Diccon Bewes: How to speak – and understand – Swinglish
Swinglish – Swiss meets English – is Switzerland's fifth language, which makes words like 'drink' mean semi-skimmed milk and 'smoking' mean a dinner jacket.
In my beginner’s guide to Swissness, I suggested that learning Swinglish was one way to become more Swiss, so here’s a guide to the first few steps. Contrary to official pronouncements, there are in fact five national languages in Switzerland. Alongside German, French, Italian and Romansh, there is also Swinglish, the product of Swiss meets English.
Swinglish may be less developed than its linguistic cousins Franglais and Spanglish but, within its home country, it’s widely spoken and widely (mis)understood. And when I talk about Swinglish, I don’t mean the liberal sprinkling of English words that appear in normal Swiss speech (such as ticket, sandwich, quickie and management). Nor do I mean the pictures below, all to be found in Bern. Are the haircuts at The Crime Edge so bad? They can’t be any worse than the Special Flakes, which really aren’t that special. And unless I’m Imelda Marcos, they can’t all be my shoes in that shop.
There are some true Swinglish examples in the pictures below. An Antibabypill does exactly what it says on the packet. This is when Swinglish is at its easiest for foreigners: when the meaning is clear from the words, even if they aren’t ones we’d readily use in English.
The language becomes harder when Swinglish words have completely different meanings from their original English root. For example, a 'hit' can be a special offer, as in 'dish of the day' or tageshit, which isn’t so appetising for English speakers. Or a mobile phone is known as a 'handy' in Swinglish – an appropriate enough word but with a totally different meaning in English, where it’s not even a noun.
At this basic level, most Swinglish words exist for two reasons. Firstly, it is cool. Using an English word is so much trendier than a dull old Swiss one, especially when trying to sell something. Secondly, it overcomes the language barrier. It’s much easier to use one English word, such as 'sale', which can be understood by everyone, than translating it into four separate words; it saves space as well.
Swinglish is thus at once both hip and helpful. A good everyday example is the word 'drink', which in Swinglish roughly means semi-skimmed milk. In any Swiss supermarket you can find milch (or lait or latte), the real deal with all its fat intact, and then 'drink'. Using an English word makes it appear trendy, and so more marketable, and avoids translating ‘semi-skimmed milk’ in triplicate.
The trouble for foreigners is that when the Swiss speak English, some forget that many of the words they’re using are actually Basic Swinglish. No problem when they’re self-explanatory, even if mis-spelt such as (k)now-how, but just as American and British English have different meanings for pants, purse and rubber, so too can Swinglish and English produce moments of mutual misunderstanding.
So, a few examples with their Swinglish meanings:
- hit – a special offer; it comes after, and is joined to, the word it is qualifying, so 'dish of the day' is tageshit (as unappealing as it sounds in English).
- mobbing – bullying, usually within the workplace.
- old-timer – a vintage car, but also buses and trams, though not men.
- pudding – a specific dessert rather like a blancmange.
- smoking – a dinner jacket.
- tip-top – very good.
- trainer – a track suit.
- wellness – a spa, normally used as an adjective, such as wellness weekend or wellness hotel.
At a more advanced level Swinglish is easier for outsiders to understand simply because Advanced Swinglish speakers usually speak good English – and most have learned to drop (or figure out) many basic words – but Swinglish roots can trip anyone up every so often. It’s not always a question of vocabulary.
The most noticeable quirk is the grammar. Many nouns develop a plural where none existed before (informations, behaviours) while other plurals pop up with odd spellings (ladys, partys).
Verbs present more of a challenge. Swinglish speakers do an awful lot of things reflexively – dressing, hurrying, shaving, imagining, remembering and sitting down are all things you do to yourself. The problem lies in the mid-translation of the reflexive pronoun. In Swinglish, 'we meet us', 'I shame me', and 'we see us' are all often heard.
Then there’s the use of the continuous tense, which most Swinglish speakers do with relish, possibly because it doesn’t exist in Swiss. ‘Are you speaking German?’ said in perfect Swinglish, is a question designed to confuse everyone involved.
That’s it, until 'we are seeing us' next time in Switzerland.
Diccon grew up in Britain but now lives in Bern. He has spent the last seven years grappling with German grammar, overcoming his innate desire to form an orderly queue and exploring parts of Switzerland he never knew existed. And eating lots of chocolate. He is the author of the bestselling book Swiss Watching.
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