Do you speak Swiss French?

The differences between Swiss German and standard German are widely recognised, but the nuances between Swiss French and the French spoken in France are less frequently discussed. This blog post explores the unique aspects of Swiss French, shedding light on how it diverges from its more well-known counterpart in France. Understanding these differences is essential for anyone interested in the cultural and linguistic landscape of Switzerland.

The Swiss French Language

French is the second most commonly spoken language in Switzerland, one of the country’s four official languages alongside German, Italian, and Romansh. Predominantly spoken in the western part of the country, the French-speaking region, known as the Romande or Suisse Romande, includes the cantons of Geneva, Vaud, Neuchâtel, and Jura, as well as bilingual cantons like Bern, Fribourg, and Valais.

22.8% of the Swiss population spoke French as their first language in 2022 according to the Federal Statistical Office. The largest French-speaking cities include Geneva, Lausanne, Biel/Bienne, Fribourg, La Chaux-de-Fonds, and Sion.

Historical Context of French in Switzerland

The presence of French in Switzerland dates back to the country’s formation. Before 1291, the region was influenced by various foreign powers, including French-speaking rulers. The proximity to France and historical ties led to the adoption of French, particularly in western Switzerland. French-speaking areas began joining the Swiss Confederation in the late 15th century, with Fribourg being the first in 1481, and Geneva the last in 1815. This historical context explains why French-speaking Swiss regions retained their linguistic identity even after becoming part of Switzerland.

Key Differences Between Swiss French and Standard French

While Swiss French is mutually intelligible with standard French, several phonetic, lexical, and cultural differences set them apart.

Simplified Numbering System

One of the most appreciated differences by French learners is the Swiss French numbering system. Unlike the complex French numbers, where 70 is “soixante-dix” (60-10) and 90 is “quatre-vingt-dix” (80-10), Swiss French uses “septante” for 70, “huitante” for 80 (although some regions use “quatre-vingts”), and “nonante” for 90.

Meal Names

In Swiss French, the names for meals reflect older French usage. Breakfast is “déjeuner,” lunch is “dîner,” and dinner is “souper.” This contrasts with the French terms “petit-déjeuner,” “déjeuner,” and “dîner” respectively.

Adieu: A Versatile Greeting

In standard French, “adieu” is a formal and somewhat final farewell. However, the Swiss commonly used to say both hello and goodbye in an informal context.

German Influence

The influence of Swiss German on Swiss French is notable. Many words are borrowed from German, known as “Germanisms.” For instance, “Foehn” (a type of wind and a hairdryer), “action” (sale or promotion), and “poutzer” (to clean) are all borrowed from German.

Education system

In standard french high school is “lycée”, while the Swiss call it “collège” or in Vaud even “gymnase”. The final exam of high school is called “baccalauréat” in French, while “maturité Suisse” by Swiss French.

Unique Swiss French Vocabulary

Swiss boasts its own unique terms. For example, “cornet” means a plastic bag, not an ice cream cone. Other unique words include “natel” for mobile phone, “chenit” for mess, and expressions like “tout de bon!” meaning “all the best.”

Pace of speaking

Swiss tends to be spoken at a slower pace, giving it a more deliberate and clear sound. The French tend to say that “les Suisses prennent leur temps”, meaning “the Swiss take their time”.

Conclusion

Swiss French, while closely related to standard French, offers a fascinating glimpse into the linguistic diversity of Switzerland. From unique vocabulary and phonetic distinctions to cultural nuances, Swiss French enriches the francophone world with its distinctive charm. Whether you’re a language enthusiast, a traveler, or someone considering a move to Switzerland, appreciating these differences will deepen your understanding of the Swiss linguistic landscape and enhance your experience in the French-speaking regions of this beautiful country.

What are some other typical Swiss French words or phrases that you know?

Download our list of Swiss French words and expressions!

This free PDF contains more than 30 Swiss French words and expressions, along with their French counterparts and English translations.

Should you want to take a look on our French courses, click here!

Should you want to read some more on the topic, here is a blog post from Heddi.

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