Twisting Tongues and Mapping History

Stephen Sanders is a student at Lander University and an ISA Featured Blogger. He is currently studying abroad with EuroScholars in Geneva, Switzerland.

While romping abroad, you’re likely to run into a diversity of languages. Most countries have one national language, though some have two or more. Switzerland, however, takes the linguistic cake, boasting a total of four national languages: Swiss-German (spoken by 64 % percent of the Swiss population), French (spoken by 23%), Italian (spoken by 8%), and the oh-so beautiful Romansh (spoken by less than 1%). A substantial chunk of Swiss citizens also speak English, which makes it easy for lazy louts like yours truly to opt for any easy way out during conversations.

Language in Switzerland

Switzerland’s polyglot population reflects its history as a pluralistic, multicultural confederation. Nestled between mountains in the heartland of Western Europe, Switzerland has always managed to be both strongly independent and multicultural.

In ancient times, the region was populated by a variety of tribes such as the Raetians and Helvetti, who were later conquered by the Romans. Rome’s influence can still be seen in Romansh, which is arguably the closet living language to ancient Latin, though sadly endangered—spoken by roughly 50-70,000 people in the southeastern canton of Grisons.

Over the next few centuries, the political terrain of this Alpine oasis changed extensively. Burgundians and Almanni settled the region and mixed with the Celto-Romans. In 1291 an alliance between cantons (which were then independent principalities) was struck, which led to the formation of the Old Swiss Confederacy—a decentralized political unit that included peoples that had formerly been governed by Hapsburg and Frankish kingdoms.

Lacking a singular, homogeneous ethnic demographic, Switzerland has, thus, from its inception been inherently multicultural. Indeed, Swiss identity is largely rooted in pluralism—in the unity established through negotiation, collaboration, republicanism. Of course, there are long withstanding national motifs. Alpine symbolism has played a significant role Swiss culture, and became especially prevalent during the Enlightenment and Romantic eras, when intellectuals began to craft a coherent national identity that exemplified local mountain cultures, idolizing folk figures such as William Tell, who were praised for asserting their autonomy. However, most of the Swiss literary and scientific accomplishments from this time were associated with cities, such as Zurich and Basel, and are difficult to group together given that they were written in a diversity of languages (usually German or Latin).

Switzerland’s national preoccupation with independence can be seen in its more recent public policies. For example, Switzerland practiced “armed neutrality” during World War II, and did not join the United Nations until 2002. Nonetheless, Switzerland has played a significant role in international banking and trade, and, staying true to its sociopolitical roots, has long been renowned for its friendliness toward immigrants.

Today foreigners account for around 23% of the Swiss population, a fact that is especially evident in international hubs like Geneva, where one can overhear a conversation Russian while leaving a Vietnamese restaurant to attend a class in Arabic, before hitting the streets in search for a French jazz club or Italian cafe. Culturally distinctive yet inclusive, Switzerland is a place where local customs meet innovative international trends: a nation unified through its linguistic and cultural diversity.


The world awaits…discover it.