There is no such thing as the Swiss Dictionary.

I know because I’ve been searching for one ever since I began plotting my trip to Europe’s little landlocked country in the middle. Yes, there are a few Swiss German dictionaries in print and even one half-baked Swiss German app that I downloaded for 99 cents, but these are inherently incomplete: not all who speak Schwyzerdütsch are Swiss, and not all Swiss speak Schwyzerdütsch.

I freely admit that part of my longstanding attraction to Switzerland is that this country is the exception to almost every rule regarding nation-states. There is no Swiss dictionary because there is no “Swiss” language (there are four). The country’s pluralism is not some recent colonial legacy but voluntary and ancient, surprising (ahem) in the midst of a continent that frankly does not have a great track record in the department of cultural pluralism. Also, Switzerland never takes sides, does not have a singular head of state, and only just joined the United Nations. And just to reinforce how different they are, the Swiss national flag is square and not rectangle.

That Switzerland is stubbornly unique made me love her even before we met. The whole idea of the stand-out Swiss and their country of mountains has tickled me like a chronic scratch—and yet, somehow, despite my severe travel disorder, I have failed to ever set foot in this one country that acts like the free space on the bingo card of Europe.

It seems everyone I talk with has already been to Switzerland, or else they know absolutely everything about the country. Tell someone you’re headed to Switzerland and they’ll be sure to slip a few Swiss stereotypes into your carry-on—just for good measure.

And yet as a traveler, all these stereotypes make me wonder: How can so many people define a country that has no dictionary? How can any outsider claim to know a place when the natives themselves have yet to arrive at any common definition?—where language changes from valley to valley, and the country answers to four different aliases:

Suisse, Schweiz, Svizzera, and Svizra.

This is why I want to learn Swiss.

I believe that every country is a mystery and that travel is the only way we even begin to brush away the dust of misconception in exchange for those hidden gems of truth about any people or place. A good traveler is one who constantly discovers that he or she is wrong about a given destination—someone who can rewrite their personal dictionary about some country again and again, getting closer to its heart every time.

So far I’m of the opinion that the entire world is wrong about Switzerland. They all know this country by reputation, but I am eager to learn it by heart. Thus I have come to this country— so that I can “learn Swiss”, one word at a time.

No, there is no such thing as the Swiss Dictionary, and so I shall have to write it myself, starting now.

Swiss 1.) Adjective; Pertaining to Switzerland. 2) Noun; The native inhabitants of Switzerland. 3) Not what you think.

Flying to Switzerland (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Comments

  1. Gigi
    Edinburgh
    June 20, 2012, 2:52 am

    I felt the same way about Switzerland. It’s this beautiful mystery. And I love so many of the things they do–government-wise, culture-wise. Enjoy your time there!

  2. Kasey
    United States
    June 20, 2012, 3:00 pm

    In saying it cannot be defined, I think you hit Switzerland on the head. It’s a fantastic place, easy to get lost in. Have fun!

  3. travelingbruin
    United States
    June 20, 2012, 5:50 pm

    I met a girl from Switzerland in Istanbul. She was a teacher & expressed her frustration at how difficult it was to teach kids since there’s no “official” language. To add to her frustration, she explained how difficult it can be to communicate w/ her fellow countrymen since each area basically had their own dialect. Depending on which side of the country you were closest to, the language had a more German or French influence. I never knew this so it was really interesting.

  4. Gerry Walden
    Southampton UK
    June 21, 2012, 12:41 am

    I once had lunch with a wonderful Swiss gentleman who had taken his first flight at 80+. He said that Switzerland was his whole world, and from the aircraft he could see his whole world from one window!

  5. [...] Thus I make my first scribbles in my new notebook, the same one that I opened at the airport—adding a new definition to be included in the Swiss dictionary that I am compiling. [...]

  6. Jow
    NYC
    June 21, 2012, 9:30 am

    Switzerland is definitely one of the prettiest places I have ever been, i’ll say that.

  7. [...] Meanwhile, I have one more definition to add to my Swiss dictionary: [...]

  8. [...] The Swiss garner a culture of discretion that most of us can never achieve. Even writing this all down is very un-Swiss of me, but I must include it as an entry in my quickly-expanding Swiss Dictionary: [...]

  9. Liny
    Reno, NV
    June 26, 2012, 3:07 pm

    You may want to read some of Eugene V. Epstein’s very amusing, but hopefully still relevant, books about what it’s like to live and understand the Swiss culture. Try “Lend Me Your Alphorn” for starters. Available on Amazon and probably B&N. As a long-time resident ex-pat he offers a wonderful insight about everything from banking to z’nunis. Love your take on chocolate. It really is a food!

  10. Claudia
    South Africa ( native Swiss )
    June 26, 2012, 3:36 pm

    Makes me smile …..Thank you … I miss my home. Take care of it while there and be patiently. It needs a long time to learn Swiss. But I think you are on best way. Keep on going.

  11. N.
    June 27, 2012, 1:47 am

    There is such thing as the Swiss Dictionary!

  12. Luckili
    Basel
    June 27, 2012, 5:50 am

    When you have completed your Swiss dictionary let me know. I have only arrived in this country 6 months ago and totally baffled by it all.

  13. Johnnie
    Zürich, Switzerland
    June 27, 2012, 6:11 pm

    Yes, there is no such thing as a Swiss dictionary since there is no such thing as Swiss (German), or Schwyzerdüütsch if you will. Travelingbruin pointed it out, each Canton and the areas within have shades of dialects. However, it is not sooo bad that we we would not understand each other (unless they come from the Valais :-)). So if you plan to write a dictionary, first you have to determine a dialect of your chosing, before you start over…otherwise you will end up in cacaphony of ‘Zurichois’ with a touch of ‘Bernese’ , Argovian as a side dish with a cherry topping from Zoug…. Anyways, good luck on your venture ;-)

  14. Philip
    Danville ,California
    July 5, 2012, 5:08 pm

    I hold a special place in my heart for Switzerland !…My dad and his family left there in 1905 seeking a better life in the USA..and never made it back…I remember him using the word onka{ or some similar sounding word) for butter as part of his native Schwyzerdeutsch language., which for the most part was given up to quickly assimilate into the US culture of the times…I feel I have an inborn legacy of a love for everything Swiss !

  15. Johnnie
    Zürich, Switzerland
    July 7, 2012, 11:38 am

    Hi Philip
    Correct! ‘Ankä’ stands for butter (while your ‘o’-spelling is pretty close in sound value for the American tongue). Where does your family come from? The word is most common in the region of Berne, although understood in all Germanic Switzerland and also sometimes used outside this region (I use it also all in a while…)

  16. Swiss Puppy Dogs – Digital Nomad
    July 11, 2012, 8:56 am

    [...] cooing at the puppies for more than an hour, I added another entry to my ever-growing Swiss Dictionary [...]

  17. Regarding Yodeling – Digital Nomad
    July 12, 2012, 1:43 am

    [...] Perhaps not lusty and clear, like in The Sound of Music, but quite chesty . . . and very Swiss. [...]

  18. Hugh Jarrett
    Chelsea, Québec, Canada
    April 24, 11:57 am

    I lived in Switzerland for about 6 years total (5 years in Geneva, and 1 year in St. Gallen). I completed secondary school in Geneva, where I learned to speak, read and write French and Spanish, and I learned German in St. Gallen. It’s a really beautiful country, and sometimes I miss it terribly. There are so many things to do there, and in all seasons. You name it—you can do it. The skiing: you can’t beat it. Switzerland has some of the most beautiful resorts in the world. Granted, it’s quite rainy in the fall and winter, but then most of Europe is like that. If you visit Switzerland—enjoy it to the fullest.

  19. marti zuidam
    December 5, 5:41 pm

    There is a Book called:
    Zurich German Dictionary. Volume III of grammars and dictionaries of Swiss German in plain view maintained by the association of Swiss German. Zurich (Neue Zürcher Zeitung) of 2009. http://www.spraach.ch/?id=16