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This question has been inspired by the fact that I’ve recently heard the Swiss talk among each other and I started to dig deeper. Having done minors in Italian and American studies which each included different depths of linguistics, I found it fascinating how I couldn’t make out a single word while speaking German.

Then I learned Swiss German (Allemanic) and Standard German differ substantially — the former doesn't have all the cases like dative, accusative, nominative and genitive, but only two; it has different suffixes; word orders and of course a lot of loan words well integrated in its vocabulary and some mutually unrecognizable variations of common words among other specificities.

I read more, but I couldn’t find an answer as to why Swiss German is classified as a dialect as opposed to a whole different language. A Slovak will understand a Czech and vice-versa — they are still different languages. Same is true for Serbian and Croatian, but in turn, they are considered one language: Serbo-Croatian.*

Conversely, I found the following anecdotal evidence in comments about the topic to support that Swiss German is, in fact, it’s own language:

“I'm Swiss myself but I had a similar experience once. I was using a public bathroom and overheard a conversation between two women. I couldn't understand what they were saying and I didn't recognize the language at all. Until it suddenly dawned on me that they were speaking Swiss German. I'm from one end of the country and they were from the other. it took me several minutes to realize that they weren't speaking in a foreign language and I still didn't manage to understand half of what they were saying.“

Furthermore, the following even more extreme example:

“In the RS (military bootcamp) we had on[e] guy from [G]risons and one from [V]alais that couldn't understand eachother (sic!) at all. Some of us from cantons inbetween (sic!) had to translate for them [as they each were talking their own Swiss German dialects].”

A native speaker of Standard German will not understand a Swiss speaking Allemanic; and a Swiss German would not understand Standard German if Swiss Standard German would not be taught and used in formal education and in the limited written settings as it is. Television, ads, news papers, even politicians in the federal congress will speak Swiss German and will only use (Swiss) Standard German for keeping records and the laws, regulation and executive actions are probably set forth in the Swiss Standard German (the formalized standard as accepted in Switzerland which may slightly differ from Standard German in Germany).

I see the cultural and/or political motivation for the non-claiming of these two languages, but I don’t see a philosophical or linguistic reason for it; accordingly, is there such a reason or how could it be argued?

*Corrected

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  • Standard German is normally used for written material, I don’t think there is even an agreed standard for writing Swiss German. No Swiss German newspapers as far as I know. Nov 30, 2021 at 0:14
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    "I read more, but I couldn’t find an answer as to why Swiss German is classified as a dialect as opposed to a whole different language. A Slovak will understand a Czech and vice-versa — they are still different languages. Same is true for Serbian and Croatian." ← when you notice that sort of thing, I personally take it as a strong hint that "languageness" vs "dialectness" is often defined politically more than linguistically, even when it's defined by linguists (though sometimes to a lesser degree), simply because the politically-incorrect claim won't be deemed acceptable to make.
    – LjL
    Nov 30, 2021 at 1:21
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    Not to cite Wikipedia as a valid source, but just pointing this out since Wikipedia is sometimes nicely stubborn in fighting against politically-based definitions: Serbo-Croatian is one language on Wikipedia, even though it is given a bunch of alternative names, is immediately stated to be pluricentric, and there is of course a lengthy section about the language-vs-dialect controversy.
    – LjL
    Nov 30, 2021 at 1:23
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    Switzerland has an army but no navy.
    – jlawler
    Nov 30, 2021 at 2:55
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    @Ned I'm pretty sure that jlawler was referring exactly to that, except the original quote (not really a definition that is seriously used in linguistics, just a recognition that it can be true in practice) is "a shprakh iz a dyalekt mit an armey un flot", jlawler's joke being that Switzerland has the one, but not the other. Deepest apologies to jlawler for explaining the joke.
    – LjL
    Dec 1, 2021 at 2:07

3 Answers 3

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Is the premise of the question actually true? Alemannic German actually is considered its own language for many purposes. For example, it has its own ISO code, Wikipedia etc. As far as I know, there's no serious debate about the fact that it's extremely hard for an ordinary standard German speaker to understand the Alemannic German dialects of Switzerland.

The ambiguity about the classification revolves around a few points:

  1. Alemannic is composed of many dialects and has no single standard.

  2. Alemannic dialects and other German dialects are part of the same dialect continuum.

  3. Standard German and Alemannic co-exist in diglossia - standard German is the dominant formal written language of bureaucracy and commerce in the areas where Alemannic is the dominant spoken language.

  4. The Alemannic endonym for Alemannic dialects is Tüütsch or some cognate thereof.

These points muddy the waters but there are obvious counterpoints. For example, Dutch is also part of that same dialect continuum and Dutch is also a cognate of Deutsch. Paradoxically, standard German is an artificial Ausbausprache so it is not necessarily part of the continuum.

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    Thank you for your clearly expert opinion on the matter; it does help settle for me what appeared to an unnerving contradiction/double standard etc. And I also agree that Dutch is a great example, too relative to German. Dec 2, 2021 at 9:00
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Unlike Luxembourg (and unlike the Dutch some centuries earlier) the speakers of Swiss German did not take the effort to create a Hochsprache for their languages/dialects, so Standard High German continues to act as a Dachsprache of Swiss German, and Swiss German contributes to Standard High German as well (both via literature and via journalism). The pluricentric nature of the German language is well acknowledged and taken into account by the relevant lexicographers of the German language.

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    They took the effort, it just didn't win: de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanzleisprache Dec 2, 2021 at 13:17
  • @AdamBittlingmayer: Yes, but this is a historical artefact. What the last 100 years is concerned, I think it is a deliberate decision of the Swiss people to consider themselves as part of the German language community and not to opt for separatism. Dec 3, 2021 at 9:43
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    Switzerland, having multiple local language communities, requires a lingua franca for national parliament debates, news etc, and those are mainly standard German and, to a less degree, standard French, rather than standard Italian or the local mother tongues of Switzerland like Ticinese, patois, Rhaeto-Romance or Alemannic. Standard German's status has surprisingly little to do with connecting to the rest of the Germanosphere. Dec 3, 2021 at 13:20
  • @AdamBittlimgmayer I don’t see any trace of reference to the Swiss under that Wikipedia link. Also, Swiss German is indeed used in cantonal and federal parliaments as far as spoken debates are concerned and as far as I know. Dec 11, 2021 at 12:30
  • There is a faint trace of it in the quoted article, namely the red link to Eidgenössische Landsprach. It was used in early modern times and is dead for some centuries. Dec 11, 2021 at 16:55
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I’ve recently heard the Swiss talk among each other [...] I found it fascinating how I couldn’t make out a single word while speaking German.

Swiss German (Allemanic) and Standard German differ substantially

why Swiss German is classified as a dialect as opposed to a whole different language.

Swiss German is, in fact, it’s own language:

I couldn't understand what they were saying and I didn't recognize the language at all. Until it suddenly dawned on me that they were speaking Swiss German.

on[e] guy from [G]risons and one from [V]alais that couldn't understand eachother (sic!) at all.

A native speaker of Standard German will not understand a Swiss speaking Allemanic; and a Swiss German would not understand Standard German

The main problem with your argument is as follows:

  • the above holds true for countless local or regional dialects within Germany itself.

To state the matter as clearly and as plainly as humanly possible:

  • within Germany itself, mutual intelligibility between its various local or regional dialects is not a given;
  • if anything, it is the exception, rather than the rule.

Which is also why there was never any coordinated effort to create a literary form of either Swiss or Austrian German, different from Standard German itself, as JK points out in his answer.

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    Austrian German is effectively the Austrian standard version of Standard German, it’s not analogous with Swiss German, but with Swiss Standard German. Dec 11, 2021 at 12:32
  • @KortellyZamatosh: In their case, the spoken language, and the official language, are very close (because Austrian dialects are part of High German dialects, which is not the case with the Swiss). Nevertheless, Middle German and Low German dialects, spoken within Germany itself, did not create their own individual standards, and neither did the Swiss, who live outside of Germany.
    – Lucian
    Dec 11, 2021 at 12:38
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    1. “There was never a coordinated effort...” this is incorrect: That’s exactly Austrian German. 2. “In th[e case of Austria], the spoken language and the official language[] are very close” this is also incorrect because “[i]n less formal situations, Austrians tend to use forms closer to or identical with the Bavarian and Alemannic dialects, traditionally spoken – but rarely written – in Austria.” Dec 11, 2021 at 12:43
  • If you take an adversarial position, expect response in kind. I never made arguments in the question, only presented my understanding to establish what I did not understand and wished to be answered. Dec 11, 2021 at 12:45
  • @KortellyZamatosh: I am not an/your adversary. I am simply someone who's had twelve years of (standard) German, and also became (mildly) acquainted with local (Romanian) dialects (such as Schwabian). Official Swiss German, and official Austrian German, are simply variations of Standard German, nothing more. Which is why I explicitly wrote above: as different from Standard German. Bavarian German, spoken in (the high mountains of) Bavaria, is (obviously) a High German dialect; not Swiss, not Middle (the hills), not Low (the North German plains, including the Dutch of the Nether-Lands).
    – Lucian
    Dec 11, 2021 at 12:51

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