Why isn't Swiss German considered a different language?

I understand that the reasons for some variations to be divided into two separate langauges and others to just be divided into different dialects are really more political. In the case of German, the dialect which was spoken in the north, Plattdeutsch, is completely unintelligible to someone who speaks standard German or High German. It’s my understanding that the German government has recognized Plattdeutsch as a separate language, but that was only about 10 years ago, so for most of it’s history, it was considered just a dialect of German.

When you cross the border into the Netherlands, the language they speak is just another variation of the West Germanic language. This is also unintelligible to anyone who speaks standard German, but isn’t very different from Plattdeutsch (I have been told by people who can understand Plattdeutsch and live near the border, that they can understand Dutch). Of course, because the Netherlands is a separate country, their dialect is considered a separate language.

So, why isn’t Swiss German also considered a separate language? It is unintelligible to someone who speaks standard German (I have seen movies in Swiss German with subtitles in standard German, not to mention German people telling me they can’t understand Swiss German) and they’re a separate country.

Thanks for your replies.

The main difference between Dutch and German as compared to Swiss German and German is that written Dutch (as well as the vast, vast majority of spoken Dutch - what your Plattdeutsch friends told you is only true for a very limited subset of Dutch speakers) is completely different from German, and generally cannot be read by Germans. Swiss German, on the other hand, in its written form, may be identifiable as Swiss but any German speaker would be able to read any document originating in Switzerland with as much ease as they would be able to read things from other German-speaking countries.

Ethnologue (which is one of the standard sources on the classification of languages) treats it as a separate language. On this family tree they put Swiss German in the Upper German branch with 7 other languages, and Standard German in the Middle German branch with 10 other languages.

The problem here is that generally documents in German-speaking Switzerland are written in Standard German (especially those that might be read outside Switzerland), and that Swiss German is mostly used as a spoken language. There is a written form of Swiss German, and that does not look much like Standard German.

Why is that a problem, though? I think it is a very relevant fact when discussing why two languages are considered as one (or not) to point out that in writing, they oftentimes overlap - or, in the case of Dutch and German, they never overlap. It totally goes towards explaining why, in spite of your Ethnologue classification, the way people generally conceive of Swiss German is as part of German, rather than a second language. This is not a social construct, so rather than looking at it from a linguistic point of view, you need to consider social phenomena, one of which is inevitably going to be the written language and the language that the government uses, which is going to have its effects on the education system as well, because obviously if the written language in Switzerland is standard German, the kids will have to be able to read and write in it if they’re going to function in society.

Well, that means that Swiss Germans are essentially bilingual, in much the same way as many people in China are essentially bilingual – those Chinese people speak local languages like Cantonese, but can read and write in Mandarin Chinese. The fact that a group like that is bilingual in two closely related languages doesn’t stop them from being two languages.

Simply put–diglossia. The people who speak it consider it the same language as standard German. It is like (albeit to a much greater degree) when people write in a formal style even though they might not talk that way. Other examples of Diglossia are Arabic vs. Egyptian Arabic or Centamil vs. Iyatamil (two versions of Tamil.)

Also, there isn’t one Swiss German, there are many–most are considered High German, I think some near Basel are considered Low German. The Waltzer dialect is considered Highest German. I had a friend from Bern who couldn’t understand another Swiss person from near the border with Lichtenstein when she spoke in her local Swiss German.

As someone who speaks German reasonably well and who has been to the Netherlands a handful of times, I want to disagree with this…you’d be surprised how much you can read, even if you occasionally have to make a guess (like connecting ‘uitgang’ to ‘ausgang’, for example).

Though maybe being an English speaker is helping too; in that example it certainly does, if you can leap from ‘uit’ to ‘out’. But either way the languages aren’t “completely different”.

The languages are obviously related, so in that sense they’re not ‘completely different’ - but they are different languages that are not automatically accessible even if Germans can access Dutch with a relatively small effort, and even if occasional words are similar or even the same. Still, I dare you (I’d actually be interested in the outcome - I hope you’ll accept my dare :)) or any actual native speakers of German (which I’m guessing you’re not - correct me if I’m wrong) to go to the site of a major Dutch newspaper like De Volkskrant and tell me what the articles are about without prior training.

Giles, I’m not trying to say they are or are not two languages - you need to understand that this question is not a linguistic question, it’s a question about the social construction of language classification. Swiss is generally classified as a subset of German - you may disagree on whether that is an appropriate classification, but that is not the issue here. The question is: how did that classification come about? I think that this might very well lead to the conclusion that, for all practical purposes the German-speaking Swiss (to distinguish them from the French-speaking and the Italian-speaking Swiss) are bilingual - I don’t think that’s a very controversial conclusion to reach.

But there’s a difference between ‘completely different’ and automatically accessible, and it was the former I was arguing against. And you’re right that I’m not a native speaker of German…so let’s take a crack at your test, bearing in mind that I’m just trying to give you initial impressions:

“Berlusconi rockster van het jaar”.
Berlusconi, rockstar of the year. Okay, so I picked an easy one. :slight_smile:

“2de generatie Turken minder ondernemend/In de jaren tachtig verschenen de eerste Turkse koffiehuizen, groentewinkels…”
Second generation Turks <something> enterprises (I read this as the German “unternehmen”)/In the (year-decades?) appeared the first Turkish coffee houses, (green corners???).

“Opkomst griepprik ´boven verwachting”
Upcoming flu-something, 'something awaiting. It’s about the flu! Otherwise no idea.

Also typical is something like this: my eye reads
“Klimaatdebat op scherp door gekraakte e-mails” as
Climate debate opens a sharp door on stored emails. I’m pretty sure that’s wrong. :slight_smile:

I’d be curious to see an actual native speaker take a crack at this.

Thanks for all of your replies. My question is really, as Švejk said, how the classification of Swiss German as a subset of German came about. Just from what I’ve read on wikipedia, it seems that Switzerland even gained its independence from the Holy Roman Empire earlier than the Netherlands. The first Swiss Cantons united as early as the 13th century, but the Dutch united in the 15th century. Standardization of the German language, like the other European languages, started in the 15th century. So, why didn’t the Swiss just create their own standard language like the Dutch did?

As for the fact that the Swiss use standard German to write, I think that’s only because they already consider the language that they speak German. They could have created their own language with their own spelling, etc., like the Dutch did.

And Švejk, you’re right, very few Plattdeutsch speakers can understand Dutch, Plattdeutsch is varies a lot all over the place. It’s just that I happen to be living about 50km from the Dutch border right now, so of course, the local dialect here is very similar to Dutch.

FWIW, a century ago or so the French speaking Swiss didn’t speak French–they spoke Arpitan (which is itself a neologism to describe the languages or dialects spoken in Romand)

To repeat what other posters have previously said:
many Swiss German dialects are different from each other, so it would have to be more than one language;
in school, Swiss germans read and write “standard” german.

Also, Switzerland was not formed with its current borders in one day or one year, but over a long period of time, with the separate areas (cantons) joining Switzerland between 1291 and 1815.

I think those are the main two reasons.

I’ve never heard the word “Arpitan” - I’ve learned a new word today! There were also several dialects spoken in the now French-speaking cantons in Switzerland. The “patios” in Geneva was different from the “patois” in Valais or the “patois” in Fribourg. My father was probably in the last generation that grew up speaking “patois Fribourgeois” before learning French in school.

Sample of “patois Fribourgeois”

I’d guess that “gekraakte” means “cracked” rather than “stored”, and I suspect that “door” might mean “through”. But I think it’s equally clear that the sentence is neither English nor German, though it’s in a language that’s related to both. (I know almost no Dutch).

My husband is Swiss, so his native language is the Zurich version, although he has no trouble understanding other Swiss German speakers from other areas.

The famous quote about how what the difference is between a language and a dialect: “A language is a dialect with an army.”

I agree, with door --> durch. I was actually intending to point out a funny thing my head was doing reading some of these.

Agreed. I don’t think anyone would contend that Dutch equals either German or English.

Nice try, but except for the first you didn’t get the main points.

The one about the Turks:

Second generation Turks are less enterprising/The first Turkish coffeehouses and greengrocers appeared in the eighties.

The one about the ‘griepprik’ :

Turnout for flue vaccinations higher than expected.

Last one (difficult):

Hacked e-mails inflames the climate debate (?)

‘op scherp zetten’ means that tensions rise and can also be used for arming weapons.

Darn - I see some of the other resident Dutch were faster. Anyway, thanks for taking up the challenge, that was fun :slight_smile: I think you did a good job on the whole on a word by word basis but except for the Berlusconi one you did not get close to understanding (maybe the one about the Turkish was close though).

That is easy - but still correct :smiley:

Not bad! ‘Second generation Turks less enterprising/During the eighties, the first Turkish coffee houses and ‘vegetable stores’ appeared’.

Turnout flu-shot ‘above expectation’

There’s quite some idiom in here that you’re not going to get at no matter how: Climate debate more tense as a result of hacked emails. Not a very elegant translation, I’ll admit. To put something ‘on sharp’ (iets op scherp zetten) means to raise the stakes, to increase the tension.