In this article
I will discuss how Switzerland has successfully managed multilingualism at the
societal level. According to Hoffmann (1991, p. 157), “multilingualism comes about
when speakers of different languages are brought together within the same
political entity”. In my discussion, I will look at the coexistence of German,
French, Italian and Romansch within the political entity of Switzerland.
Firstly, I will provide a brief introduction about the current sociolinguistic
situation in Switzerland. Secondly, I will examine the history of the nation
formation of Switzerland, in order to understand how the country came to have
its current multilingual nature. Then, in the next section, I will discuss the
reasons why Switzerland has been successful in managing multilingualism, as
well as the linguistic conflicts and tensions that have existed in this nation.
Despite being a
relatively small country (approximately 7.5 million inhabitants), Switzerland
is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in Western Europe, hosting
four national languages: German, French, Italian and Romansch. German is spoken
by around 70% of the Swiss population, French by approximately 2%, Italian by
less than 10% and Romansch by less than 1% of the population. The Swiss
Confederation has twenty-three cantons. Since Switzerland follows the principle
of territorial monolingualism, each canton is linguistically autonomous. Most
cantons are monolingual (with sixteen German-speaking cantons and four
French-speaking cantons), whilst a few cantons are bilingual German/French
(Bern, Fribourg and Valais), the canton of Ticino is Italian-speaking and the
canton Graubünden or Grisons is the only trilingual canton, in which Romansch,
German and Italian are spoken (Hoffmann, 1991).
far, German is used in the largest geographical area and has the largest number
of speakers. However, to make linguistic matters more complex, in Switzerland,
German speakers use Swiss-German dialects in their everyday informal
communication, which differ from city to city. Standard German, or “High
German”, is only used in the written and formal sphere. Therefore, within
Switzerland exists a diglossic situation between High German and local Swiss
German dialects (Russ, 1994).
Clyne (1995), Standard German is used in the National Parliament (together with
French, Italian and Romansch), in secondary and higher education, within the
media (written press, radio and television), formal church services (liturgy
and sermons) and in worldwide fiction literature. Local Swiss German dialects
are traditionally used in some cantonal parliaments, early primary education
and some fiction literature. However, the use of dialects has increased in the
past few years throughout the media. For instance, recently, local Swiss German
dialects can be heard on the radio and TV in women’s, children’s and sports
programmes, as well as during live interviews and talk and game shows. Further
use of said dialect can be heard during weddings, informal evening church
services, working groups and practical classes in secondary and higher
education, and in some advertisements.
The Rise of
Multilingualism in Switzerland: Historic Overview
Original Confederation of thirteen cantons
In 1291 the
three mountain cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Underwalden formed a defensive
alliance, which gradually increased in size until 1513 when it stood as a group
of thirteen cantons. This confederation was primarily bound together as a
system of military alliances, and so central institutions did not develop at
the time. The Confederation was mainly German-speaking (only the canton of
Fribourg had a significant French-speaking population) and German remained its
only official language until 1798. German was the only official language since
the birth of the Swiss state and for the consecutive five centuries thereafter,
there is no history of linguistic conflict between language groups before the
century (Schmid, 2001).
From the 16
century onwards, the Confederation affiliated with French, Italian and Romansch
speakers. However, these subject territories, which were associated as allies
of the Confederation, did not obtain equality with the thirteen cantons of the
original Confederation until much later. According to McRae (1983), it is
important to highlight that respect for local autonomy and linguistic diversity
was a crucial factor in attracting the allegiance of the French, Italian and
Romansch-speaking subordinate areas.
French invasion and the creation of the
In 1798 the
French army invaded Switzerland, and the original Confederation of thirteen
cantons was abolished by the French and was replaced by the Helvetic Republic.
Despite opposition from the Swiss, the French established a system of
centralisation and authoritarian executive power, transforming Switzerland into
a modern state. As Schmid (2001) states, the constitution of 1798 abolished the
old feudal privileges and established equality for the individuals and
territories. The French and Italian districts were raised to the status of
cantons with equal rights, forming the foundations of multilingual Switzerland.
Swiss citizens revolted against centralisation and uniformity of the state,
instead wanting their local autonomy back. In 1803, thanks to Napoleon’s
intervention and mediation, each canton was restored to its own government and
a new constitution was passed. In the 1803 constitution, the linguistic
equality of 1789 was maintained and more cantons were added, totalling nineteen
(Schmid, 2001). As Schmid (2001, p. 126) contends, it is ironic that “a foreign
power was instrumental in producing a multilingual Switzerland with secured
boundaries and a sense of identity separate from its invader”.
article was important for two reasons. Firstly, it recognised Romansch as an
official language, which meant that from that moment on, Romansch speakers
could use their language when communicating with the federal government
(although, Romansch was not recognised as having official status in the
parliamentary, administrative and judicial spheres of the federal government).
And secondly, the new article proposed federal measures to protect and promote
the weaker language communities in Switzerland: the Italian-speaking
communities of the Ticino canton and the Romansch-speaking communities of the
Grisons canton (McRae, 1983).
Linguistic Peace: Managing Conflict in Multilingual
So far, I have
considered the evolution of Switzerland into a multilingual state. In this
section, I will discuss how Switzerland has managed to achieve a stable
linguistic situation. According to Schmid (2001), there are four major
explanations for accommodating conflict in multilingual Switzerland:
crosscutting religious and socioeconomic divisions, political recognition of
language equality at the federal level, decentralised federalism and cantonal
autonomy, and political accommodation and power sharing.
Crosscutting religious and socioeconomic
religious and socioeconomic divisions crosscut linguistic borders. In other
words, there is not a single correlation between one specific language group
and a single religion. For instance, Protestants and Catholics can be found in
both French and German linguistic groups. It is only the Italian speakers that
are predominately Catholic. Furthermore, the economic wealth is equally
distributed between the two major language groups, French and German
Switzerland. Such reasoning has contributed to the stability, cohesion and
linguistic harmony within the Swiss state (Schmid, 2001).
Political recognition of language equality at
the federal level
behind the success of multilingualism in Switzerland is the fact that the
federal government, through its constitution, formally recognises language
equality between the different linguistic groups and ensures the adequate political
and social participation of linguistic minorities. Furthermore, the federal
government make provisions for investing public money in favour of the
linguistic minorities. For example, in 1992, Radio Television della Svizzera
received 25% of the entire budget for public radio and television. However,
according to McRae (1983), despite these provisions, Italian and Romansch
speakers suffer some practical disadvantages in both the public and
Decentralised federalism and cantonal
On the cantonal
principle of territoriality
is applied, which has been
crucial in maintaining language stability in Switzerland. The principle of
territoriality consists of the fact that each territory or canton has the right
to protect and defend its own linguistic character and to ensure its survival.
This right is called
the canton has the right to regulate all cantonal affairs in relation to
language. So, the canton determines the official cantonal language, which is
the medium of instruction in the public schools. As well, cantonal laws are
only written in the official cantonal language, and the cantonal authorities
have no legal obligation to deal with citizens in a language different from the
cantonal one. As a consequence of the principle of territoriality, linguistic
autonomy is guaranteed and this has contributed to a reduction in language
conflict (Schmid, 2001).
On the federal
principle of personality
is applied, which regulates
relations between the individual and the federal government. The principle of
personality consists of the fact that when dealing with citizens and the
cantonal authorities, the federal government must adapt to their language or
languages, within the limits of the four national languages (McRae, 1983).
Political accommodation and power sharing
accommodation and power sharing refers to the adequate and proportionate
representation that different linguistic groups receive at the federal level.
In this way, the executive power is shared in equal terms by the different
language groups, which, as Schmid (2001) highlights, is a custom in the Swiss
political culture, rather than a legally mandated rule. This power-sharing
between linguistic groups applies to the federal council, parliamentary
committees, the judiciary, the public service and the military. According to
Schmid (2001), power-sharing between language groups in Switzerland is a
crucial part of the Swiss political culture and a key element of social integration
for the French and Italian-speaking minorities.
Potential Linguistic Conflict
Switzerland has achieved an exemplary status of linguistic cohesion and
stability within a complex multilingual setting, it would be misleading to
think that no linguistic conflicts have arisen. According to Barbour and
Stevenson (1990), conflict is most likely to occur between the French-speaking
and German-speaking areas. It is in these two areas which the vast majority of
the population are found and where the economic and political power resides.
As Barbour and
Stevenson (1990) argue, there is an economic and linguistic imbalance between
German Swiss and French Swiss. Even if economic resources were distributed
across both French and German-speaking areas, the economic power is
concentrated in the German area, where the most important industries,
businesses, banks and insurance companies are based. Moreover, Switzerland has
more trading relations with Germany rather than with France. When considering the
linguistic imbalance, Barbour and Stevenson (1990) claim that amongst senior
posts in the federal administration there is a predominance of German-speakers,
even if each language group is represented proportionally in the overall number
most critical period for Swiss linguistic unity was during the 20
century. During this time, different conflictive episodes between the German
Swiss and the French Swiss took place, especially at the political level (with
its obvious cultural and linguistic consequences). As Schmid (2001, p. 135)
claims, “with increased Europeanisation and globalisation, there are increased
tensions on the political order in Switzerland. The tradition of
multilingualism and multiculturalism makes Switzerland particularly vulnerable
to such tensions”. The most significant political and linguistic conflictive
episodes between the German Swiss and the French Swiss are listed below:
World War I
outbreak of World War I, a deep fissure (known as
opened between the German Swiss and the French Swiss and threatened to destroy
the moral unity of the country. Both groups felt threatened by the other, and
they founded two organisations in order to defend their interests: the
(1904, by German Swiss) and the
by French Swiss). The situation became so critical that even the Swiss Federal
Council had to reassert that Switzerland was a cultural and political community
above the diversity of race and language. Moreover, as the war continued,
German Swiss and French Swiss became involved with the discussion of neutrality
of Switzerland in World War I. In the end, both groups agreed to remain neutral
in the armed conflict (McRae, 1983).
The Jura question
The Jura region
was once the northern district of Switzerland’s second-largest canton, Bern.
The region engaged in riots and violence for more than forty years. Jura had a
double minority: French-speakers, who were Catholic, in a German-speaking
Protestant canton. Indeed, in the canton of Bern at the time of the riots, 85%
of the population were German-speaking and 15% French-speaking. Finally, after
a long struggle, the three predominantly Catholic French-speaking districts of
Jura were able to create their own canton, on January 1, 1979 (Schmid, 2001).
McRae (1983), the creation of the new canton was praised as an innovative
solution to moderate linguistic conflict. During the conflict, political
parties stood neither in favour nor against the problem. Indeed, as McRae
(1983, p. 111) argues, “Swiss political history is noteworthy and unique for
the fact that no significant or political movements have ever emerged to
promote the interests of any language group or language region as such in the
Helvetic malaise or identity crisis: the
question of the European Union
observers have claimed that Switzerland has suffered from a
or identity crisis, in the decades after World War II. In the late 1980s and
early 1990s, the division (
) between German Swiss
and French Swiss has opened and widened again, due to differing views in the
area of foreign policy.
1992, there was a referendum in Switzerland concerning the possible membership
in the European Union. Once again, the division between German Swiss and French
Swiss came to the surface. There was a massive participation of 78.3% of Swiss
citizens at the polls. However, the treaty was unsuccessful, and Switzerland
voted against entry into the European Union. All the German-speaking cantons
rejected the treaty (with majorities of up to 74%), as did the Italian-speaking
canton of Ticino. In contrast, all the French-speaking cantons voted to join
the European Union, with majorities of up to 80%, but because the German Swiss
occupy a large majority of the population and cantons, the measure failed
“Helvetic Solution” Revisited
political and linguistic conflicts between German Swiss and French Swiss during
century as mentioned above, there is still room for a
peaceful coexistence between the different language groups in Switzerland.
Switzerland has been a product of regionalism, and cantonal and federal
identities have been long perceived as fully compatible. According to Schmid
(2001), Switzerland has a strong common culture that moderates social and
linguistic conflicts and promotes stability. Furthermore, tolerance and
mediation are highly valued by both German and French Swiss populations, and
multilingualism has long been a strongly accepted component of Swiss life.
However, linguistic boundaries and attitudinal differences between linguistic
groups exist and could become sensitive on some issues, even in a country such
as Switzerland that maintains a low level of intergroup tension. Even so,
Switzerland remains a very politically and linguistically stable country in
relation to other multilingual states.
Barbour, S. and Stevenson, P. (1990)
Variation in German: a Critical Approach to German Sociolinguistics. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Clyne, M. G.
The German Language in a Changing Europe.
An Introduction to Bilingualism
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McRae, K. D.
Conflict and Compromise in Multilingual Societies, Volume 1:
. Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
Russ, C. V. J.
The German Language Today: A Linguistic Introduction.
Schmid, C. L.
Politics of Language: Conflict, Identity and Cultural Pluralism in
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© Berta Badia
Barrera. This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0
International Licence (CC BY).