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Bern offers linguistic challenges

Bern’s Matte is home to two unique languages swissinfo.ch

The Matte quarter in the Swiss capital, Bern, is home to two unique languages - Mattenänglisch and Matte Bern Deutsch. Both provide a challenge to the uninitiated ear and both have a colourful shared history.

This content was published on February 10, 2002 - 10:38

The Matte is a lowland area next to the River Aare situated in a giant meander around Bern's old town. For centuries it was the hub of all water-borne trade in the capital, providing a stopping off point for merchants from all over Europe.

The merchants brought with them their native languages, ranging from Yiddish to German, and the two Matte languages are a hybrid of this melting pot of sounds and grammar.

According to Peter Hafen, president of Bern's thriving Mattenänglisch club, Matte Bern Deutsch came from the big market of Zurtsach, north of the Rheinland, where merchants and gypsies traded their goods. Mattenänglisch, he points out ,"is more of a secret language, understood by only a handful of people", which originated in the town of Hamburg in northern Germany.

Secret language

Both languages arrived in Bern in the 15th century. They were quickly adopted by the Matte folk who used them as their own secret language. This way the village like community of small business, artisans and artists were able to keep themselves to themselves away from the prying eyes of the Bernese aristocracy uptown.

"In Bern they considered it a rough and coarse language but they had to accept it. But they wanted to be separated from it," says Nick Huber, the president of the Woschhüsi, or former washhouse building, where the Mattenänglisch club meet.

Some say that the Matte languages also brought fiscal benefits because tax collectors from uptown were unable to understand what was going on downtown and therefore had no idea what activity they should tax and at what rate.

However, nowadays only a handful of the Matte's community can speak either of the two languages and as their mother tongue is German, they understand the tax-man all too well.

Marked differences

Although the two languages are unique to the Matte, Matte Bern Deutsch and Mattenänglisch could not be more different.

Matte Bern Deutsch is just about decipherable if you understand the Bernese dialect but Mattenänglisch is a completely different language with different sounds, grammar and vocabulary.

"Very few people speak this language from their childhood, but there are quite a few people who are learning it now," says Hafen. "They have to learn it like any other language, in training courses like you learn English and French."

The differences between the two languages are part explained by what they mean in translation. Matte Bern Deutsch translates neatly into Bernese German from the Matte.

English from the Matte

But the jury is till out on what Mattenänglisch means. Some believe it translates as English from the Matte, with the 15th century Matte folk simply naming their foreign language after another foreign language that they knew about.

Others say its meaning is derived from the German word "eng" which means small or narrow. From "eng" came "änglisch" which would denote that it was used by a close-knit community. In truth the answer probably lies somewhere between the two.

The languages also give the Matte its own brand of culture with a blossoming Mattenänglisch club, which runs courses in the ancient language and a handful of songs in Mattenänglisch, the most recent one being a blues composition from a Matte musician called Res Margot.

Hafen also enthuses that other countries have languages which bear a close resemblance to Mattenänglisch. "We've heard of something called Baker's Slang in England and we'd really like to learn more about it," he says.

by Sally Mules

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