Fun with Language
Versions of German


In the blog post «Paprika vs Peperoni» I talked about one specific word which is used differently in the German from Germany, and the German from Switzerland. Today, I will make it even worse. As a Swiss person, I know about four different German versions:


  • Swiss German: the dialects spoken in Switzerland
  • High German: the standardized German from Switzerland
  • German language: the standardized German from Germany
  • Hauchdeutsch: a joke term for a confusing mix of Swiss German and High German of Switzerland


That there is a standardized German from Germany and Switzerland often leads to issues in communication when people from Switzerland and Germany try to talk to each other - and do not know about the differences.


Swiss German

Let us start with the so called Swiss German, which is the generic name for many different German dialects in Switzerland. Almost in each canton, or even each valley, there is a slightly different version. Let me make an example, the word «Ammedyysli» (wrist warmers) is used in the region of Basel. If you go to Zürich and ask for it in a shop, they won’t be able to help you until you explain that you mean «Stulpen» (legwarmers) for the wrists. To make it slightly complicated, if you ask for «Stulpen» in Basel, you will only receive legwarmers and none for the wrists.

And if you are wondering how far it is from the «German in Germany»: near the Swiss border they will understand a few words. If you go farther north, they will understand less and less until they think you are talking some foreign language. To be honest, we Swiss people are used to explain ourself to each other because of the different dialects. For me, the worst dialect to understand is the one from Valais.

To keep it fair, in Germany they have dialects too. One of the famous one is from Baden-Württemberg. Apparently, they are similar as the Valais dialect to me: hard to understand for the rest of the country.


High German

In Switzerland, we have a standardized German version which is called «Hochdeutsch» (High German) or «Schriftdeutsch» (written German). This is what we learn in school. For the most part, like grammar, it is the same as the German from Germany. But what is the difference? The most famous difference is that in Germany they use the ß for voiceless s-sound. In Switzerland, we use ss instead of the ß-character. Less known but still different in some situations is the morphology, syntax orthography and pronunciation. Also we have additional words which means a different vocabulary, which can lead to the issue that the Swiss people are not aware of the German synonym – or only know them passive but never using them actively. Let me tell you my favorite example: the wallet is called «Geldbeutel» (money bag) or «Brieftasche» (letter bag) in Germany, but in Switzerland «Portemonnaie» from the French word «porte-monnaie». I’m terrible with orthography, even worse in French. Sometimes it was easy to work around: I simply used the Germany German word instead of our Swiss German word which is based on the French word. Therefore, in my essays in school, you will not find a single «Portemonnaie» but many «Geldbeutel».

Where is this «High German» used? Mostly in written documents, from official government documents to contracts or home work in school and any presentation, which is probably the reason why it is often called «written German». It is also the German we (the Swiss people) are speaking when we are talking to other German-speaking people who are not from Switzerland – if possible, we prefer our dialects.


German language

The «German language» - what is usually meant by «German» - is the standardized German from Germany. In Switzerland we call it sometimes «German German» to distinguish our standardized German from the one in Germany. If you want to compare the two standardized German languages, check out the official documents by the two governments. You will already see differences. For example, «Traktandum» is the Swiss word for «Verhandlungsgegenstand» (agenda item).

I need to make one important remark at this point: The standardized German of Germany changes too. When I was little, nobody in Germany knew what a «Velo» (bike) or «Tram» (tram) is, they called it «Fahrrad» and «Strassenbahn». Today, both are widely used – my guess is that those are now used because they are shorter.



There is one last German version I want to mention: «Hauchdeutsch» (breeze of German). It is a joke term for a German that sounds like «High German» but is not. The errors can be for example incorrect sentence structure, or unknown words or words with different meanings. Different meanings can be the «Paprika vs Peperoni» and also the «Portemonnaie» from before. You can think of «Hauchdeutsch» as a simple translation model based on only a few rules: it takes the Swiss German sentence as input and translates phonetics from «Swiss phonetics» to «German phonetics». For example, the Swiss word «hooch» (high) is «hoch» in Germany. Now our «Hauchdeutsch» system learns oo → o. Now, the Swiss word «Oobe» (evening) is translated to «Obe», but «Abend» would be the correct word.


The summary of this post is simple: if you speak German, other German speakers do not necessarily understand you. To make it worse, neither of you will understand why the other doesn’t understand you, because you both speak German.