A guide to Swiss French

A guide to Swiss French

by Anne-Lise Vassoille

Updated November 7, 2022

Switzerland may be a small country renowned for its neutrality, but it’s certainly not a dull place! The country is full of surprises and atypical traits. Some of its most famous countrymen gained fame for challenging the status quo: Jean-Jacques Rousseau is one of the most celebrated philosophers, who is often considered as one of the founding fathers of modern democracy. Closer to our times, Jean-Luc Godard helped redefine French cinema, as one of the leading figures of the French New Wave. Switzerland also belongs to the very exclusive club of French-speaking countries outside of France. And, as one of the four official languages spoken in Switzerland, Swiss French has a unique identity and place in the land.  

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Why is French spoken in Switzerland?

The linguistic puzzle of Switzerland is rooted in its history. When the three cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden signed the Federal Charter in 1291, the brand-new Confederation was entirely German-speaking, with several Swiss German dialects. However, from the 15th century, it extended its sphere of influence to the south of the Alps, by the Italian border, and to the west, in a French-speaking region. This effectively changed the linguistic map of the country. French gained increasing importance in the following centuries, thanks to the prestige of the French language and culture and to the growing links between France and Switzerland. 

At the very end of the 18th century, the Helvetic Republic formally recognized the equality of languages, as well as the equality of citizens. Between 1815 and 1830, during the Restoration that followed Napoleon’s control over the Confederation, German took over as the dominant language, partly as a reaction against the French language. The situation changed again when the Federal state of 1948 officially adopted German, French and Italian as national languages. 

However, it’s not until the 1990s that the matter of the protection of cultural and linguistic diversity was inscribed in constitutional documents. It concerns both national languages, which are spoken throughout Switzerland, and official languages, which are used for official reports from the Confederation and the cantons.

As of 2019, there are 1.6 millions people in Switzerland whose main language is French, which represents nearly 23% of the total population. If you include people who speak French on a daily basis, then the percentage reaches about 33%. But in which parts of Switzerland are they to be found?

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What are the French-speaking parts of Switzerland? 

Without too much surprise, the French-speaking parts of Switzerland are on the border with France, in the western region of Romandy. They include seven cantons, with four cantons exclusively speaking French (Vaud, Geneva, Neuchâtel and Jura) and three bilingual cantons: Valais and Fribourg are mostly French-speaking, while Berne is mostly German-speaking. In effect, this means the cities in the cantons of Valais, Fribourg and Berne have two names, one in French and in German, and their street signs are written in both languages.

Differences between Swiss French and standard French

With borders with France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Liechtenstein, the geographical position of Switzerland has allowed its unique melting pot of cultures and languages. Throughout its history, Swiss French has slowly but surely evolved from the French regional dialect of franco-provençal, also known as arpitan, with influences from local dialects and Germanic loan words. Like Belgian French, Swiss French is a close variant to standard French. The differences between the three French variants mostly concern the vocabulary, for instance the words for specific numbers and common phrases.

Another distinctive aspect of Swiss French is its accent. It’s often characterized by its supposedly slower articulation speed. This particular feature has been repeatedly caricatured in films and in TV adverts, maybe most notably in a series of Ovomaltine ads from the 1980s. According to different linguistic studies, there is at least some truth to this stereotype, though factors of sex and age may be also contributing to this somewhat slower way of talking.

Get familiar with the French spoken in Switzerland

Characterized by some differences in vocabulary and an accent marked by a somewhat slower diction, Swiss French is a close variant of standard French, which has evolved throughout the centuries to become what it is today. It is mostly spoken in the western parts of the country, in seven cantons not too far from the French borders.

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Anne-Lise is a translator and copywriter working for various industries, such as hospitality and travel, as well as health and well-being. Settled down in London since the end of her university years, she cannot get enough of the exceptional cultural life in the English capital city, starting with theater, be it to see a new West End show or to roll up her sleeves with her amateur drama group. She is also interested in photography, as her Instagram profile shows. She indulges her passion for languages in a translation blog she writes with other linguist friends. Go to her Linkedin page to know more about her background and her professional experience.

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