Swiss French and Belgian French: What are the differences?

Swiss French and Belgian French: What are the differences?

by Audrey Sivadier

Updated November 9, 2022

Switzerland and Belgium are two multilingual countries, they have at least three official languages each. What is even crazier is that within the same language, French, there are many differences between these two countries, yet they are so close to each other. Here are my tips for recognizing the differences between Swiss French and Belgian French.

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Beg your pardon?

As a Frenchwoman, I love Belgian humor and films with Benoît Poelvoorde or François Damiens. On the Swiss side, I was dazzled by Ma vie de Courgette, an animated film. You can watch these films just like me without any problem because the French are very similar. Likewise, in writing, if you consult Belgian or Swiss websites, you will not see the difference… unless suddenly, there is a number or an expression typically local, and there you will say Hein? Quoi? Beg your pardon?

Swiss French vs. Belgian French: The numbers

Belgian and Swiss are more logical than the French concerning numbers. The madness begins with the number 70. In France, 70 is an addition: 60 + 10 = soixante-dix, and 90 is a multiplication followed by an addition: 4 x 20 + 10: quatre-vingt-dix! In Belgium and Switzerland, 70 and 90 are numbers that respect the Latin root: septante and nonante. However, the Belgians, with their picky humor, have left traps with the number 80, they say like the French: quatre-vingt… That gives septante (70), quatre-vingt (80) and nonante (90). On the contrary, the Swiss are consistent with the numerical logic and say septante (70), huitante (80) and nonante (90)! Even if sometimes, as in Neuchâtel, some people also say quatre-vingt… What a headache!

Different expressions in Swiss and Belgian French

While I was talking with Swiss and/or Belgians, I stopped many times to ask them: Hein? Quoi? What did you say? I needed a decoder while we were speaking the same language!  Now, let’s talk about the most recurrent and funny expressions, but know that there is a beautiful anthology!

One of the most common conversations (as with many cultures) is about the weather. But beware! With the Belgians, if it rains heavily, they will say il drache while the Swiss will say il roille (pronounce it “roy”). If it is cold, you will hear the Belgians say il fait caillant while the Swiss say like the French spoken in France: ça caille.

Belgians and their beers are bons vivants and have many expressions to say they drink a bottomless drink: afonner (to see the bottom “le fond” of the glass) or drink a lot: se prendre une douffe. To say that they are celebrating, the Belgians will say: faire la guindaille while the Swiss will say: faire la noce.

Imagine you are getting to know a Swiss man/woman, and he/she asks you for your Natel number, Hein? Quoi? Natel for the Swiss is their mobile phone, it is a portmanteau word that comes from “National” and “Autotelefon”. Belgians will prefer GSM to write down your number!

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How to ask questions in Swiss or Belgian French

Belgians have the specificity to confuse the verbs savoir and pouvoir. They can easily ask you: sais-tu lire mon numéro? (do you know how to read my number?) instead of: peux-tu lire mon numéro? (can you/are you able to read my number?).

The Swiss will tend to finish all their questions with ou bien, as an audible question mark to ask for a choice or its opposite. It is used in many, many situations. Sometimes you may find yourself hearing it three times in two sentences in a row.

Ça va ou bien ? = Ça va ou ça va pas ? (Are you okay or not?)

Tu as mangé ou bien ? = Tu as mangé ou pas ? (Have you eaten or not?)

Pronunciation differences

Finally, what will allow you to distinguish the two French-speaking countries is their pronunciation.

The Swiss have a reputation for speaking slowly, but the real difference lies in the emphasis on their words and sentences. While French in France insists on the last syllable of words and sentences, Swiss French emphasizes the penultimate one.

Among Belgians, it will be more a question of certain consonants which are very strongly accentuated (the “r” very guttural) or directly exchanged (the[d] becomes[t], as in “grande” pronounces “grant’”) or a set of vowels pronounced oui as in huit (eight) pronounced ouite or cuisine (kitchen) pronounced couisine.

Despite all these differences, the Belgians and the Swiss will agree on one thing: chocolate!

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Audrey has been a French teacher for more than ten years now, and a cheese-lover all her life. She comes from the west of France, and after living 2 years in Spain and 4 years in Oxford in England, she has just settled in the heart of France, in Auvergne, a land of cheese, rugby, Michelin tyres and ancient volcanoes. She definitely prefers the first one. She speaks French, Spanish and English and doesn’t intend to stop there! Find out more about her on her website and LinkedIn.

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