French is today Switzerland’s second language, but until about 200 years ago most people in western Switzerland spoke something quite different.
They used dialects of the language group now known as Franco-Provençal, which today have all but disappeared. Scholars are working against the clock to gather information about them, while enthusiasts are doing their best to keep the flame alive.
Traditionally there has been something of the idea that these dialects, commonly referred to as patois, are “bad French” – a notion which Andres Kristol, director of the dialectology centre at Neuchâtel University, describes as “evidently absurd”.
“Our old language is as interesting and as well formed as Romansh in Graubünden, for example,” he told swissinfo.ch - adding that it is also as different from French as Romansh is.
Although, like modern French, Franco-Provençal derives ultimately from Latin, it belongs to a different sub-family. The only French-related dialect spoken in Switzerland is that of canton Jura (see box).
The first attempts to ban dialect speaking were made in Jura – at that time part of the bishopric of Basel - in the second half of the 18th century, and other cantons forbade its use in schools during the course of the 19th century. But the rate at which it declined varied considerably.
“People became ashamed of speaking patois. It was a kind of sub-language,” Jean-François Gottraux, who helps edit the Patois Vaudois website, told swissinfo.ch. In his canton, the language has died out almost completely.
Placide Meyer, who lives in the Gruyère region of canton Fribourg, a dialect stronghold, downplays the ban.
“Sixty years ago, when I was at school, everyone, without exception, spoke patois,” he said. “People didn’t have complexes about it.”
It is no coincidence that the Roman Catholic cantons - Fribourg and Valais – kept their patois for an extra two generations, he says. They remained agricultural for much longer, with people isolated in the mountains from outside influences.
Industrialisation in the Protestant cantons – Vaud, Neuchâtel and Geneva – brought in outsiders.
Kristol explained just how the massive influx of Swiss German speakers from about 1815 boosted the French takeover.
“The idea was that to assimilate them better, it was desirable to switch to French. And it seems that these Swiss Germans wanted to learn French, because at the time French was an international language.”
Another economic factor was at play too, as many young people started going abroad as tutors of French.
“Good knowledge of French became an export item,” he said.
But it was only when the dialects appeared to be in real danger from the end of the 19th century that enthusiasts started to write grammars and note dialect words, and write down songs and stories.
Now the vast majority of native dialect speakers – those who learned it as children from their parents – are aged at least 60.
The only exception is the village of Evolène in canton Valais, where it is the mother tongue of much of the population – although even there people will switch to French out of politeness if a non-dialect speaker wants to join in.
Elsewhere, the remaining dialect speakers, and some younger enthusiasts, are keeping patois alive. Meyer presents a weekly dialect programme on Fribourg’s local radio station – usually speakers, aged 60 and over, talking about their memories – and teaches an evening course.
Although few people still speak dialect, many understand it, he says, so his programme has a body of potential listeners.
Anne-Marie Yerly is helping to compile a dictionary of the Gruyère dialect and writes a weekly column in it in the local paper.
She has run into an unexpected difficulty in collecting words. “All the people who started writing in patois in the 1920s were old priests, old men, old peasants. They described rural life, agricultural and craft tools. There’s plenty of stuff in those areas. But when it comes to the family and women, there’s hardly anything.”
And in her weekly column she has to find a way of talking about things that didn’t exist in her parents’ day. She tries to turn phrases so as to avoid adapting French words. Rather than talking about emails, she will use mèchôdzo – a message; the dialect equivalent of “I called you” is a way of avoiding a neologism like “phoned”.
Gottraux in canton Vaud sees the same trend. Instead of adapting the French “voiture”, some people talk of a “petrol cart” - “tsè à petrole” - he told swissinfo.ch.
But although he has seen an upsurge in curiosity, and says people are proud of knowing a few words, for most this is where it stops.
“People have a lot of other things to do, and learning patois takes a lot of time.”
Gottraux is unusual in that he learned his dialect as an adult out of interest – but at least there was still a dialect for him to learn.
Joël Rilliot is more unusual still: the last dialect speaker in his canton of Neuchâtel died in 1920. But, in a search for his roots, he decided to try to resurrect it. His family has always known he is “a bit crazy”, he admitted.
“I speak only patois to my children. Never French.”
Learning patois has opened his eyes to the history of ordinary people in the canton and helped him understand his cultural heritage, he told swissinfo.ch.
As academic linguists working on dialects, Kristol and his team can only use the information of people who learned the language naturally as children.
“Amateurs who are trying to revive the language have little to teach us, unfortunately.”
“It’s very praiseworthy that people should try to preserve their heritage – through plays and songs, for example – but when I speak to them, I find all these people have stopped speaking the language to their own children.”
“So it’s no longer being transmitted. And that is the end of a language’s life.”
French and patois
Modern French is a development of a so-called “oïl” dialect which was spoken in the Paris area in the mediaeval period.
Oïl dialects were spoken in what is now northern France and southern Belgium and in the modern Swiss canton of Jura.
The name “oïl” comes from the word for “yes”; other descendants of Latin derived “yes” from a different expression.
The area stretching from Lyon in central France into what is now French-speaking Switzerland (apart from Jura) and the Val d’Aoste in northern Italy, spoke a different Latin-based language, known to linguists as Franco-Provençal.
There is also a small pocket of speakers in the Apulia region of southern Italy, presumed to be the descendants of mercenaries.
This language never had a standard written form; it is broken up into numerous different spoken dialects, which are more or less mutually intelligible.
Depending on the area and subject, the written language was Latin, standard French – often with Franco-Provençal expressions – or German.
The word patois is commonly used in Switzerland for these dialects, although in standard French the word has a pejorative meaning.
The 2000 census showed that only 16,000 people in western Switzerland described themselves as patois speakers, down from 22,000 in 1990.
Some patois speakers are working to keep the language alive as long as possible.
This work includes compiling dictionaries and grammars.
A private radio station in canton Fribourg has a weekly patois broadcast.
In 2007 one of the Tintin comic books (Lè j’avanturè dè Tintin: l’Afére Tournesol) was published in the patois of Gruyère.
The different patois associations have websites, with spoken and written material.
Some of them put on plays in patois, often with the participation of children and young people.
Many traditional choirs sing in both French and patois.
The work of the dialectology centre is not to promote patois, but to record what can be recorded.
Its work includes compiling dictionaries and describing the pronunciation and grammar of the dialects in a scholarly way.
Switzerland is hosting a summit of French-speaking and francophile nations in Montreux from October 22 to 24.
It will bring together representatives of 56 French-speaking countries and 14 observer nations.
In Switzerland just over 20% of the population is French speaking.
Most live in the areas which formerly used Franco-Provençal dialects.