Assuming she has never had any experience with it before. Would it be mostly comprehensible? Or mostly unintelligible? Or in between?

Edit: I am referring to the Swiss German dialects (Schwyzerdütsch) rather than Swiss Standard German. Sorry about the confusion.

If perhaps someone could draw an analogy to the dialects of English, that would be helpful.

For example, I'd say (based simply on my own anecdotal experience) that for a typical white American in say the midwest,

Southern, London, and Sydney English are easy to understand; Glaswegian and Singapore English are a bit harder to understand; Jamaican patois is very difficult to understand.

So by analogy, for a typical northern German, what would the local Zürich dialect be like? What about a very rural Swiss dialect?

  • 2
    I assume you're researching for a specific case. Information on what region the German speaker comes from and what dialect the Swiss German speaker has would help us with answering your question. Also, how long and of what kind is the contact between the two (or generally to a Swiss German environment)?
    – Sam
    Dec 30, 2014 at 1:44
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    Personal anecdote to this: I'm from northern Germany and we have relatives from a rural area in Switzerland, who visited once a year when I was young. Personally I couldn't understand a single word of what their children would say. It was like they where speaking Chinese. I think especially in rural areas the children learn the local dialect first and only get to really learn Hochdeutsch (which is common for all with only minimal variations) when they start visiting school.
    – s1lv3r
    Jan 1, 2015 at 11:55
  • @s1lv3r it's not just in rural areas, swiss germans anywhere use Alemannic as their default language and learn schriftdeutsch once they're in school, then use it orally only when necessary.
    – Formagella
    Jan 1, 2015 at 15:36

9 Answers 9


Short answer (added on request): The differences between the standard languages of Germany and of Switzerland are minimal, mutual comprehension is very close to 100%, and misunderstandings are very rare. But dialect use is strong in Switzerland, 'Swiss German' is a collective term for the major Swiss dialects, and dialects from distant German speaking regions are not mutually intelligible in general.

When it comes to mutual intelligibility, it is crucial to distinguish the standard variety of a language and its dialects. This is because many varieties of a language are not mutually intelligible with each other.

Relation of the standard languages

German is often described as a pluricentric language, i.e. a language with more than one standard variety. The most important of these by far are (German) standard German (the form of German that people usually learn as a foreign language), Austrian standard German and Swiss standard German. In German, the standard forms of German are usually referred to as (deutsches / österreichisches / schweizerisches) Hochdeutsch. The three forms of standard German are mutually intelligible to about the same degree as standard varieties of English, i.e. almost completely.

I think the difference between standard German and standard Austrian German is roughly comparable to the difference between standard British English and standard American English, but with less differences of accent and of spelling. Even within German standard German there are often northern and southern expressions. The difference between southern standard German and Austrian standard German isn't much more pronounced than that between northern German and southern German. Nevertheless, nowadays it is more or less consensus in Austria that there is such a thing as standard Austrian German. On the other hand, I heard there are still school teachers in Austria who try to teach German standard German, and in doing so may prefer northern expressions that even southern Germans far from the Austrian border wouldn't use. Also, Austrian books tend to be published in German standard German; apparently the publishers want to target the northern German market as well and are a bit over-cautious.

The relation of Swiss standard German to German and Austrian standard German can perhaps best be described as similar to the relation of standard Indian English to standard American and British English. Mutual intelligibility is almost but not quite complete. The accents are quite different: Standard Swiss may sound more similar to Dutch than to German standard German. There are some lexical differences that can lead to difficulties, and there are very slight differences in grammar. Some of the differences can be observed in Swiss newspapers, but Swiss books are mostly printed in something very close to German standard German. Swiss orthography generally but not universally replaces ß by ss and word initial Ä, Ö, Ü by Ae, Oe, Ue. (This is because Swiss keyboards have to accommodate French accents in addition to the special German letters.)

Some of the lexical differences are a consequence of the fact that whereas Austria has shared a lot of history with Germany and was part of a centralised German Reich 1938-1945, Switzerland has an essentially unbroken tradition as an over 700-year-old federation of republics under French and Italian as well as German and Austrian cultural influence. The Swiss legal and administrative systems are quite different from those in Germany and Austria.

Relation of dialects

(Pure) dialects of German are not in general mutually intelligible with each other (or with the standard varieties), even within any of the three major German-speaking countries. Any English speaker who has been exposed to a pure local accent of British English such as Glaswegian will understand that this is true for British English as well. I guess it is also true for American and Australian English, but I haven't verified it. The purpose of the standard language(s) is to simplify communication between speakers of different dialects. Some dialect speakers have to learn the standard variety much like a foreign language, though not with the typical foreign language drills, but more informally along with reading and writing. Others pick it up much earlier from the media or are raised bilingually in dialect and standard variety. And in some regions the local dialect is quite close to the standard variety anyway. More importantly, in many regions of Germany the dialect has already died out or is in the process of being replaced by colloquial German with some regional influences.

In Switzerland the local dialects are not mutually intelligible with (even Swiss) standard German. They are also used much more extensively than in Germany or Austria. Apparently this started during the Second World War, when Swiss people had good reason to feel that it was embarrassing to speak German. It is worth repeating here that the Swiss dialects are not, in general, mutually intelligible with each other. When Swiss speakers from different regions meet, they have to adapt in some way -- probably by speaking a compromise between their own dialects and the standard language. Such compromises are also often used in the spoken media.

In practice, native German speakers from Switzerland have no difficulty at all communicating with Germans. In fact, the German that native speakers of the other national languages of Switzerland learn is generally standard German. However, Germans and Austrians, but particularly northern Germans, may have difficulty understanding some Swiss radio programmes and unless they are speakers of an Alemannic (south-west German or west Austrian) dialect they will be at a disadvantage in certain workplace situations as they will either be excluded or make others feel obliged to speak standard German.

Northern Germans in rural Switzerland

I am trying to answer the more precise updated question. I think the question itself severely understates the difficulty of understanding Glaswegian, or refers to standard English with a Glasgow accent and some dialect words as Glaswegian. How a local Swiss dialect probably feels to a northern German can perhaps be compared to how actual, proper, traditional Yorkshire English feels to a speaker of a standard variety of English: "Lowp over t'yat". As really pure dialects of English seem to be dying out, the relation of English and Afrikaans could be a better example.

  • This is a really long post, so maybe you could add a synopsis at the beginning. Regarding German German dialects, I would say that almost no children still learn the dialects of their region. What they do grow up with is a regionally coloured version of standard German, which is not the real (unintelligible - as you correctly pointed out) basis dialect. There are of course exceptions to this.
    – fifaltra
    Dec 30, 2014 at 7:17
  • @fifaltra that's true for Germany, France, most of Italy etc. but it's not true for German Switzerland. They effectively speak Alemannic and Standard German (Swiss variety) as two separate languages. The grammar is quite different and they evolved in parallel.
    – Formagella
    Jan 1, 2015 at 15:47
  • I agree with fifaltra that I may have stressed the unintelligibility of local dialects a bit too much, given that so many Germans grow up with a colloquial standard German that is only slightly coloured by a local dialect. But I also agree with Formagella that the situation is different in Switzerland. In addition, the same applies to some regions of Germany as well.
    – user2183
    Jan 2, 2015 at 11:26
  • @Formagella That's what I meant by "German German", i.e. German that's spoken in Germany. I wasn't talking about Switzerland, because the answer explained the situation in Switzerland quite well.
    – fifaltra
    Jan 3, 2015 at 13:40
  • Brilliant explanation.
    – Wren
    Jan 18, 2018 at 11:49

Bezieht sich die Frage auf schweizerisches Deutsch oder auf Schweizerdeutsch?

Schweizerisches Deutsch ist eine der drei Varietäten der deutschen Hochsprache. Das ist die Sprache, in der schweizerische Tageszeitungen gedruckt werden, und in der Nachrichtensprecher im Fernsehen und im Radio sprechen. Diese Sprache unterscheidet sich zwar von deutschem Deutsch und von österreichischem Deutsch, ist aber meist auch für Nicht-Schweizer gut verständlich.

Schweizerdeutsch ist hingegen der Sammelbegriff für die alemannischen und hochalemannischen Dialekte, die in der Schweiz gesprochen werden. Diese Dialekte sind in Deutschland und Österreich meist nur schwer verständlich, weil dort andere Dialekte gesprochen werden.

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    Bleibt noch anzumerken, das Alemannisch auch in Teilen Deutschlands gesprochen wird.
    – knut
    Dec 29, 2014 at 20:12

I have had native German speakers from the North-East of Germany ask me what language was spoken after hearing someone use the local dialect in Bern. Not only could they not understand, they were genuinely surprised by the magnitude of the difference. So knowing standard German (Hochdeutsch) is certainly not enough to understand all the dialects of Switzerland.

Beyond that:

  • Swiss people are all schooled in standard German, so they can easily communicate with German speakers, only not in their dialect. They will treat the dialect and the standard language as different codes and switch between them (that's completely different from what happens between French speakers in France, Switzerland and Belgium for example).
  • The languages are obviously related. Speakers of standard German can get a basic understanding of at least some Swiss German dialects relatively easily.
  • People who know some South German dialect might have it easier in some cases.
  • The various dialects of German spoken in different part of Switzerland are far from being perfectly mutually intelligible (people from Wallis in particular have a reputation for being difficult to understand for nearly everyone else).
  • Dialects on both sides of the border, say between Basel and the neighbouring areas in France and Germany, can be pretty close to each other.
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    It's a problem of perspective. I bet those same people are not surprised at how different Dutch is from German. A language is a dialect with an army and navy.
    – Formagella
    Jan 1, 2015 at 15:51
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    @Formagella So the main hindrance for Swiss German being considered a dialect is Switzerland lacking sea access for a proper navy? Anyway, I myself mistook Swiss for Dutch more than once (North-East German). The Dutch at least don't pretend to speak something you'd be expected to understand.
    – Chieron
    Feb 4, 2016 at 9:06
  • @Formagella Swiss army (somehow) has a navy: de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motorbootkompanie and youtube.com/watch?v=1rjMkd2zQ-I
    – tofro
    Aug 28, 2017 at 10:02

Real Swiss German is pretty much not intelligible to me. (native speaker, North Germany)


I depends. There are lots of swiss dialects(SD), I'm assuming you're talking about some main stream variant, basically what's being spoken in the Mittelland (Bern, Zürich, Bodensee). The dialects in some remote regions can be extremely difficult to understand, even for swiss germans such as yours truly.

See this map for instance. Germans from the southwest corner (Alemannische Dialekte) will have zero problems, many of those will understand SD immediately. Germans from the southeast corner (Bayern) will have little problems as well, just a short learning time. For those farther north however it cab take a year or two.

With that said, a lot depends on the person her/himself. I've known Berlin people who understand SD basically immediately. But these were people working in the gastronomy sector so they probably had already had lots of contact with people from all over the german speaking regions, which definitely helps.


It depends on what you mean by native German speaker and Swiss German. See also Huberts answer for some details about Schweizerisches Deutsch and Schweizerdeutsch.

Schweizerdeutsch as an alemannic dialect is also spoken in southern parts of Germany. People grown up there can understand the Swiss on the other side of the river Rhine.

But in Swiss German itself there is wide variety. If I take me as an example: I grew up in the black forest and I had no problem to understand Swiss people. At least until I visited once the Bernese Oberland - I had no chance to understand the local dialect.


As a native Swiss German speaker, I find myself using very common and comprehensive words when I'm talking to a foreigner. So it wouldn't be a problem to communicate with a Swiss person, as German is also our offical formal language. (We could easily switch to German)

But to understand native Swiss German in any random dialect and at normal speed, you need a little practice to learn how to "undistort" the words to transform them back to the German equivalents. But even within Switzerland, we find ourselves confronted with quite a few different dialects, which can cause trouble amongst us Swiss German speakers :)

I think it highly depends on which German dialect and which Swiss German dialect are confronted. Someone from North Germany wouldn't understand someone from Wallis (CH) for sure, but for someone from Bayern (D), it should be fairly easy to understand someone from Basel or Zürich (CH).


Das Problem stellt sich oft nicht, da ein Schweizer, wenn er einen Deutschen trifft, nach einem Satz feststellt, daß er ein Deutscher ist und dann in Hochdeutsch weiterredet.

Schwierig ist es aber mit Immigranten, die nur Schwitzerdütsch gelernt haben, die können dann auch mit Deutschen nur in dieser Sprache kommunizieren; das verstehe ich dann schlecht, da ich Deutscher bin.

I.A. ist es schon schwer, richtiges Schwitzerdütsch zu verstehen. Es gibt Filme in Schwitzerdütsch, die in Deutschland mit Untertiteln gezeigt wurden.

  • Im Schwiizerdütsch gibt es ungewöhnliche und nur in der Schweiz gebräuchliche Audrücke wie "es Fiere" (die Kaffee-/Brotzeitpause um vier Uhr), die ein Deutscher einzeln lernen muß.
    – rogermue
    Dec 29, 2014 at 18:53
  • @rogermue Do you mean "Zvieri", by any chance? I have never heard of "es Fiere". Dec 29, 2014 at 22:57
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    @MathiasMüller - Ja, wahrscheinlich Zvieri. Schon lange her, dass ich mich mit Swiizerdütsch beschäftigt habe. Klasse Wortbildung.
    – rogermue
    Dec 30, 2014 at 10:37

It is like listening to Matthew McConaughey in True Detective, the first 5 minutes you don't understand a word, but then you get see the pattern and start understanding it pretty well. At least considering basic grammar and vocabulary.