Say What? Edition 3: Thoughts From Switzerland

A collection of random, linguistically-related thoughts that popped into my head while in Switzerland five weeks ago.


Going abroad makes you realize that your language skills aren’t nearly as good as they should be. How did I used to be fluent in German but a few weeks ago I couldn’t even understand what the Swiss shopkeepers said when I walked in the door? Swiss German is quite distinct from Hochdeutsch, but still, I feel I should have been a little more competent.


And that’s OK because it gives you a chance to improve them. Or does it? How can I be more competent without the opportunity to practice? Everyone in the world speaks English, so they switch when they hear native English speakers try to stammer through their language. But my bigger problem was that my travel partner didn’t have the patience to let me speak German even when the conversational partner was willing. She wanted to get her answer and get on with the day, and since she knew they spoke English just fine, I guess she didn’t see the point in allowing my struggle. This doubly frustrated me because she is a non-native speaker of English. She had, and still has daily, her chance to learn and grow in a second language. But I have to remember that this is only out of necessity. Speaking a second language doesn’t at all mean you are interested in linguistics. I had the same experience in Costa Rica last year with my travel partner, who is a native Vietnamese speaker. I assume she is interested in linguistics simply because she is bilingual. But that’s not the case. She had no patience for sitting idly by while I spoke Spanish to people. If they spoke English, she wanted the conversation to be in English. Even though I understand my friends’ impatience, this lack of ability to take advantage of the situation to flex my language skills as much as possible was highly annoying.


Sometimes locals use English even when they don’t have to. Even if the country is tri- or quatri- lingual, I was still fascinated by the choice to have shop signs in English. And I don’t mean also English. I mean only English. The name of a store, the advertisements, signs and posters in the store—all in English. This was the case with a number of retail stores, generally clothing or design boutiques, we walked by in Zürich and elsewhere. But I wonder what the decision process was there. Why English over German? Is it “cool”? Are the owners native English speakers?


And sometimes they make hilarious or adorable mistakes in English. I would never make fun of a non-native speaker’s attempts to make life easier on tourists by providing options in English, although, for reasons stated above, I preferred to look at German menus and signs, and only resort to the English version when really stumped. But I did get some affectionate, not mocking, laughs out of some of the errors. And I will forever say “scrumbled” eggs now instead of “scrambled” because isn’t that more fun to say?



But you should always keep trying to understand other languages because sometimes you learn funny things. Every language has unusual, onomatopoeic expressions used to express effort or movement or emotion, and we rarely think of how they might be translated because they aren’t needed for day-to-day conversation. You think as little of translating them as you do animals sounds, except for that one time the middle school Spanish teacher told you how to say “meow” and “moo” and “woof” purely for entertainment. Because you were 12 years old. Well, I learned at the delightfully interactive multimedia museum at Schloss Laufen that heave-ho (the effort kind, not the get rid of something kind) in German is hüh und höpp. As useless as “miau” or “muh” or “wuff,” but still fun.


Or you learn that you’ve been mistaken your whole life. Why did I always think potatoes au gratin were a German thing? Because my family has German heritage? Obviously au gratin is French. As is raclette, another cheesy potato dish that is popular in Zürich.


You might be able to make your own language better by adopting a non-native speaker’s usages. The automated messages on the tour buses in Switzerland “invite you to fasten your seat belt”, a safety measure which is mandatory for passengers. What a nice alternative for making a polite request, instead of “please fasten your seat belt” or “kindly fasten your seat belt”. The only time I hear a request phrased this way at home is in yoga, when the instructor invites you to relax your face, stretch your arms overhead, or something of the sort.


And by opting for the foreign words over your own. Other languages have powerful, exciting, and evocative words to describe going through a forest on foot or up hills and mountains: senderismo (in some variants of Spanish, but not Peruvian as my travel partner informed me), randonnée (French), and best of all—wandern (German). I much prefer any of those terms to the weak-mouthed, breathy “hiking.” Let’s do the activity justice.


Maybe you’ll find out that sometimes oral and written communication is overrated. The road signs in Europe all look a bit IKEA to me—simplified, cartoonish. In thinking about why that is, I decided it’s because there are so many languages in such a small space. Signage related to safety has to be as non-language dependent as possible. Large, colorful, and symbolic is the way to go. Maybe this isn’t the real reason, but I’d like to think so. I also learned that animal signs hanging off buildings were a way to give directions to people before widespread literacy. Why isn’t this done in Latin America? Not for literacy reasons, but for lack of addresses. In my experience in Central America, when you give a taxi driver directions, you are often saying something like: from the La Colonia supermarket, go south and then it’s the yellow house to right of the entrance of the school. It would be more fun to say: from the bronze pig with an ax through its belly, go south and then it’s the yellow house to the right of the golden sheep wearing a tie.



And paying attention just might solve a mystery. And finally, the biggest mystery of all, which may also be intriguing to the non-linguistically minded: why is the top-level domain for Switzerland URLs .ch? Because the Latin name of the country is Confœderatio Helvetica and they don’t want to show favoritism to any one language in a country that boasts so many official ones.

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