“Röstigraben”

October 18th, 2010

I want to write some posts about our vacation, a la Bethany’s series on her “highland fling,” but since I already committed myself to answering your questions about life in Switzerland and then promptly left on vacation, it’s probably unwise to suggest that I’m going to take on a series of vacation posts before I at least begin to write to some of the Switzerland posts I put on hold a month ago.

Both Robyn and Claudia asked about the language divide, so I’ll start there.

Switzerland has four official languages: German (spoken by about 63% of the population and dominant in 19 of Switzerland’s 26 cantons), French (20%, 4 cantons), Italian (almost 7%, 1 canton and part of another), and Rumantsch (0.5%, spoken only in parts of the canton of Graubünden). The cantons of Bern, Valais, and Fribourg are bi-lingual German-French; Graubünden is tri-lingual German-Italian-Rumantsch. (You can find a handy little map showing the language distribution here.) Rumantsch, by the way, is a lovely and musical indecipherable little language I dream of learning one day simply for the sake of it. (I love this commercial, which will give you a taste of Rumantsch and is worth listening to even if you don’t understand a word of it. The older Steinbock is speaking Rumantsch and the younger translates it into Swiss-German. And if you’ve never been to the Graubünden, you’re missing out. It’s my favorite canton.)

The percentages I listed above don’t quite add up there, do they? Those numbers measure “mother tongues” and Switzerland has a very large immigrant population – about twenty percent of Swiss residents are not Swiss citizens* and a large portion of those people speak a native tongue that is not an official Swiss language. When measured in terms of “public use” it looks like this: German, 74%; French 21%; Italian 4%; Rumantsch 1%. Take my case for example: if asked for my mother tongue I would say English but if asked for the language I use in public life (the box I check on forms when asked what language I should receive correspondence in, for example) I would say German. 

I’m coming from an outsider’s perspective on this, of course, and to make it worse I’m an outsider with a bias: I can consume the German-language media but not the French, so I get German-speaking Switzerland’s side of the story and the French story filtered through the German lens (am I giving you a headache yet, because I’m giving myself one). My take on the language divide in the country – the German-French divide seems to me the only one that matters because everybody generally ignores the Italian-speakers: for example kids in German-speaking Switzerland are required to learn French in school and kids in French-speaking Switzerland are required to learn German in school and nobody, as far as I can tell, is required to learn Italian – is that French Switzerland (or the Romandie) is ever on guard against being dominated by German-speaking Switzerland. Several years ago when Micheline Calmy-Rey was up for a seat in the Bundesrat – the seven-member executive governing body in Parliament – one of her major selling points was that she was from the Romandie; there is an unwritten rule (at least I think it’s unwritten, though it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find it’s an actual rule) about ensuring representation for French-speaking Switzerland. Which is a fair point but begs the question: what, beside the language, makes French-Swiss and German-Swiss view each other as so different? Why are they worried about being “dominated” by each other if they’re all Swiss.

The differences between the regions are real. It’s not just the language that changes when you travel from Bern to Geneva. The menus aren’t just printed in French, they feature French food. I would go so far as to suggest that Swiss living in Geneva are more aware of what’s going on in Paris than Bern, but maybe that’s just my standing-outside-peering-through-the-window take on it. (And I supposed it’s just as likely that Swiss in Zürich are more up to speed with Berlin than Geneva.) Or consider the Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton: Everything about the Ticino  is like a little piece of Italy. The architecture changes. The food. Cultural norms, wardrobes, street life.  There are also some clear political differences between the regions: French-Swiss tend to approve of closer ties with the EU, for example, at much higher rates than German-Swiss and are less likely to approve of harsh anti-immigrant/foreigner measures than German-Swiss.

The Swiss know this about themselves, they’ve even got a word for it: it’s the famous “Röstigraben,” the divide (literally trench, Graben) between the French- and the German-speaking regions (if you can read German, there’s even a wikipedia page for Röstigraben.  Rösti, a hash-brown like potato dish, is a staple of the German-Swiss diet and is far less popular in the Romandie - the idea of a Röstigraben taps into all the linguistic and cultural and, yes, political, differences between French-speaking and German-speaking Swiss. (It also reinforces my feeling that the Italian-Swiss often don’t figure into the thinking of French- and German-speaking Swiss.)

I think it’s easy to make too much of the language divisions though. My father-in-law is as German-Swiss as they get but sets great store on his French; the whole family (but for me) speaks perfectly lovely French. And when Swiss with different mother tongues of R’s generation come together for a business meeting or Army duty, rather than battle it out over who will switch to their second language, they’re likely to just all speak English together instead. (Which horrifies my father-in-law.) And the Swiss claim any Swiss as their own. It’s a small country – a population of just under 8 million people, not all of whom are citizens – and successes on a world stage for a country that small are rare. No French-speaking Swiss cares that Roger Federer hails from German-speaking Basel and nobody in a German-speaking canton is going to turn up his nose at the Neuenburger Didier Cuche. I’m seeing all of this from the outside, of course, though as an outsider who’s becoming ever more of an insider.

Two years ago I went to a reading by the German poet Jaochim Sartorius at the Leukerbad Literaturfestival. He was reading from his collection Hôtel des Étrangers and before he began he told a story about how he had to convince his publisher to publish his collection, which is written in German, under the French title. Of course in Switzerland, he said, nobody thinks twice about a German-speaking author using a French title for his book, but in Germany it’s a bit strange. And he is right. It hadn’t exactly occurred to me that the title of his book was in French, or it hadn’t occurred to me to think about it one way or the other, because after ten years in Switzerland I’m used to that sort of language mash-up.

I think the Röstigraben doesn’t always have to be a trench; when seen from a bit of a distance it can look like one of Switzerland’s greatnesses, actually.

* Some of this is due to restrictive Swiss citizenship requirements which result in plenty of people being born in Switzerland, attending the public schools, getting a job and living here their whole lives and never acquiring citizenship because their parents are immigrants. It’s a rant topic for another post for sure.


4 Responses to ““Röstigraben””

  1. rswb on October 19, 2010 5:44 pm

    I think that the frenchies are at a bit of a disadvantage in some ways as the “middle” language group of the country. The italian-speakers seem to realise that they have to make the effort because they’re such a minority and, as you say, no one else really learns their language (that being said, Reto learnt italian at school for quite a few years, as well as french and english. Is it really that uncommon?). The german-Swiss are lucky that they can learn french at school and voila, be pretty at home in Romandie, but for the french-Swiss (and for us the foreigners who move here and have to cope) Swiss german is the real stumbling block. Learning german at school is all well and good, but not understanding swiss german always leaves you at a bit of a disadvantage in my opinion. It also seems to me that for the french-swiss, being a sizeable minority (politically, linguistically, culturally) in their own country might create a bit of an attitude of not wanting to make such an effort to kowtow in order to blend in with the majority.

    That being said, my husband, who is swiss german and works in Bern but lives in Fribourg, called in sick for work one day last week. He phoned his (french swiss) boss and, in the 2 minute conversation that ensued, he spoke 4 languages (french, high german, swiss german and english). Aah, Switzerland.

  2. Nicolette Wong on November 27, 2010 9:59 am

    I have a good friend from Switzerland and it’s always confused what languages he speaks, esp. he’s also learnt to speak perfect Mandarin and some Cantonese. it’s funny how the different cultural aspects of the same country come into a ‘cross-over’.

    i’m hosting the Dec edition of Lang/Place and i hope you’ll send something again.

  3. Jennifer on November 28, 2010 1:28 pm

    @ Robyn – yes, I agree, the Swiss-German can make a French-Swiss feel out of place in her own country. I’ve been in High German classes and “Understand Dialekt, Speak High German” classes with native Swiss, born and raised in the Romandie. Then life brought them to Bern – 100 miles, perhaps, from their home town – and they had to take a language course. In their own country!

    @ Nicolette – thanks for stopping by. I’ll be sending something for the December carnival.

  4. Blog Carnival at Magpie Days on December 13, 2010 9:02 pm

    [...] “Röstigraben” post is part of the first >Language>Place blog carnival which is full of stories and [...]

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