Swiss German Dialects

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There are many Swiss German dialects, for example, Basler, Berner, Züricher. Each village and each Alpine valley has its own version. There are certain distinctive sounds in the language, such as the guttural ch for k in addition to German ch; the ending li for lein, or a light v sound for l, especially in the Emmental. The Swiss dialects are Alemannic.

The Anabaptists survived the 16th century in only two areas of Switzerland; namely, around Zürich and in the Emmental east of Bern. When they immigrated to non-Germanic lands they retained their Swiss dialect; those who went to German-speaking lands adopted the German dialect of the region. In a single generation in the Palatinate the Zürich and Bernese Anabaptists had completely adopted the speech of the new land. The Emmental Mennonites who found refuge in the French-speaking Bishopric of Basel, in the French-speaking part of the Sundgau, and later in Ohio and Indiana, retained their Swiss dialect. In the Holee and Schänzli congregations in Basel the dialect is not used in services. In the remaining Swiss congregations the services have always been conducted in dialect. The Les Bulles and Pruntrut congregations are, however, changing to French. In the Emmental the current dialect is used. But also in the congregations in the Bernese Jura, whose members are descendants of expellees from the Emmental, the dialect has been almost perfectly preserved. In services the Scripture reading and hymns are in official (High) German, but addresses and prayers in dialect. In the Mennonite schools of the Jura an effort is made to retain the dialect. A drama, Barbara (Bern, 1948), by Heinrich Künzi, dealing with the Anabaptists in the period of persecution, is written in the Bernese dialect.

In Wayne and Putnam counties, Ohio, and in Berne, Indiana, services were conducted in Bernese Swiss until well toward the close of the past century. Most of the churches changed from the dialect to standard German before changing to English. Today in the Swiss communities of Ohio and Indiana most persons over 30 years old can carry on at least a limited conversation in their Swiss dialect. The dialect as spoken here contains many old Bernese words nearly extinct in their homeland, and also many Anglicized terms hardly recognizable by either the Swiss or Americans.

The Swiss are proud of their dialects. In the Bern cantonal parliament the Bernese dialect is used. Early school instruction is given in the local dialect. Important dialect authors have been Rudolf von Tavel, Simon Gfeller, Albert Bächtold, and Johann Howald, who translated Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts into "Bärndütsch," giving the language a standard orthography and grammar.

Author(s) Delbert L. Gratz
Samuel Geiser
Date Published 1959

Cite This Article

MLA style

Gratz, Delbert L. and Samuel Geiser. "Swiss German Dialects." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. 30 Jun 2022.

APA style

Gratz, Delbert L. and Samuel Geiser. (1959). Swiss German Dialects. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 30 June 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 671. All rights reserved.

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