How Does a Country with Four Languages Function?

Sam Quillen
6 min readJan 16, 2023

Modern democracy can be a complicated, controversial, and even chaotic business. But in a world of convoluted constitutions and contested elections, there is one country that still does things the old way. When the Swiss need to decide on something, they go to the town square, hear speeches, and vote on it. In the spirit of celebrating their freedom and showcasing their willingness to defend it, many people bring their guns, and make a day of it knocking back beers with friends while waiting for the vote. One of the world’s best-run countries is governed by whomever can form the biggest crowd of armed, drunk citizens.

Switzerland’s government is not the only characteristic that a political scientist would assume would make it a failed state. Around the world, linguistic and nationalist disputes are among the most common causes of violence and unrest. Different parts of Switzerland speak Swiss German (62%), French (23%), Italian (8%), or a tiny alpine Romance language called Romansh (0.5%); trappings of the state like passports and coinage are issued in English and Latin. Yet all these people have had little difficulty living together in the same country since 1291.

Advertisers have apparently discovered that the best way to relate to Swiss consumers is with a confused jumble of different languages. (Photo credit: Ricola).

Historically, Switzerland was basically a German state, one of many in a balkanised Central Europe. It was a confederation formed by small alpine cantons to resist the depredations of surrounding great powers. That sounded pretty good to neighbouring Italians sick of being taxed by the Duke of Milan, and Protestant Frenchmen wriggling free from the grip of arch-Catholic Paris. As new members joined the confederacy, it held true to its founding principles of solidarity and federalism.

Still, Switzerland was and is mainly German, which in the 1930s made them a target for a certain someone seeking to reunite all the German peoples in one Reich. To ward off the amorous advances of Adolf Hitler, in 1938 the Swiss amended their constitution to clarify that they were equal parts German, French, Italian, and Romansh.

Today, Swiss Germans are by far the country’s largest national community, and also the most interested in their independence from their brethren across the border. While the old German dialects have largely disappeared in Germany, the Swiss have maintained their alpine dialect. “Dialect” may be an understatement. Swiss children learn standard German as a foreign language, and my Austrian friend who works in Zürich says he usually just cops out to English.

Visitors to Switzerland, including those from Germany and Austria, use different phrasebooks for Swiss German. In standard German, these would be Guten Morgen, Guten Tag, Guten Abend, and Gute Nacht.

The French hew closer to their linguistic compatriots, but they have some dialectal differences, which are notable for a language that is generally so tightly-standardised. For example, in Geneva, a request for déjuner will get you breakfast, whereas in nearby Grenoble it is lunch. Standard French has the peculiar custom of counting by twenties for numbers above 60, while the Swiss still do things normally. In Switzerland, 90 is nonante, whereas in France, it is quatre vingt dix: “four-twenty-ten.” The ancient sou unit of currency was abolished in France in 1795, but the Swiss still use that name for five-centime coins.

Linguistic harmony is not perfect, especially between the country’s two largest communities. The Swiss French call themselves Romands, whereas the Germans traditionally name them Welsche, drawing on the same Germanic root for “foreigner” as the English word “Welsh.” German speakers with French names sometimes face suspicion, and vice versa. People around Europe cannot decide whether a certain scenic glacial lake is Lake Geneva (favoured by the Germans and English) or Léman (Romance speakers).

When I was an under-21 student in New York, I had a fake ID from Geneva. I usually pretended to be French, but sometimes I was German, and I made sure to adjust the name of my favourite lake accordingly. Of course, it was a wasted effort, because no one knew the difference.

But in general, Switzerland’s highly federal system prevents too much tension. Most of the 26 cantons have only one official language, and that one is used in the media, schools, etc. Public services are everywhere available in any of the four national languages, and often in English as well.

Because cantons enjoy such a high degree of autonomy, there is little for different communities to fight over. Parliamentarians can speak whatever they like, which makes debate complicated, but the federal government has relatively little power anyway. So little business is handled on the national level that people are happy to do it in Latin. License plates and francs are stamped CH for Confoederatio Helvetica; the country’s environmentalist group is called Pro Natura.

Bilingual cantons segregate schoolchildren by language community, but all are required to learn at least one other language. Traditionally, this was German or French. Growing numbers now choose English, which sort of dilutes national culture but serves neutrality. This all sounds Edenic compared to other multilingual nations like Belgium, where small town language kerfuffles sometimes bring down prime ministers.

The Federal Palace in Bern bears the inscription Curia Confoederationis Helveticae. Switzerland and the Vatican are the only two countries where Latin still enjoys official status, though the command language of the Swiss Guard is German.

As impressive as the harmony among Swiss languages is the lack of dilution by foreign ones. In a Europe where non-standard dialects are fast merging into the mainstream, Swiss German is as healthy as ever. About 9% of German speakers prefer standard German, but they are mainly newcomers from Germany or Austria.

Even Romansh, a German-influenced Romance language spoken in a few alpine villages, looks to have a pretty secure future. It is spoken by just 36,000 people — larger numbers of Swiss residents speak English, Portuguese, Albanian, Serbian, or Spanish. But it is jealously protected in the homes, schools, and television studios of its home canton of Grisons (or Grischun, or Graubünden, depending whom you ask), and enjoys official status everywhere.

Romansh was promoted to official status in 1938, as part of an effort to assert Switzerland’s independence from Germany. It is not unfair to say it enjoys the singular status of a language that owes its continued vitality to a century-old prank on Adolf Hitler.

Part of Switzerland’s secret formula for national unity in the face of globalisation and multilingualism is that it is extremely hard to become a Swiss citizen. Requirements are lofty, and cases are largely considered in the local community. This can cause some amusing controversy. One British woman, resident for twenty years, had her application vetoed because her neighbours said her militant veganism clashed with Swiss culture. A family of Kosovar immigrants, including children born in the country, were denied passports because locals were annoyed at them wearing tracksuits all the time.

The same solidarity holds for language. Neutrality and being welcoming of (particularly wealthy) foreigners has done wonders for what should be a poor landlocked border region. People accept national policies because their scope is limited to things everyone can agree on.

But on the local level, Swiss people are fiercely proud and protective of their local cultures. The German majority do not expect to make Ticino look like Zürich, and Romansh people do not get any special treatment outside Grisons. Europe has spent years stumbling over questions of what unity means and how to achieve it. Perhaps they could learn something from the EU’s favourite non-member.



Sam Quillen

Former linguistics student; current investment bank analyst who sometimes thinks about something other than spreadsheets