The Swiss Language That Few Know

The Sarine River skirts the edge of Basse-Ville (lower town), dividing both the canton of Fribourg and the city of Fribourg into two sectors: German-speaking and French-speaking. The city of around 40,000 people is clearly one of duality: street signs are all in two languages; residents can choose whether their children will use French or German in primary school; and the university even offers a bilingual curriculum.

However, head to medieval Basse-Ville, caught between the German- and French-speaking divisions of Fribourg, and you’ll find yourself in a no-man’s land where the two languages have become one: le Bolze.

Speak to any Swiss national, and you’ll likely find them enthralled with the topic of communication, probably because languages are so incredibly diverse within this small country. The nation can be geographically divided into three major language groups. The south, which shares in the famous lakes of the Swiss-Italian lake region, is Italian-speaking. To the west near Geneva is French-speaking; while central and eastern parts of the country, such as Zurich and St Moritz, rely on German (and the south-eastern canton of Graubünden even includes Romansh speakers).

It gets even more confusing when you throw in the various dialects, such as Franc Comtois, a French dialect spoken in Switzerland’s Jura and Bern cantons; and Swiss German, which is learned at home and only used conversationally (as opposed to ‘proper’ German, which is both written and spoken, and taught at school).

Among all this linguistic complexity, the city of Fribourg/Freiburg (as it’s known in French/German) has the added challenge of lying on the language borders between French- and German-speaking cantons – Vaud and Bern – which is perhaps why it’s home to a people who decided to develop their own language.

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Switzerland’s invisible linguistic borders

It was one of the shortest train rides I had ever taken: just 10 minutes and one stop from the Swiss city of Neuchâtel. Yet when I disembarked in the small municipality of Ins, everything seemed, somehow, different. At first, I couldn’t put my finger on it. Something about the architecture perhaps? People’s body language? Even the air, crisp and ridiculously fresh in that distinctively Swiss way, felt somehow changed.

I walked for a while, befuddled. I was still in Switzerland, that much I knew. I had not crossed any international border. Then I glanced at a street sign, and I knew. I had unknowingly crossed the Röstigraben, the amusing term for the invisible line separating German- and French-speaking Switzerland.

Röstigraben means literally ‘rösti ditch’ or ‘rösti trench’ (in French, it’s rideau de rösti, or rösti curtain). The term dates to World War I, when Switzerland’s loyalties were divided along linguistic lines. Rösti is a traditional Swiss-German meal consisting of pan-fried potatoes, and, well, more potatoes, sometimes with bacon, onion and cheese. Geographically, the Röstigraben roughly follows the Saane river (Sarine in French). You won’t find it on any map, though. It is a border of the mind, albeit one imprinted on the Swiss mind from a young age.

Like other types of borders, the Röstigraben is not crossed lightly or unwittingly, except by foreigners like myself. Nearly half of all German-speaking Swiss cross the divide only once a year, and 15% have never crossed it, according to a recent survey conducted by the research institute Sotomo on behalf of telecommunications company Swisscom. Crossing the Röstigraben “seems more like temporarily emigrating to a dangerous place, where you will not understand what people say,” Swiss non-profit executive Manuela Bianchi, told me, only half joking.

Her story is typically Swiss, which is to say not typical at all. With an Italian-speaking father and a German-speaking mother, she grew up speaking both languages at home, adding French, as well as English, at school. Yes, Switzerland’s multilingualism can be burdensome at times – most food products list the ingredients in three languages – but overall she considers it “a wonderful blessing”. Multilingualism is to Switzerland what politeness is to the British or style to the Italians: a deep source of national pride. It is, though, in typical Swiss fashion, an understated pride. It is considered ‘un-Swiss’ to brag about one’s linguistic abilities, or anything else for that matter.

Read more: BBC Travel