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Switzerland’s Words of the Year reflect debates and divisions

There has been protests and heated debate in German-speaking Switzerland over the vaccination and use of a Covid-certificate. Keystone / Urs Flueeler

The 2021 Words of the Year in Switzerland reflect societal shifts that have triggered heated debate across the country. While the vaccination debate and divisions dominated the German-speaking part of the country, the emergence of gender-neutral pronouns were a hot topic in the French-speaking part.

This content was published on December 8, 2021 - 12:55
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The words chosen in Switzerland’s four linguistic regions “show what society is thinking about and what moves it”, explained the Department of Applied Linguistics at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW), which announced the winners on Tuesday.

This year was no exception, with Impfdurchbruch (vaccination breakthrough) claiming the 2021 Word of the Year in German-speaking Switzerland. “There’s a lot in that word. Vaccination should bring about a breakthrough, restore normality,” jury president Marlies Whitehouse told Swiss public television, SRF.

At the same time, the virus can’t simply be vaccinated away. “It breaks through again and again – be it with new variants or so-called vaccination breakthroughs,” ZHAW said in a statementExternal link. The choice of the word also captures how hotly debated vaccination has been in the country, particularly in German-speaking Switzerland.

The tensions are also reflected in entfreunden (to unfriend someone), which was the third word to make the list. “Friendships were put to the test by the vaccination debate,” ZHAW said. “Suddenly, insurmountable rifts opened up between those who wanted to be vaccinated and those who refused.” But the word also reflects the ease with which people are unfriending or cancelling friendships on social media with the touch of button, it added.

Starkregen (strong rain) took the second spot after a summer of heavy rainfall that intensified calls to address climate change.

How is the Word of the Year selected?

The Department of Applied Linguistics at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences ZHAW in Winterthur has been responsible for the Word of the Year since 2017 (2019 for Romansch). It analyses the Swiss discourse database Korpus Swiss-AL and determines for each language the words that were used more frequently or significantly differently in 2021 than in previous years.

A jury of language professionals then selects the three most distinctive words from this list, from suggestions from the audience and from their own experience. The four juries each consist of around ten linguists from German-, French-, Italian- and Romansh-speaking Switzerland.

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Gender breakthrough

In the French-speaking part of the country, the pronoun iel (third-person pronoun used to refer to a person, regardless of gender) was the word of the year. It is created from the pronouns il (he) and elle (she). Its entry into Le Robert dictionary in November 2021 led to a wave of positions and emotions on both sides of the French-Swiss border. The pronoun “reflects a need – expressed in particular by a part of the youth – to rework the relationship between language and identity”, ZHAW said.

The pronoun was created to be more inclusive – including all individuals – but it also sowed divisions, polarising some people. The fact that iel confronted the status quo and invited debate is why it deserves the place at the top, ZHAW concluded.

The pandemic dominated the two other words of the year in French-speaking Switzerland. In second place was précarité (precariousness) followed by variants (variants). The use of the plural of variant in 2021 is a statement about the ups and downs of the pandemic as mutations emerge and new variants are named. Along with precariousness, variants capture the uncertainties, unknowns, and surprises that have come to define the crisis.

The pandemic also consumed southern Italian-speaking canton Ticino, with the selection of certificato (certificate) as the word of the year. The term has taken on new meaning in the Covid pandemic as your “certificate” has become your pass to enter bars, restaurants and other public spaces throughout the country. The second word of the year in Italian was urgenza (urgency) in connection with the climate crisis. This was followed by exploit (exploit) in reference to Switzerland’s sporting achievements this year, including at the Summer Olympics. The country won 13 medals, including a bronze medal by Noè Ponti from Ticino in swimming. It’s been 40 years since the Italian-speaking region of Ticino brought home a medal from the Summer Olympics.

In Romansh, a Swiss national language spoken by about 60,000 people, the jury selected respect (respect), pazienza (patience) and tgira (care).

Hey Google, what did the Swiss search for?

According to Google’s annual review of its search engine, “Euro 2021” is the term of the year in Switzerland. “Corona” slipped one spot to second place in Google’s results for 2021. Google’s ranking is not based on the most-searched terms but rather by what is trending. Therefore, it reflects words with the highest percentage growth.

The top trending people from Switzerland were all athletes. Yann Sommer, goalkeeper of the national football team, took the top spot followed by teammate Xherdan Shaqiri. Tennis player and Olympic gold medallist Belinda Bencic was third.

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