The Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung reports that Swiss German, until now almost only ever spoken, is the language of choice in computer mediated communication for the young of German-speaking Switzerland. It is taking on a written form to an unprecedented extent. According to the article, it could become a parallel written language alongside standard High German. Such a view reflects a realistic approach to language, which many commentators on English, particularly the uninformed, could with benefit adopt.
In a post a couple of years ago, I mentioned briefly how the various Swiss German dialects exist alongside the standard variety of the language. Towards the end of 2012, I described the attempts being made to start teaching one or other of the Swiss German regional dialects in French-speaking schools before the introduction of High German. Reporting a further development, the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung recently carried an article about the way in which technology is prompting young Swiss to produce a written form of Swiss German. The article mentions in particular the Facebook group, Schwiizerdütsch. It is liked by over 270,000, much more than is the case with comparable German language and English language sites. A request for dialect words for Pfütze (puddle) prompted 1400 comments.
The article suggests that such developments put an end to any idea that Swiss German is any longer a purely colloquial medium. Technology has led to an increase in the amount of writing produced generally, and the use of spoken Swiss German for writing is an unexpected result. A parallel written language seems to be emerging, more spontaneous and less formal than the traditional form. Helen Christen, Professor of German Linguistics at the University of Freiburg, is quoted as saying ‘For young people, what we use in speech has recently become reflected in the written language. Personal matters are expressed in the spoken language, public matters in the standard language. Young people are becoming bilingual in their written language.’
The first signs of unifying tendencies are already present. Conventions are appearing, such as sh for sch and x for gs. So, High German Hast du gesehen (‘Have you seen?’) is Hesch gesehen in Swiss German, which gets abbreviated to Hesh xeh. The shorter, the better – and, in text messages, cheaper. The young are leading the way. They are writing in this style to their elders and they even send emails to their teachers in the spoken language, something unthinkable ten years ago.
All this is inevitably having an effect on the use of High German. For many Swiss, there is no place in everyday communication for High German from which they feel an emotional detachment. The local dialect is the preferred medium for the expression of private and intimate thoughts. Closely allied to this is the question of identity. ‘Rescue your colloquial language’ proclaims the Facebook site, ‘Swiss German risks being lost, and it’s important to distinguish ourselves from our northern neighbours.’
It could be that in the foreseeable future two forms of the written language will emerge. Written dialect may come to be used not only for private matters, but for public ones as well. Such a development would not be unprecedented. In Luxembourg in 1984, Lëtzebuergesch, a collection of local dialects, was named a national language. A grammar was compiled and to some extent it is used in schools. Officials are required to answer letters in the language in which they are written. Newspapers carry articles in Lëtzebuergesch as well as French and High German. Here’s an example, from Wikipedia:
D’Schwäiz ass e Staat a Mëtteleuropa. D’Land grenzt am Norden un Däitschland, am Osten u Liechtenstein an Éisträich, am Süden un Italien an am Westen u Frankräich.
It may only be a matter of time, concludes the article, before we can read in Wikipedia about Luxembourg in Swiss German.
I have reported this at some length, because it contrasts with the rigid way in which many people think about English. No social stigma is attached to the regional Swiss German dialects in the way that many English regional dialects are spurned. We rightly pride ourselves on the ability of Standard English to be widely understood, even though it is not widely spoken. We should be less proud of the belief that other forms of the language are worthless. David Crystal has tried to debunk the myths surrounding computer mediated communication, in his book ‘Txtng: The GR8 Db8’ and in this interview. I hope that this post may lead any who read it to pay attention to his expert evaluation, based as always on sound research and imbued with good sense.
Linguistic variation, particularly in vocabulary, in the different dialects of Swiss German exceeds that found in the English spoken in the United Kingdom, where regional and social variation is much more noticeable in accent. But there is a difference between the formal written language, that is, the Standard English dialect, and the language of posts on Facebook, emails, texts and so on. Those who can express themselves in both varieties of the language, and who are sensitive to the occasions on which each is appropriate, will have the greatest chance of communicating effectively, and may even have some fun along the way.