Swiss-German: Background information when reading Hausfrau

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Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum X
Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2015, 336 pages
    Aug 2015, 368 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl
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This article relates to Hausfrau

Print Review

Switzerland has four official languages, each primarily spoken in different regions of the country (please click map below). A portion of the West speaks primarily French; Italian dominates in some portions of the South; and Romansh, the closest living language resembling ancient Latin, works in a very small section of the southeast. A wide swath of the middle, including Zürich, where Hausfrau is set, speaks German. Making things more complicated, this region is diglossic, speaking two different variations of the language: standard (also known as High German) and Swiss German, also known as Mundart or Schweizerdütsch, which itself has a set of local dialects.

In Hausfrau, Anna takes courses in the German language, the same kind of textbook German (High German) taught in American high schools and colleges. But her Swiss husband and his friends chide her for learning what is, they argue, a different language than the one they speak in Zürich, Swiss German. It is so different from standard German that a Swiss speaker appearing on German television requires subtitles.

Schoolchildren across all of Switzerland learn standard German when they enter school — much as if it were a foreign language. When German is used in writing, it is usually standard German that is used, so it as also known as Schriftdeutsch (literally, written German).

Unlike many other language dialects, Schweizerdütsch is spoken by people of all backgrounds, both rural and urban and across social classes, and is seen as a point of pride among its proponents. In The Politics of Language, author Carol L. Schmid notes that among Schweizerdütsch speakers, "language is used to reinforce a sense of community and as a marker of group identity." One source speculates that the use of Swiss German coalesced historically at times when the German-speaking Swiss felt a special need to assert their identity and their independence from Germany, especially with the rise of fascism in Germany in the twentieth century. Schweizerdütsch offers its speakers another opportunity to form a shared identity around a common language.

To hear the difference between standard German and Swiss German, click on the video below:

To hear spoken Romansh, click on the video below:

Map of Switzerland languages breakdown by Tschubby

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by Norah Piehl

This "beyond the book article" relates to Hausfrau. It originally ran in March 2015 and has been updated for the August 2015 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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