually true but not the entire story.

The truth is I hate the German language for a variety of reasons.

  1. It’s unnecessarily complex and I’m sure created by academics to impress each other.
  2. I find the language coarse in its construction and a barrage to the ear.
  3. It’s spoken by Germans, who I find arrogant and aggressive with a superiority complex.
  4. The language derives from a country that my father and grandfather fought two world wars against, so why would I want to learn their language or a derivative of it.

If I lived in the part of Switzerland that borders with Italy I would need to learn Swiss Italian, or in the part that borders with France it would be French. Learning French or Italian the languages of love not war would probably suit me better.

 

For me the purpose of any language should be to facilitate two-way communication between one or more entities, in this case people. German does not score well in facilitating communication because of the complex series of rules that apply to the spoken and written forms of the language.

Most higher order languages have a defined structure (with exceptions) involving rules of spelling, grammar and pronunciation. But German takes this to extreme limits with a complexity of unnecessary rules that actually create significant barriers to communication.

Perhaps this was part of the German effort to demonstrate their superiority when in fact it does the opposite, particularly when you see the literal use of words used to describe common items.

For those of you who know nothing about German let me give you some examples.

In German, footwear would be called “Schuh” pronounced very similar to “shoe” in English and something you would wear on your hands would be … literally “Handschuh” or handshoe.

There are quite a number of examples like this in the German language that might indicate that at one time the language developed at a simple level. I mean why invent a new word like “glove” when you can use existing words like hand and shoe to form handshoe.

But the simplicity stops there because someone else must have taken charge of the language.

In English there is one form of the word “the”.

In German there are three basic forms "der", "die", "das" and each has to be associated correctly with the word you would use it with.

I don’t want to embark upon a lesson in German but these are referred to as the feminine (die), masculine (der) and neutral (das) forms. So the Man would be der Mann, the woman would be die Frau and the child das Kind.

Ok, you might be forgiven for thinking that this doesn’t sound so bad, all you have to do is think about whether an item would be a masculine word or a feminine word or a neutral word (neither masculine or feminine).

So let’s try the words “skirt” or “Rock” in German.

In English you would say “the Skirt” in High German would it be die Rock, der Rock or das Rock?

You have to believe me when I tell you this is very important to know because a lot of other aspects in the German language depend on you knowing this.

Well skirt or Rock you would think logically is a feminine item so it would make sense for it to be die Rock wouldn’t it. Well you’d be wrong, it’s "der Rock".

What about a woman’s bra, a feminine item, so that you would think is die BH (BH pronounced BayHa is bra in German). Not so, it’s "der BH".

Perhaps at some time German men wore skirts and bra’s so that’s why they are considered masculine words, your guess is as good as mine.

So for every word in the German language you need to learn the form of der die or das that’s associated with that word.

But is doesn't stop with three forms of the word "the" there are also three more which are dem, den and des which are used depending on the context of the sentence. So, just what is the point of having six versions of the simple word "the" ?

They also have two forms of the word “a” and many different forms of the same word.

For example in English you would say I buy, we buy, you buy, they buy. In this context there is one form of the word buy.

In German the same word “buy” or “kauf” could have four different forms depending on the context in which it’s used in which case it could have the forms kaufe, kaufst, kauft or kaufen and this does not take into account the different forms of the word for plural and past tense.

If you think all this is unnecessarily complex that’s just the beginning, the tip of the iceberg.

 

German is also a very formal and disciplined language and this formality in the language tends to make the German speaking Swiss also somewhat formal and disciplined in their outlook on life.

In fact, one could characterize the German speaking Swiss as disciplined, formal, bureaucratic, somewhat uptight and hardworking to the point of being workaholics.

In essence the Swiss Germans and their culture are a reflection of the language they speak, as are the Swiss French and the Swiss Italians. But ask the Swiss if they like the Germans and the most frequent answer is a definite NO.

Tony Simpson - June 28, 2011.