Languages and dialects

The four official national languages German, French, Italian and Romansh are spoken in many dialects, which are often very different from the written languages.

A restaurant window advertising dishes in Swiss German dialect.
Few people write in dialect, so a restaurant window with menus in Swiss German grabs the attention of passers-by. © Mundartbeiz

Swiss German

Swiss German is the most widely spoken language in Switzerland. It is not a single language but a collection of distinct Alemmanic dialects.  Most people living in German-speaking Switzerland speak a Swiss-German dialect.  Swiss German is the default language of everyday life and is spoken by all, regardless of their social class.

Dialects vary considerably from one region to the next. The Swiss German spoken in Basel is not the same as the Swiss German spoken in Zurich or Bern.  There are also many subdialects. Swiss German speakers can nevertheless understand people speaking in a different dialect.

Certain dialects are renowned for their highly specific regional character or particular accent, such as the Swiss German spoken in the remote valleys of Upper Valais, or Seislertütsch, the dialect spoken in the German-speaking part of the canton of Fribourg.

Swiss German is not a written language, although it is sometimes used informally to write messages. Standard German is used for all formal, written communication.  Children only learn standard German when they start school.

French

French is the official language of the western part of Switzerland.  Every region has its own idiosyncrasies and accents, but the French that is spoken and written in Switzerland is largely the same as standard French.

Franco-Provençal dialects (patois) were still widely spoken right up until the mid-20th century, although they have all but died out today.  Patois is still spoken – mostly by older people – in some parts of Valais, the Jura and the canton of Fribourg.

Italian

Italian is the official language of Ticino and the southern valleys of Graubünden.  Lombard dialects are also still widely spoken today.

Romansh

Although Romansh is only spoken by some 10,000 people in certain parts of Graubünden, it has five distinct dialects: Sursilvan, Sutsilvan, Surmiran, Puter and Vallader. Graubünden is not the only place where Romansh is spoken; there are also minorities in Friuli and South Tyrol in Italy who speak Romansh dialects.