Ancient patois lives on in Switzerland

The village of Evolene in canton Valais has many Patois speakers Keystone Archive

Across French-speaking Switzerland, from the mountain villages of canton Jura to the lakeside communities of canton Neuchâtel, hundreds of dialects - or "patois" - can be heard.

This content was published on January 24, 2002 - 18:32

The Swiss patois is a remnant of bygone times and acts as a reminder of the people who once ruled Western Switzerland. It's a hybrid language made up of Celtic, Latin and French and its development reads like a history of the area.

Originally, residents spoke Celtic because Western Switzerland, like the rest of Europe, was ruled by the Celts. When the Romans eventually defeated them, Latin replaced Celtic as the official language.

But when the Roman Empire collapsed, the roads, trade ties and social structures of Western Switzerland also crumbled. People travelled less and communities became more and more isolated.

This resulted in villages developing different forms of patois, so much so that some villages, only a few miles apart, were unable to communicate with one another.

French becomes official language

The situation remained largely unchanged until the sixteenth century when French became the official language and people were forced to adopt the Gallic tongue by law, and through economic ties. In turn the many different patois started to absorb French words and the French accent.

It is this latter patois that has survived, but variations linger, among the communities and cantons.

Today's patois splits into two main branches, one is derived from the ancient French used by Calvinists when they preached their sermons in canton Jura. The other is derived from the French spoken in the Languedoc province, which can sound like Italian to the untrained ear.

"You go from one village to another and the language changes a little bit," says Raphaël Maitre, a dialectologist at the university of Neuchâtel. "If you go three villages further you may not understand the people. In other parts of the country you'll need to go ten villages further before you don't understand."

Swiss patois has survived through the ages because generation after generation have taught it to their children. But now the language is threatened as children are learning French, first and foremost, as their mother-tongue.

"For a very long time there's been this idea that French is prestigious," says Maitre. " People think it is better to educate their children in French instead of patois."

He compares the patois predicament with why some parents are choosing to educate their children in English. "They think it's better for them," he says, "it opens doors into modernity, technology and so on."

Evolene resists trend

But Evolene, a village in canton Valais has bucked the trend with some of the community's children learning both patois and French as their mother-tongue.

This is largely due to some of the children's parents both being patois speakers. This way the younger generation talk Swiss patois at home, whereas formal schooling is in French.

"There are 1,600 people in Evolene and a large part of them speak patois, but nobody knows the actual numbers," Maitre explains.

Although the question of how many people speak patois cannot be answered, the Swiss dialect is not only a means of communication but also an important "form of identity."

Maitre says that the language brings people together even beyond the country's borders.

"Some people also speak patois in Northern Italy," he reveals, "which means people on either side of the border and the mountain passes can understand one another. They feel like brothers."

by Sally Mules

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