Navigation

English, but not as we know it

English may be taught according to the rules, but the final result isn't usually what was expected Keystone Archive

English is becoming a kind of lingua franca in Switzerland, but it is not always a language that a resident of London or New York would recognise.

This content was published on December 4, 2001 - 15:54

English-speakers in Switzerland rapidly become aware that their language is widely spoken in their adoptive country, but that it has taken on a life of its own.

The Swiss have invented a whole series of "English" words that would baffle a native-speaker, or they use existing words in an idiosyncratic way: "handy", for example, does not mean practical or convenient, but a mobile phone. A "recordman", is a record-holder in athletics; "controlling" is management accounting, and a "dancing" is a disco, or nightclub.

Pan-European phenomenon

"We can't blame the Swiss for this. It's a pan-European phenomenon," says Peter Trudgill, head of English linguistics at Fribourg University.

"People feel more at liberty to be more creative with a language when it is not their own. They don't much care if it's proper English or not. They're creating these words for a purpose," he explained.

Trudgill says we are not witnessing the evolution of some kind of "Pidgin Swiss English", since what is said is comprehensible to a native-speaker, even if it does provoke the occasional raised eyebrow.

The rise of this "Pan-Swiss English" has been driven principally by large Swiss companies, like Swissair, Novartis and UBS, many of whose meetings are conducted in English, even when no native English speakers are present.

English is becoming not just a way for the Swiss to communicate with foreigners, but also with each other. It is the multilingual nature of Switzerland that has helped to spread the use of English.

"The Dutch may speak very good English, but they don't use it to speak to other Dutch people," Trudgill told swissinfo. "There's a growing trend for young Swiss people to speak to each other in English, across the language divide."

Lingua franca

Trudgill is head of a research project funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, which over the next three years will look into the Pan-Swiss English phenomenon. The study, which also includes David Allerton of the University of Basel and Richard Watts of the University of Bern, is less concerned with the overall use of English in Switzerland and more with its characteristics.

The professor says that analysing the English that Swiss people use when talking among themselves may shed light on how English developed in other countries, such as India, where it is now a lingua franca.

Trudgill says non-native-speakers borrow English words for one of two reasons: either a word does not exist for a particular concept in their mother tongue, or because they are trying to symbolise something through using English - just as English once borrowed Italian words to describe music.

There are many examples of the Swiss committing crimes against the language of Shakespeare: Swissair passengers are asked to open their seatbelts; federal railways trains always arrive "at" a town; an anti-smoking slogan which confusingly proclaimed "Let It Be".

"It doesn't make me cringe. I'm a linguistic scientist and I'm observing this phenomenon with great relish," Trudgill says.

"If this is what the Swiss want to do to English, it's fine by me," he adds. "What I am interested in is to what extent the Swiss reinforce each other, and develop a Swiss English though a kind of consensus."

In many ways, the academic points out, these corruptions of English make sense. The French, German and Italian equivalent of the English word "actual" has a completely different meaning from "real", and so they transfer their meaning (current, present) to the English word. Similarly, a non-native speaker would instinctively use an infinitive where an English-speaker would use a present participle.

"This aids understanding for other Swiss, but complicates matters when talking to a native-speaker," Trudgill explains.

Way of communicating

However, he contends that the differences between the English spoken by a Briton or American and that uttered by a Swiss person - while fascinating for an academic - are actually quite trivial and do not stand in the way of communication.

"We should hold up native-speaker English as a standard to aim at. We will never get there, but that should be our goal," Trudgill says.

"But as long as people want to use English as a way of communicating with each other, and not as a vehicle for studying Shakespeare, we have to accept that the language they speak will not be like that of native-speakers," he says.

by Roy Probert

This article was automatically imported from our old content management system. If you see any display errors, please let us know: community-feedback@swissinfo.ch

Comments under this article have been turned off. You can find an overview of ongoing debates with our journalists here. Please join us!

If you want to start a conversation about a topic raised in this article or want to report factual errors, email us at english@swissinfo.ch.

Share this story

Join the conversation!

With a SWI account, you have the opportunity to contribute on our website.

You can Login or register here.